Mad science and palæography that might work, this time

A while ago I mentioned, mainly because of amusement, a project here in Cambridge that was trying to liken manuscript transmission, and specifically the deterioration of texts through scribal errors, to DNA mutation in living organisms. There followed justifiable scepticism in the comments and we left the subject, reasonably sure that as yet science would not be putting palæographers out of a job. Mind you, since there is about one fellowship in palæography in the entire UK, that was never going to comfort a large number of people. Those few, those happy few, may however need to worry. There is something you can do with DNA and manuscript evidence, and I am currently mentally kicking myself for never having thought of it, as a press release reported on by Melissa Snell at has now made it clear to me.

Medieval parchment finer at work, at ORB

Medieval parchment finer at work, at ORB

Medieval manuscripts were made from animals. We all know this. Animals have DNA. This means, yes, it’s obvious now isn’t it, DNA can sometimes be recovered from medieval manuscripts. Professor Timothy Stinson of John Hopkins University has now had the bright idea of amassing enough of a sample to be able, hopefully, to localise manuscript origins where these are not securely known by comparing their DNA to that of the animals that went to make manuscripts whose origin is known. Of course this means that at first, at least, we’re still relying on the work of, well, mainly Bernhard Bischoff and Elias Avery Lowe really, but also their many fellows in the painstaking discipline of script analysis, for the compilation of the trusted dataset. But the prospect of having a hard, scientific check on what has up till now almost always been a subjective decision relying on an almost mystical expertise, is quite exciting. Sadly Professor Stinson’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2007, or I might hope to hear more about it WordPress-wise, but I expect that publication will pass before me before very long, given how much faster the sciences like to move in this respect. Cool stuff.

4 responses to “Mad science and palæography that might work, this time

  1. Wait a second, they only thought about doing that now?
    I would have thought an idea like that would come up a bit earlier, after all all so many other disciplines love using this way of work (makes them look modern and so…). Actually, I kind of assumed somebody already had thought about that earlier.

  2. Turns out they had, indeed: an addendum will follow shortly saying more…

  3. Yes, and not only Prof Drout, but also (as he mentions in his post), the Parker Library in collaboration with I-forget-exactly-which American University. I suspect it was Stanford with whom they have been digitising their collection. I recall hearing Christopher De Hamel talk about it in Melbourne last year, although not being a scientist, he was a little short on detail.

    Whoever would have thought anyone would need to know how to run polymerase chain reactions AND read a mean thirteenth-century chancery hand… I wonder if they need postdocs?!

  4. Which is of course only a short walk from my work-place, but people don’t talk to each other round here… The Parker Library is rarely short of money, so I’d have thought a letter to Dr de Hamel couldn’t do any harm if you have a skillset like that!

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