Dr Richard Sowerby
MA (Hons), MLitt, DPhil
Senior Lecturer; Early Medieval Insular History
Affiliated research centres
I grew up in North Yorkshire, where the seeds of my interest in the Middle Ages were probably planted by days out at Fountains Abbey down the road. A few summers spent in the company of the York Archaeological Trust did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm, and I headed north to study Medieval History at the University of St Andrews. I stayed there for five years, then went to the University of Oxford to write a doctoral thesis about imaginary creatures.
I was lucky to be able spend the next few years first as a lecturer at Balliol College, Oxford, and then as the Osborn Fellow in Medieval History and Culture at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. In 2015, I returned to Scotland to join the School of History, Classics and Archaeology here in Edinburgh.
External examiner at Lancaster University (2021–25)
Summary of research interestsPlaces:
- Britain & Ireland
- Comparative & Global History
- Language & Literature
- Material Culture
- Medicine, Science & Technology
My research focuses on the social and cultural history of early medieval Europe. My work seeks to better understand the ways that early medieval men and women thought about the world in which they lived, and to explore the way that their beliefs, ideas and values changed during the first millennium CE.
Current research activities
Part of my previous research led me to explore the prayers and religious rituals performed by medieval men and women in response to illness. My current research is focused on developing new understandings of medieval systems of healing, encompassing everything from learned medical treatises derived from classical antiquity to unorthodox invocations tucked into the margins of monastic manuscripts. The central focus of this research is to explore the place of animals in medieval healing practices, investigating both the ways in which animals were cared for and the ways that they themselves were implicated in the processes of human medicine.
I also retain an interest in early medieval saints’ Lives and the contexts which motivated their creation, reading them in ways that would probably have displeased their authors and patrons.
- Medieval Worlds: A Journey through the Middle Ages (pre-honours)
- The History of Edinburgh: From Din Eidyn to Festival City (pre-honours)
- The Transformation of the Roman World, ca. 300–800: Towards Byzantium and the Early Medieval West (pre-honours)
- The Kings in the North: Scotland in the Early Middle Ages (honours elective)
- Medicine and Health in the early Middle Ages (honours special subject)
- Historical Skills and Methods II (honours pathway on medieval visions of the afterlife)
- Body and Soul in Early Medieval Thought (MSc)
- The Sources of Medieval History (MSc)
- Themes in Scottish Historiography (MSc)
Hayley Boulton, 'The social and cultural contexts of gynaecological texts in the early medieval West, c. 700-1000' (PhD thesis, co-supervising with Dr Zubin Mistry)
Kelli Conley, 'Lay masculinities and male bonding in Anglo-Saxon England, ca. 700-1000' (PhD thesis, co-supervising with Dr Zubin Mistry)
Currently accepting research student applications : Yes
Areas accepting Research Students in:
I would welcome enquiries from prospective doctoral students who are interested in pursuing further work on any aspect of early medieval social and cultural history, especially in topics related to religion and/or medicine.
Angels in Early Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 2016) [Awarded the Ecclesiastical History Society Book Prize, and the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England Best First Book Prize. Shortlisted for the Royal Historical Society Whitfield Prize.]
Natural and Supernatural in Early Medieval England, Cambridge Elements: England in the Early Medieval World (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming)
Articles and chapters:
'Sainthood', in Fiona Edmonds and Rory Naismith (eds.), The New Cambridge History of Britain. Volume I: Early Medieval Britain, c. 410–c. 1100 (Cambridge University Press: forthcoming)
'The "Second Synod of St Patrick" and the "Romans" of the early Irish Church', Traditio (forthcoming)
'The heirs of Bishop Wilfrid: succession and presumption in early Anglo-Saxon England', English Historical Review 134, no. 571 (2019), pp. 1377–1404
'A family and its saint in the Vita prima Samsonis', in Lynette Olson (ed.), St Samson of Dol and the Earliest History of Brittany, Cornwall and Wales (Boydell and Brewer, 2017), pp. 19–36
'The Lives of St Samson: rewriting the ambitions of an early medieval cult', Francia 38 (2011), pp. 1–31
‘Hengest and Horsa: the manipulation of history and myth from the adventus Saxonum to Historia Brittonum’, Nottingham Medieval Studies 51 (2007), pp. 1–19
‘Geoffrey of Monmouth’, ‘Walter Map’ and ‘Arthur and Gorlagon’, in Laura Ashe (ed.), Early Fiction in England: From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Chaucer (Penguin, 2015)