Cataloguing Manuscripts: A Historian’s Reflections

I wrote a blog post on the ways in which cataloguing medieval manuscripts has enriched me as a historian.

Also, medievalist for hire!

The John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

Dr Joanne Edge writes:

I am just coming to the end of a 17-month stint setting up an online catalogue of the Latin manuscripts housed at The John Rylands Library. 49 of these manuscript descriptions are now available on our new viewing platform, Manchester Digital Collections. Some time ago I wrote a blog on the process of cataloguing, which you can read here. I am a medieval historian by training, and learned TEI, the standard used within a coding language called XML, during my previous role transcribing early modern astrological-medical records at the University of Cambridge.

During my interview for this role, back in June 2018, I was asked by Dr Stephen Mossman, a medievalist in the History department at Manchester, if I thought cataloguing was a separate activity from scholarship. My immediate – and heartfelt – response was ‘absolutely not’. As someone trained in reading and analysing…

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I Want People To Be Aware Of How Scared I Am Of Getting Ill Again.

I wrote a piece for Recovery in the Bin. Shove THIS up your World Suicide Prevention Day.

Recovery in the Bin

pexels-photo-2225771

It’s World Suicide Awareness Day. Or week, or month – I forget how long this empty virtue signalling exercise goes on. And I thought to myself, as a survivor of more than one serious suicide attempt, what do I really want people to be aware of?

I want people to be aware of how scared I am of getting ill again.

Some background: I was in a severe mental crisis for about 16 months of my life, from January 2016-April 2017. I have severe episodic depression, which makes my obsessive-compulsive disorder get very bad. When it flared up in January 2016 I thought I was a child murderer or molester. It is hell on earth, and I did not see a way out of it. Everything was just a black hole of despair, the joy fell out of everything I was interested in. I didn’t want to do anything. Anyone…

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What’s really in a name? Onomancy in the Middle Ages (Part 2)

Part 2 of the blog I wrote for DMNES. Enjoy!

Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources

Editor’s Introduction: The DMNES staff are super delighted to host a two-part guest blog by Dr. Joanne Edge. Dr. Edge’s PhD research focused on “onomancy”, a type of medieval magic based in a person’s name, a topic we thought would be of interest to readers of the blog!

Part 2 is below; you can read Part 1 here.

What’s really in a name? Onomancy in the Middle Ages (Part 2)

Dr. Joanne Edge, Latin Manuscripts Cataloguer at the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester

On first impressions, onomancy might seem pretty ridiculous. How can the numbers that correlate to the letters of someone’s name tell you anything about them? To answer this, we need to consider various modes of medieval European thought. The first issue to note is that, since the late Roman Empire, divination had been condemned alongside magic as illicit, and, from at least the time…

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What’s really in a name? Onomancy in the Middle Ages (Part 1)

A blog I wrote for The Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources, part 1!

Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources

Editor’s Introduction: The DMNES staff are super delighted to host a two-part guest blog by Dr. Joanne Edge. Dr. Edge’s PhD research focused on “onomancy”, a type of medieval magic based in a person’s name, a topic we thought would be of interest to readers of the blog!

Part 1 is below; Part 2 is here.

What’s really in a name? Onomancy in the Middle Ages (Part 1)

Dr. Joanne Edge, Latin Manuscripts Cataloguer at the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester

What can our names tell us about our fate? According to some modes of medieval thought, quite a lot. Here, I will describe a divinatory practice called onomancy. Onomancy – haplological for onomatomancy – means ‘divination by names’, and, if surviving manuscript numbers are any indication, the most common form of divination in the later Middle Ages.1 Divination is an ancient and cross-cultural phenomenon. Benedek…

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Misophonia: the sound of misery

I can’t remember exactly when my severe discomfort and feelings of anger at certain noises started. I can just remember sitting at the dinner table and being so upset by certain eating noises – crunching, slurping, liquidy noises, and people speaking with their mouths full. I found it utterly overwhelming and enraging and used to ask people to eat quieter because I couldn’t hack it. One hundred percent of the time, this was met with accusations of me being rude and intolerant, and I would secretly seethe.

I didn’t have a name for the problem – I just knew it was one, and that it was more than ‘being rude’. It wasn’t until I stumbled across something on the internet that I realised there was more to it and that it had a name – misophonia (hatred of sound). In my case it is definitely linked in with things I find disgusting – a feeling of actual disgust that human bodies can make those noises. As well as eating noises, I can’t handle very sudden, loud sneezing, sniffing or hiccups. People suppressing burps is really difficult as well. All of it is disgusting. Bodies are disgusting, but let’s not get into that now. All I will say is, noise cancelling headphones have been a lifesaver.

