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Durham University

Department of History

Staff Profile

Dr Helen Foxhall Forbes

Associate Professor (Early Medieval History) in the Department of History
Telephone: +44 (0) 191 33 42995

(email at


I studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge and Theology at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Freiburg-im-Breisgau; I am currently a lecturer in early medieval history.

My research explores the history of ideas, religion and intellectual culture in Britain and western Europe in the early and central middle ages.

In 2011-12 I was a Research Associate on the major Leverhulme-funded project, The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain, in the School of History at the University of Leicester, and I am still associated with this project.

The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of Britain investigates migration, diaspora and identity in the British Isles in the first millennium AD as well as contemporary responses to these events in the distant past, and draws together the disciplines of history, archaeology, theology, literature, linguistics, social psychology and genetics. My sub-project was 'Home and Away in early medieval England', and I explored concepts of belonging and identity in Britain in the early middle ages by examining how 'Home' and 'Away' were perceived and opposed in different contexts.

My previous research has focused on history, theology, literature and archaeology in Anglo-Saxon England and early medieval Europe. In 2009 I was awarded an Early Career Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust to study the interplay between theology and society in Anglo-Saxon England. My book, Heaven and Earth in Anglo-Saxon England: theology and society in an age of faith, was published by Ashgate in 2013, in the series Studies in Early Medieval Britain. Using a series of case-studies, this book shows how theology interacted with and was shaped by the secular world, while also exploring the ways in which lay individuals – although isolated for the most part from the intricacies of theological discussion – nevertheless were evidently influenced by these and responded to them in their own lives and actions.

As a Ph.D. student I examined ideas about penance, purgatory and the afterlife in Anglo-Saxon England, but my subsequent research has underlined the importance of examining purgatory as it developed over the early Middle Ages in a broad European context. I am now in the process of writing a book which explores purgatory in the early Middle Ages from Ireland to Germany, and which locates it within contemporary intellectual cultures and cultural networks.

I was the principal investigator for 'Manuscripts as networks: transmitting texts and information in early medieval England' (funded by the British Academy). This project used computer-based (semantic web) technologies to explore medieval manuscripts as key points in networks of people, information and trade; and to investigate how treating manuscripts in this way can inform approaches to and methodologies for the study and editing of medieval texts. My case-study was a group of manuscripts connected with Archbishop Wulfstan (d.1023), dating from the late tenth century to the twelfth. Scholars have tended to explore the texts in these manuscripts with a view to ascertaining an authorial original and hierarchical relationships between surviving copies of the texts. However the manuscripts themselves were produced for specific practical circumstances, and texts and information travelled physically – with people as agents – rather than only intellectually. By using technology to identify links and patterns I have explored new methodologies for understanding texts and manuscripts which treat each book as a cultural artefact representing both the changing circumstances and reuse of texts as well as the movements of individuals and information.

Other projects include work on textual editing, the historiography of Anglo-Saxon England, the history of science, religion and magic in early medieval Europe; and making cakes.

Current PhD Students

Research Interests

  • Anglo-Saxon history
  • History of ideas, intellectual thought and culture in the early middle ages
  • Medieval theology and liturgy, and interactions between theology and the wider world
  • National identity in historical discourse
  • Science, theology and magic in the early medieval West
  • Textual culture and manuscript production
  • The Church in early medieval Britain and Europe
  • The material culture of belief


Authored book

Chapter in book

Journal Article


Media Contacts

Available for media contact about:

  • Theology: early medieval theology - I work on how theological ideas were transmitted to ordinary people and what their impact was
  • Medieval history: early medieval history (c. AD 700-1100) - I work on a range of topics in the early middle ages (especially early medieval England), including the history of religion/theology and science, ideas about national identity, religious life, gender.