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Planet Earth

The DNA of Medieval Manuscripts May Reveal Their History

80beatsBy Eliza StricklandJanuary 14, 2009 8:08 PM

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When medieval literature scholar Timothy Stinson studies an illuminated manuscript, he doesn't just examine the text and rich illustrations for clues to the manuscript's origins. He also wonders what he can learn from the parchment itself, which is made from animal skins. Now, Stinson has demonstrated that the DNA from those old animal skins can be extracted and studied to reveal what kind of animal it came from, which could help in determining manuscripts' provenance and age.

Until recently, scholars relied on visual analysis (such as handwriting samples) to trace the origin of most ancient texts. But Stinson says that more precise genetic analyses are possible because the preferred "paper" of the day was thin parchment made from the skin of local cattle, sheep or goats. "DNA offers much more specific information, but no one's mapped it yet," he says [Scientific American].

Stinson is proposing a genetic database of medieval manuscripts. If researchers first record data from monastery paperwork which has a known origin and age, he says, they can then check undated and mysterious manuscripts against that database to try to find matches.

"This could help us understand not just things, not just books, not just medieval cows, but people," said Stinson.... He gave the example of an undated poem he's currently translating, about the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. The poem, said Stinson, reflects anti-Semitic tendencies common in parts of medieval England. "Who was circulating these — what time, and when? Was it country gentlemen? Monks? Where are these being produced?" [Wired News].

Stinson says that medieval historians have long wondered if DNA could be extracted from parchment, but lacked the scientific know-how to investigate. Luckily, Stinson has a brother who's a biology professor, and together the brothers worked out how to take a sample and where to send it for testing. One concern was that the surface of the parchment leaves might be contaminated after centuries of human and animal contact.

"I've heard of people trying to swab parchment to get the DNA, and it turns out to be mouse DNA," Timothy Stinson said. So the Stinsons cut sections out of the margins of their pages and sent them to a Canadian lab that specializes in the extraction of ancient DNA [National Geographic].

The brothers didn't want to damage any manuscripts from a museum collection, so they bought a French prayer book from the 15th century for their first experiment. Testing of the parchment clippings revealed that the pages came from two different calves who were closely related. Stinson says the next step is to see if DNA can be extracted from smaller fragments of the parchment, to make testing a viable option for valuable books. The researchers will present their work this month at a meeting of the Bibliographical Society of America, where they'll try to raise interest and funds for their database proposal. Image: Timothy Stinson

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