BLISS

When I was diagnosed with OCD in early 2016, I realised there was a link between OCD and misophonia – they are quite often comorbid. And this made me feel a LOT better, knowing it wasn’t just me and that it wasn’t a character flaw. I have to stress though how weirdly selective my misophonia is about eating sounds. Some people don’t bother me at all – others, every single time, and that makes me feel even more like a dick, cos like, why should those people be any worse? And how DO I even broach it? I need to learn to deal with it, and find coping mechanisms. At my old work years ago (a job I hated in local government) we were allowed to eat at our desks and my boss used to sit there, eating, and would answer the phone while eating too. It made me feel so disgusted. But what could I say? Now, working in a library context, we are not allowed to have food or uncovered drinks at our desks which I think is a good thing for many reasons. So we have to go to the lunch room, so no constant eating or eating noises when I’m trying to work. And I get to have my noise cancellers at my desk anyway.

So: misophonia is real, and it has a link with other serious and real conditions, and in some cases it rules people’s lives. After receiving a testimony from a fellow sufferer online who is just 16 years old, I realised just how lucky I am it isn’t worse:

Things started getting weird when I was 10. I thought I was being oversensitive about my dad’s chewing and nothing more. I wasn’t really concerned, I was just a kid, I didn’t really know what was going on. I just know that I couldn’t stand my dad chewing. I thought I was a psycho, over sensitive, and over emotional and many more horrible things a 10 year old should never think about themselves. I thought that everyone else felt the same but they didn’t show it and I did cause I’m weak. I asked myself, why am I the only one like this? So I told my dad to take me to a doctor and hopefully he’ll solve this. After being told that it’s nothing and kinda being laughed at I just told myself to forget about it and it’ll go in time. Ohh how wrong I was. Hell came after a kinda peaceful year.

At 13 I just couldn’t stand any sound, especially at school. It was hard and embarrassing thing to experience. I would literally plot a very detailed and efficient death, which isn’t healthy. All I think about is that sound and how can I stop it. I’ve sat alone in many gatherings and missed a lot of what teachers say because of it. And once I hear it, I can’t stop thinking about it for 5 minutes no matter what. I get so violent I just wanna hit and punch something. I can’t really explain how I feel disgusted by the sound, all I say whenever I hear it is ‘disgusting’. And I constantly feel so bad and guilty whenever I tell my family to stop. They’re normal sounds that they need to do and they do it unconsciously. Who am I to tell them to stop?

And I knew there was something wrong, this couldn’t be normal. So I went and Googled it, and boy. I can still remember all the feelings I felt after each sentence I read in the article. I was so relieved and happy that this is something real, there are people like me, and I understood all of this. But at the same time I was so sad because it’s a real disorder and there was no known cause, no treatment, nothing. And I lived the year with depression, self-harming and no hope. I can’t say the next 2 years were better, because it was getting worse, I was getting triggered every 5 seconds, the triggers were getting more and more every day. But I was getting better at coping and hiding it.

Now, at 16, I’m certainly not cured or at least better, but I have trained myself to always be prepared for every sound that comes my way. The hard part wasn’t actually dealing with the sounds. Like that was certainly difficult but the thing I struggle and get so depressed from is being alone. I get so suffocated at my own thoughts and pain, I had no-one to share it with. I tried opening up to my mom a lot and she tries to understand, but even I still find it hard to understand, so how would she? And I don’t really have anyone else, even doctors and therapists aren’t an option after going to many and getting nothing out of them. The only thing I can do right now is just wait, be patient and hopefully a treatment will come soon.

An anonymous sufferer who kindly shared their story with me

This account of severe misophonia brought me to tears – what torture for this person, who is only 16 years old. I’m glad they talk about hope of treatment – hope is so very important in these situations. I can manage – I can’t imagine what it’s like being triggered into anger – and loneliness – by every single noise that comes along.

The cause of misophonia is still unknown, but it is lifelong. Various treatments have shown some promise, but maybe one day we’ll have a really robust and widely-available treatment. But the problem remains of how we approach people who make noises that cause us emotional distress without coming across like total rude and disrespectful drama queens.

So, I guess I’m asking for suggestions here!

