Medieval woman’s hidden art career revealed by blue teeth

Nun-blue-teethAbout 1,000 years ago, a woman in Germany died and was buried in an unmarked grave in a church cemetery. No record of her life survived, and no historian had reason to wonder who she was. But when modern scientists examined her dug-up remains, they discovered something peculiar – brilliant blue flecks in the tartar on her teeth.

And that has cast new light on the role of women and art in medieval Europe.

The blue particles, it turns out, were lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that was highly prized at the time for its vivid color and was ground up and used as a pigment.

From that, scientists concluded the woman was an artist involved in creating illuminated manuscripts – a task usually associated with monks.

The discovery is considered the most direct evidence yet of a particular woman taking part in the making of high-quality illuminated manuscripts, the lavishly illustrated religious and secular texts of the Middle Ages. And it corroborates other findings that suggest female artisans were not as rare as previously thought.

“It’s kind of a bombshell for my field – it’s so rare to find material evidence of women’s artistic and literary work in the Middle Ages,” said Alison Beach, a professor of medieval history at Ohio State University. “Because things are much better documented for men, it’s encouraged people to imagine a male world. This helps us correct that bias. This tooth opens a window on what activities women also were engaged in.”

Though her name remains unknown, the woman buried in the German churchyard was probably a highly skilled artist and scribe.

Photo: Christina Warriner

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