Medieval Manuscripts Are a DNA Smorgasbord

York-GospelsIn 2010, bioarchaeologist Matthew Collins of the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues realized that the parchment used in medieval manuscripts, which is made of scraped and stretched animal skins, was actually a repository of information about the history of domestic animals in Europe.

Chris Baraniuk at New Scientist reports that Collins and his team have since begun collecting the dry eraser waste of skins left when conservators gently cleaned the manuscripts. Using these scraps, they’ve been able to draw out the DNA and proteins of the animal that sourced the parchment as well as that of any bookworms and humans that had come in contact with the page since.

At a recent symposium on bioarchaeology at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the researchers presented an unpublished paper where they applied DNA techniques as well as traditional techniques to the 1,000-year-old York Gospels, an Anglo-Saxon manuscript, which is one of the few manuscripts to survive the Norman Conquest and the Protestant Reformation.

Ann Gibbons at Science reports that analysis of the parchment led to several surprises. For instance, the 167 folio pages of the York Gospels were made mainly from female calves, which is unusual since it’s believed they would normally be allowed to grow up and reproduce. But documents report that a cattle disease struck the region around the time the manuscript was produced, meaning there may have been many stillborn or sick calves around to provide the material.

Gibbons also reports that 20 percent of the DNA extracted from the York Gospels was human— most of it from the bacteria that lived on the skin and noses of priests who took an oath by kissing certain pages. That and other bacteria could give some insight into the health of people in Middle Ages York.

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