The DNA of animal skins used as parchment for medieval manuscripts could reveal where the texts were made.
By comparing the genetic codes of manuscripts of unknown origin to those whose provenance and age is known, an English professor hopes to learn where and when the mysterious manuscripts were made.
"One of the things we try to do when we study a text is to guess from the handwriting and dialect where and when it's from," said Tim Stinson of North Carolina State University . "But these are inexact processes, and it takes a lot of guesswork. Our tools have been fairly blunt instruments — until now."
Initial tests showed that the animal skin pages contained enough intact DNA to make analysis worthwhile. So Stinson and his brother Mike Stinson, a biologist at Southside Virginia Community College, skin samples taken from five pages of a 15th century French prayer book. Preserved mitochondrial DNA revealed that the pages came from two closely related calves.
Those results, said Stinson, are a proof of principle that it's possible to create a DNA database from manuscripts of known age and origin. Monastic paperwork tended to be dated, so DNA from those works could be cross-indexed with that of literary works from tomes of unknown provenance, producing a taxonomy of manuscript manufacture.
"This could help us understand not just things, not just books, not just medieval cows, but people," said Stinson.
In addition to pinpointing manuscript origin, such a taxonomy could flesh out the as-yet-murky transition from monastic to commercial publishing.
"When did books become a business, as opposed to something monks did? That's a puzzle nobody knows," said Stinson. "This could be a social history of producing a good for trade."
DNA matches could also help link pages from books that have been broken up by unsavory collectors and sold piecemeal to museums and galleries around the world.
Before this can happen, however, Stinson needs to refine his technique. Testing currently requires the removal of a half-centimeter square — enough to turn the stomach of any true bibliophile. Stinson plans to repeat testing with ever-smaller samples until a process is found that leaves no visible scars.
Stinson also needs grant money for the project, which will be presented at the upcoming Bibliographical Society of America meeting in New York City. Tests run between $800 and $1000 per sample, and dozens of samples will be needed for the initial database.
Medieval manuscript identification could be a tough sell in today's economy, but Stinson believes that historical insight is still valuable.
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?" he wondered. As can be claimed of so much of history, Stinson said, "The matter in Jerusalem is far from over."