It’s good to talk…

CW: mental illness, psychiatric abuse, the normals not getting it, OCD fears around child harm, BPD/EUPD

Bob Hoskins in BT’s famous ‘It’s Good To Talk’ ad campaign, 1990

One thing we’re told, constantly, is that the first step in recovery from being mentally unwell is talk to someone. This, it is often proclaimed, is the biggest step we’ll ever take, among other trite nonsense you see as inspirational quote photos on the internet. Mental Health Awareness Weeks (which I’ve blogged about before) proudly tell us that we should all talk, all the time, about mental health (but not mental illness, you’ll note – there’s only so much people want to hear, and usually what they want is to hear a recovery story from which to gain inspiration).

There are several problems with this in terms of applying it to people with mental illnesses (relax, normals, this isn’t about you), and I am going to go through them one by one.

Who do we talk to?

You’ll note we’re never told who to talk to. Friends and family are generally not qualified to deal with mental unwellness, and are in any case too personally involved, and often, quite fairly, don’t know what to say. They can often (inadvertently) make things worse, especially if somebody has an anxiety disorder. For example, talking over and over OCD worries can be compulsive and the person may not realise that offering reassurance is counter-productive. Talking about other, mundane things can actually be a better strategy in some situations. Plus people get fucked off with us carping on about our issues all the time and I’m not surprised – it’s really boring.

So, we should talk to professionals. OK. But where are they? It’s hard enough to get a GP appointment these days, and many CMHTs are refusing to take people on unless they have actively attempted suicide or in the case of stories I’ve heard from Wales, are psychotic/schizophrenic. Crisis Teams are telling suicidal people to phone the Samaritans if they need help. Samaritans have their place, but are a listening service, not trained professionals who will prevent you from topping yourself. Another example of the voluntary sector being used as an excuse to slash services. Gross.

GPs can be great, but access to psychiatrists and therapists isn’t easy – even private practitioners can have long waiting lists these days because NHS waiting lists are so long. And of course, going private depends on having a decent level of disposable income.

So, the first fundamental problem is a lack of appropriate people to actually talk to.

The problem of psychoanalysis

It’s no secret that I believe psychoanalysis has no place in modern treatment for mental illness. Most importantly, many medical professionals agree with me, such as Šalkovskis and Wolpert in their amusingly-titled BMJ article from 2012, ‘Does psychoanalysis have a valuable place in modern mental health services? No’. While psychoanalysis is the basis for all modern therapies, and therefore historically vital and interesting in its own context, it originated in the nineteenth century and is very much a product of its time. Freud’s theories were exactly those: theories. And while psychoanalysis isn’t just based on Freud these days, not much has fundamentally changed: it’s still about interpretation, wordplay, free association and lots of other unscientific, evidence-free stuff.

Before I was diagnosed with OCD in 2016, I had over ten years of psychoanalysis with a private therapist. When I first moved back to London in 2006 it seemed like a good idea to get someone to talk to. What sort of therapy I got didn’t seem important, I just needed something affordable. The Guild of Psychotherapists in Southwark offered very cheap therapy for people in my borough with trainees on a sliding scale. As a student, I think I paid £5 or £10 a session at the start. So that’s where I met my therapist, and she kept me on a lowish rate when she qualified and started her own practice.

My therapist was very nice and it was good for me to have someone to talk to once (sometimes twice) a week. She went over and above for me. I am grateful for the help she gave me. But this was part of the problem: I was so fond of her and so dependent on her that the therapy went on and on, open ended, without us really getting anywhere. We established there’d been trauma in my life – bullying, my Mum’s car accident, being moved up a year in school and the resulting fallout. Great. But we never really talked about what I was going to do to stop feeling so awful. Once I got my diagnosis she helped me to get CBT and realised we needed to end our sessions, which was good: this isn’t personal against her, though I do think she had a duty of care to end our therapy way earlier.

I now know that analysis was the last thing my OCD needed – exploring my strange worries and ideas as if they had meaning was very dangerous indeed. When I was worrying about harming kids, if someone had suggested this had any meaning at all…who knows.

So: If you’re going to have private therapy, do your homework as to what sort of therapy you think might work best and don’t be afraid to change if it’s not working for you. ‘Random vague counselling’ never sounds convincing.

Talking about our issues can be weaponised against us

For some of us who do get referred to secondary care and have access to diagnosticians – psychiatrists, psychologists and the like – talking about our issues can be actively dangerous. Take my friend Gary, diagnosed with ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’* which has actively stopped him from getting the care he needs. This is what he says:

‘If I could go back in time I would not have talked to any NHS professional about the trauma that happened to me. This led to a label of disordered personality and instead of getting trauma informed care or trauma specific therapy it led to abuse, blame, neglect and more trauma. It’s not always good to talk!’

