Helen Lawson

Thesis title: Navigating Northumbria: Mobility, Allegory, and Writing Travel in Early Medieval Northumbria

PhD History

  • School of History, Classics and Archaeology

Contact details


Helen defended her thesis 'Navigating Northumbria: Mobility, Allegory, and Writing Travel in Early Medieval Northumbria' in March 2017. Her doctoral research was funded by the AHRC and focusses upon concepts of travel and mobility in early medieval Northumbria (northern England and southern Scotland). In it, she draws attention to the necessity and benefit of rejecting assumptions of immobility and looking for and at underlying movement in early medieval Britain.


The University of Edinburgh

PhD, History

MSc (by Research), Scottish History 

MA (Hons), Celtic and Archaeology

Undergraduate teaching

In 2017-2018:

Medieval Worlds: A Journey through the Middle Ages


The History of Edinburgh: From Din Eidyn to Festival City

Medieval Scottish History

Research summary

Helen research centres on early medieval mobility, and the ways that a greater sense of the underlying society can be illuminated by the study of travel and movement.

More broadly Helen is interested in the ideas and theologies that governed the early middle ages, and the ways that they were written about and how they impacted medieval authors. She is interested in the early medieval Church, and the impact of religion on medieval lives as well as on texts and texuality.



Thesis Abstract: 

The social fact of movement is a significant underlying feature of early medieval Northumbria, as it is for other regions and other periods. The eighth-century Anglo-Latin hagiographical tradition that centres on Bede (673-735) is not known for its articulacy concerning travel, and what is expressed might well be overlooked for its brevity. This thesis explores the relationship between allegory and the underlying travel-culture in prose histories and hagiographies produced in Northumbria in the early eighth century. It demonstrates the wide extent to which travel was meaningful. The range of connotations applied to movement and travel motifs demonstrate a multi-layered conceptualization of mobility, which is significant beyond the study of travel itself. 

In three sections, the thesis deals first with the mobility inherent in early medieval monasticism and the related concepts that influence scholarly expectations concerning this travel. The ideas of stabilitas and peregrinatio are explored in their textual contexts. Together they highlight that monastic authors were concerned with the impact of movement on discipline and order within monastic communities. However, early medieval monasticism also provided opportunities for travel and benefitted from that movement. Mobility itself could be praised as a labour for God. The second section deals with the way in which travel was narrated. The narrative role of sea, land, and long-distance transport provide a range of stimuli for the inclusion and exclusion of travel details. Whilst figurative allegory plays its part in explaining both the presence and absence of sea travel, other, more mundane meanings are applied to land transport. Through narratives, those who were unable to travel great distances were given the opportunity to experience mobility and places outside of their homes. The third section builds on this idea of the experience of movement, teasing out areas where a textual embodiment of travel was significant, and those where the contrasting textual experience of travel is illustrative of narrative techniques and expectations. This section also looks at the hagiographical evidence for wider experiences of mobility, outside of the travel of the hagiographical subjects themselves. It demonstrates the transformation of the devotional landscape at Lindisfarne and its meaning for the social reality of movement.

This wide-ranging exploration of the theme of mobility encourages the development of scholarship into movement, and into the connections between trave and other aspects of society.