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Archaeology and History

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Dr Helen Birkett

Senior Lecturer


01392 723421


I am a Senior Lecturer in Medieval History with expertise in twelfth-century Britain and Ireland, intellectual and religious culture, medieval monasticism, hagiography, and communications. My main research interests concern the construction of texts and narratives in the central Middle Ages, and the ways in which recent information, particularly news, was transmitted and preserved.

I am a member of the Centre for Medieval Studies and teach on the Centre's MA programme.

I completed my doctorate at the University of York in 2009 and subsequently held postdoctoral fellowships at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto, and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, Edinburgh. I joined Exeter's history department in 2011. I have published a monograph, The Saints’ Lives of Jocelin of Furness: Hagiography, Patronage and Ecclesiastical Politics, as well as several articles. I have two medieval projects currently on the go: the first explores the concept of news in the Middle Ages; the second investigates how the communication networks of the Cistercian Order functioned in practice.

I am also co-lead on another, very different, project: Section 28 and its afterlives. This is, primarily, an oral history project and reflects my commitment to promoting social justice and equality.

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My general field of research concerns religious history in the central Middle Ages, with wider interests in medieval intellectual and cultural history, the interaction of orality and literacy, and communication. I have particular expertise in the study of hagiography. My book, The Saints' Lives of Jocelin of Furness, examined the four hagiographical texts written by the Cistercian writer Jocelin of Furness (fl. 1175x1214) for various patrons in Britain and Ireland. My research combined detailed analyses of the composition of Jocelin’s texts with study of their patronage, audience and contemporary contexts. As well as highlighting the work of a significant, but little known, twelfth-century hagiographer, my work provided new insights into the religious and political concerns of ecclesiastical and monastic communities in England, Scotland and Ireland c.1200.

For the past few years, I have been researching the concepts of 'news' and 'the present' in the Middle Ages. This work responds to debates in early modern and modern studies, and challenges the overly simplistic narratives of change that currently dominate the discussion of historical news. The results of this research are being disseminated in three articles. The first, published in Viator, offers a framework for the identification of medieval news texts and explores the logistics of news through a case study: the transmission of news relating to the Battle of Hattin, the Fall of Jerusalem, and the launch of the Third Crusade in late 1187. The other two articles are works in progress. The second article investigates how and why medieval scribes chose to preserve the news texts relating to the 1187 case study. The third article discusses the temporal aspects of news and how it relates to the medieval experience of time. I am also currently leading a collaborative project on 'News and News Cultures in the Middle Ages'. Together, my team is producing an overview of the concept and communication of medieval news, which also highlights the key research questions to be pursued in the future.

Alongside this, I also continue to investigate the communication of stories through Cistercian networks in the late twelfth century. Previously, I have explored this topic in relation to Melrose Abbey and its networks. However, to examine how Cistercian communications functioned in practice I have turned my attention to a richer source base: Caesarius of Heisterbach's Dialogus miraculorum. I am currently using network analysis to explore the different networks in this text, both fictional and 'real'. This work has been made possible through interdisciplinary collaboration with Pádraig Mac Carron, a physicist based in Limerick, and the Traveler's Lab group, based at Wesleyan University.

Research collaborations

I co-lead the Section 28 and its afterlives project alongside my History colleagues, Chris Sandal-Wilson and Hannah Young. This project began as an EDI initiative in March 2023 and has since developed into much bigger impact project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It involves the creation of a new LGBTQ+ oral history archive, a touring exhibition, and LGBTQ+ educational resources. We are currently working with the Intercom Trust, the largest LGBTQ+ charity in the South West.

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I welcome enquiries from students and postdocs with research interests in the following areas:

  • Religious, intellectual, and cultural history c.1000-1300, particularly in the British Isles
  • The interaction of orality and literacy, and the creation of medieval texts
  • The historical contextualisation of narrative texts, especially hagiography
  • Medieval communication, particularly news

If you would like to work with me, then please send an e-mail outlining your proposed project along with a CV and a sample of your recent work.

Research students

Current PhD students:

  • Tess LeValley, ‘Saintly Spells: Saints in Medieval Magic’

Completed PhD students:

  • Camille Vo Van Qui, 'The breaking in and training of horses in medieval Western Europe (11th-15th centuries)' (2023)
  • Thomas Chadwick, ‘Normanitas’ Revisited: Reconsidering Norman Ethnicity, 996-1159' (2018)

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Copyright Notice: Any articles made available for download are for personal use only. Any other use requires prior permission of the author and the copyright holder.

| 2019 | 2016 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2006 |





  • Birkett H. (2013) Furness Abbey, English Cathedrals and Monasteries Through the Centuries, Interactive DVD-ROM, University of York.
  • Birkett H. (2013) Review: Hugh of Amiens and the Twelfth-Century Renaissance by Ryan P. Freeburn. Ashgate, 2011, Downside Review: a quarterly of Catholic thought, volume 131, pages 103-104.


  • Birkett H. (2012) Visions of the Other World from the Cistercian Monastery of Melrose, Mediaeval Studies, volume 74, pages 101-141.


  • Birkett H. (2011) Review: Life on the Edge: The Cistercian Abbey of Balmerino, Fife (Scotland). Cîteaux: Commentarii Cistercienses 2008, t. 59 fasc. 1-2. 168 pp. Forges-Chimay, Belgium. ISBN 978-2-9600647-1-1, Northern Scotland, volume 5, pages 112-114.


  • Dobson RB. (2010) The Jewish Communities of Medieval England: The Collected Papers of R. B. Dobson, Borthwick Institute Publications.
  • Birkett H. (2010) The struggle for sanctity: St Waltheof of Melrose, Cistercian in-house cults and canonisation procedure at the turn of the thirteenth century, The Cult of Saints and the Virgin Mary in Medieval Scotland, Boydell and Brewer.
  • Birkett H. (2010) The Saints' Lives of Jocelin of Furness: Hagiography, Patronage and Ecclesiastical Politics, Boydell and Brewer.


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I teach on a number of undergraduate and postgraduate modules, but the following are most closely related to my research interests:

  • HIH2182A The Re-Birth of Europe? Renaissance and Renewal in the Long Twelfth Century
  • HIH3110/1 The Celtic Frontier: Post Conquest England and her Celtic Neighbours
  • HISM019 Critical Approaches in Medieval Research: Saints, Shrines and Miracles in Medieval Europe

I try to make use of local archival resources in my teaching wherever possible, and have held manuscripts sessions for both undergraduate and postgraduate students at the Exeter Cathedral Library and University of Exeter Special Collections.

Modules taught

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I completed an undergraduate degree in History at King's College London before returning to the north to study for a Masters in Medieval History at the University of York. I stayed at York for my doctoral research under the supervision of Prof. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Prof. Christopher Norton and was awarded a PhD in Medieval Studies in 2009. After this I undertook a four-month internship at Brepols Publishers in Belgium and then re-located to Toronto as a Mellon Fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in 2009-10. In 2011 I was granted a six-month fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. In 2011-12 I joined History at Exeter as a temporary member of the teaching staff and was subsequently appointed to the permanent position of Lecturer in Medieval History in 2012. During this time, I was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and was awarded the postdoctoral degree of Licence in Mediaeval Studies. Since then I have held visiting research fellowships at the Center for Medieval Studies, Fordham University, and the Center for the Humanities, Wesleyan University.

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