When medieval scribes sat down to preserve the records of their day, they often wrote on parchment – a paper-like material made from animal skins. A long time valuable source for textual scholars, the parchments have now gone beyond the humanities. ERC grantee Matthew Collins found a way to capture the ancient DNA from the calves and sheep whose skin became the parchment to shed new light on medieval animal farming practices across Europe.
The idea for the Beasts to Craft (B2C) project emerged after a somewhat disappointing excavation, Matthew Collins recalls. “We were studying patterns in animal farming and worked with a team on a huge excavation for over five years. We turned out more than 5000 bones on a site in Scotland. The big shock was that despite the large number of fragments of bone, we could only identify 29 individual animals. Using this evidence, we could barely say something about how these animals were managed. Sometime later, I walked through an archive, and noticed that every single document, shelf after shelf, was made of animal skin. That means hundreds of thousands of animals. You can date excavated animal bones with roughly hundred year’s certainty; parchments have their date written on them. I thought, why are we not analysing those?”
Seeking collaborations with archives to take samples of precious mediaeval documents required a different approach. Archaeologists are used to pulverizing bone for DNA analysis: such a technique would be too invasive to apply to the manuscripts. Subsequently, Collins and his team spent time with conservators to find out how they handle the material, and even got a conservators on board - Jiří Vnouček, who is an experimental parchment maker.
For cleaning mould, mildew and surface dirt from the manuscripts, conservators use a special type of eraser, which has proved to be a perfect tool for collecting samples. The collected eraser waste is analysed to see what proteins and DNA are present. These biomolecules provide information on species, type and sex of the animals used for the parchment. “There are hundreds of different types of parchments, which are extremely specific since different types of animal were used, including deer, horses, and of course the calf, sheep and goat”, Collins explains.
Reading the animal
Scientists alone cannot make sense of the DNA, however. Collins therefore built an interdisciplinary team to analyze the around 7000 samples from parchments that were collected until today. “We need to work with scholars of the text, people who are able to understand the scribal styles, the way that the text is being written, people who work on patterns of binding, on the use of pigments, along with genetics, microbiologists, and historians”, he explains. “All those people need to work together.”
Additionally, the project seeks to “bring alive the processes of making the parchments and the choices which were made, and situating those in the different economies, across north-west Europe”, says Collins. “Medieval craft making was kept very secret. We still do not fully understand how they made those beautiful parchments. Having Jiří Vnouček on the team is therefore a great asset. He reads the animal. He looks for insect bites, warble fly holes, and the way in which the parchment was repaired, stretched and scrapped, to understand the whole process of production. We are trying to get behind the words written on the parchment.”
Evidence of disease in the parchments may lead to important clues about animal farming and the choice of materials. In some cases, such findings put historical events in a different light. An example is the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete manuscript of the Latin Vulgate version of the Christian Bible, written around 700 at a monastery in Northumbria and offered to the Pope.
“The abbot called the monastery ‘at the end of the world’, because it was very north England”, Vnouček says. “There was an ongoing struggle between Celtic Christianity and Roman Christianity, and the monastery was very much supported by the Pope. They decided to make this Codex look Italian. They have not only written it in the same type of script; they even used the parchment that was used in Italy, which was unusual. It was an attempt to show their dedication and thanks for the long-term support.”
The story goes that the abbot was given a large amount of land to raise the calf to make the parchment. However, from observation the team believe that the parchment of the Codex Amiatinus is not from calfskin, but only from sheep- and goatskin. Furthermore, they found evidence of pox on the skin. Vnouček: “The thing with pox is that it goes through a flock, so if one animal has it, the other animals will get it too. It cannot have been an individual animal, but a big herd that was used for making the parchment. Therefore, we believe that the parchment for this Codex was brought from Italy, or at least part of it, and not produced locally.”
The technique, developed by team member Sarah Fiddyment, is set to revolutionise the use of parchment for studying history and may even become a new discipline, BioCodicology. “Parchments are no longer viewed as just a source of written text”, says Collins. “There is a whole new dimension to manuscripts due to the biological information they carry. Much information is missing in the text and there is no other way to find it than analysing the parchment. For instance, in Scandinavia many manuscripts fragments are preserved; by working out where they came from, one can piece these fragments together.“
An important effect is that the project has contributed to a better preservation of the ancient documents. “It was common to repair a calf skin parchment with cow glue. Now we know that this is not a very useful thing to do because the genetics of the original animal will be mixed up with the genetics of the second animal. It is better to use isinglass, which is a glue obtained from sturgeon. It is a very simple idea, but very lucky to have such a broad branching team looking at the parchments, so that we can better comprehend the nature of the material and its historical dimensions. “
Matthew Collins is a Professor of Biomolecular Archaeology at the University of Copenhagen and the McDonald Chair of Palaeoproteomics, based at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge. He previously founded BioArCh, a biomolecular archaeology group at the University of York, and a collaboration between the departments of biology, chemistry and archaeology. In 2022, he was awarded the Pomerance Award for Scientific Contributions to Archaeology from Archaeological Institute of America.