‘BPD’ (more recently renamed ‘Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder’, as if that’s any better) is a diagnosis which is often used as a punishment – an excuse to brand sufferers ‘manipulative’ and ‘untreatable’ and refuse to provide them with the care they need. Most people with this diagnosis (about 80%) have childhood trauma which can be treatable or manageable with appropriate therapy. But as this quote shows, the BPD diagnosis has led to Gary having to fight for a second opinion on his diagnosis, while all the time dealing with abuse from the DWP, Social Services, his CMHT and acute psychiatric services. His worry is that is that, although it may help some people make sense of trauma,  trauma-informed care, formulation and the PTM Framework will actually lead to more labelling of people with a disordered personality. So whatever changes happen need to be carefully thought through.

Another very real problem with talking arises with those who have OCD fears revolving around harming or molesting children. Two people I know have this year been safeguarded from their work as teachers due to disclosing specific fears to authorities. One, Liam, was removed from his PGCE placement. Here’s what he told me:

‘Although I disclosed my OCD and intrusive thoughts to my university after finishing my undergraduate degree in education and I had received CBT from their counselling service, when I returned home I sought help from the IAPT service in Cumbria. Neither service outlined risk but showed a knowledge of OCD and its distressing nature. This is when it all went wrong. As I still felt I needed help as I started my PGCE when returning to university, I referred myself to Lancashire IAPT service Mindsmatter who, when I had an initial referral on the phone, passed my ‘case’ onto safeguarding. By the time I was made aware of this my PGCE was 8 weeks in and I was about to begin my first placement. The week prior I received a phone call from Mindsmatter suggesting that I the university know about my intrusive thoughts of harming children because safeguarding had been involved. I then made them aware that the themes of my OCD had changed since my initial referral and through my own management techniques learnt in previous therapy sessions I had been able to be in school with no problems. Four days into my placement with no OCD troubles the university safeguarding officer contacted me and asked me to miss placement and come in to meet them, I was told not to go back into school as I had been highlighted as a risk. This was possibly one of the worst days of my life, being told that I was a risk which I had feared for a long time made my intrusive thoughts and every other OCD theme become real as this whole thing made everything else feel like it must be true. My self-doubt and self-esteem issues were heightened immediately and for the first time in my life I wanted to kill myself, I had many suicidal thoughts in the weeks after, and then being told to suspend my studies as the process of the university deeming me safe for practice would be lengthy. Since I have been in contact from just before the end of 2018 with several OCD experts who have been shocked by my treatment and the lack of knowledge from the IAPT service and the university and have helped me to a point where the IAPT service have acknowledged there mistake and apologised. I am yet to have an apology from the university and I don’t really know what personal actions I feel I need to take to feel like I have justice as it still worries me that I won’t be allowed to go back or that something will go wrong again. Things are still ongoing after a wasted occupational health appointment arranged by the university with someone with no OCD expertise adding more fuel to the fire. I’m now waiting for the service lead at Mindsmatter to arrange a meeting with all parties involved in this calamity but that has been months since I spoke to her directly. I am also meeting with university tomorrow to discuss my situation currently. I still get down about this because all my friends are qualifying in a few weeks yet I have been prevented from doing so for another year and this upsets me most days.’

Liam has OCD, which at one point manifested as an extreme fear of child abuse, and as anyone qualified to administer CBT should know, is therefore statistically one of the people least likely to be a danger to anyone. However, by disclosing his fears to an incompetent IAPT staff member he was removed from his PGCE, his OCD worsened by having ‘confirmation’ that his fears were real and wasted a year of his life that should have been full of great things. Liam has been punished for being unwell. This is unforgivable on the part of the IAPT service and his university.

Solutions

So what do we do about this, eh? A few initial thoughts:

  1. The recognition than not all mental illnesses are the same and have different causes and solutions. This means normals shutting the fuck up and listening to mental people and trained professionals on this. Nothing about us without us.
  2. A complete overhaul of the current psychiatric system: rebuilding something compassionate, adequately-staffed, well-funded and adaptable.
  3. The removal of abusive professional-patient relationships and the harmful weaponisation of particular diagnoses, especially so-called ‘BPD/EUPD’.
  4. OCD awareness training for all mental health professionals.
  5. Joined up services, especially borough-to-borough, with information easily relayed when people move to new areas.

So yeah, it’s good to talk, except for the times when it’s really, really not. So stop saying it, thanks.

*I know BPD/EUPD is a hotly-contested diagnosis and have edited this to take out ‘so-called’, since many people I know reject their diagnosis, but I do not wish to police anyone’s use of terms or make out that someone’s suffering is not real. I will leave it to those who have the diagnosis to figure out among themselves.