I should have read this the moment I got it, part IV


This series is getting bogged down in other things now, so I’ll try and cut it down to the basics. Michael McCormick‘s own contribution to his and Jennifer Davis’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe is a short and excited (also exciting, but definitely the former first) paper about science! in history, as per the rather more ‘popular’ magazine article I blogged about a little while ago.1 It covers pretty much every field in which the sciences are opening up new vistas for history at the moment, database analysis of texts in bulk, survey archæology, skeletal analysis and osteoarchæology including stable isotope research into diet, palæobotany, DNA profiling not just of human remains but of plants and animals too and even bacteria (principally plague bacilli), and of course DNA comparison of modern populations. This is covered in such breathless form that it reads like a Gish Gallop, and one would feel sceptical about all of it were it not for the dense footnotes. Even here, though, where we are aware of the work we can tell that while some of this is the good stuff, some of it is decidedly sketchy.

The problem with several of these methods is that although as with archæology they give hard data, there are still crucial steps of subjective interpretation before one gets conclusions. So, for example, it is easy to confuse DNA work like the Cohen gene study where a highly unusual chromosomal form was being tracked through a population and contrasted to everything else with things like Blood of the Vikings where what is going on is comparison of frequency of a chromosomal pattern with a known range of other patterns.2 The fact that a goodly number of the population of the Wirral have a chromosomal form that is best matched with one most common in northern Norway is significant, as in, they tested it and found a statistically significant correlation, but it doesn’t do to forget that other good matches were found in Spain, South America and India, albeit not at a significant level.3 And McCormick’s paper deals in its closing pages with an argument between two DNA labs who dispute each others’ findings about the Black Death bacillus, and the only answer is to have a third lab (his at Harvard, by coincidence) to do the tests again on new material.4 So we mustn’t be too easily seduced by this stuff; it’s fascinating new evidence but we still need to understand it to be sure it’s being used well, and for that purpose McCormick’s footnotes are also salted with introductory material that I will probably find useful myself. However, in his text there isn’t a very clear distinction between stuff that we know works, like stable isotope analysis (as long as you remember that that, too, is comparison of patterns not a direct circumstantial link), and things like mutation analysis of scribal errors, discussed and more or less dismissed here a while ago. I think McCormick knows this stuff; but the reader may not necessarily get it from him.

Medieval parchment-maker at work depicted on the final product, Ci nous dit (Musée Condé 26, fol. 69v), 14th century

Medieval parchment-maker at work depicted on the final product, Ci nous dit (Musée Condé 26, fol. 69v), 14th century

I note also with some grim familiarity that there is mention of work here to sequence DNA from the animals used to make medieval parchment. You may remember I blogged about that here a while ago when a project at John Hopkins University put a press release out, and Professor Michael Drout of Wormtalk and Slugspeak spoke up to point out that he was already part of such a project. I’m afraid McCormick names neither project but knew of three others.5 I hope one of you manages to come up with something, but, to judge from the yersinia pestis débacle, even if they do the others can just dispute the findings…

The other thing that seems worth mentioning is that a quite incredible proportion of McCormick’s cites come from one journal, American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Seriously, there appears to have been almost one study of an Anglo-Saxon burial site in it for pretty much each of the last five years or more, and it’s not always the same site. That’s not the limit of their early medieval European coverage either. Why aren’t European journals carrying this stuff? How did this one get such an interest in it? Either way, it looks as if Professor McCormick subscribes, and well, if you want to keep up with such stuff it would seem to be a good way to go…

1. Michael McCormick, “Molecular Middle Ages: Early Medieval Economic History in the Twenty-First Century” in Jennifer Davis & idem (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: New Directions in Medieval Studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 83-97; Jonathan Shaw, “Who Killed the Men of England? The written record of history meets genomics, evolution, demography, and molecular archaeology” in Harvard Magazine (July-August 2009), pp. 30-35 & 75, online here.

2. I should note that even since I first drafted this post, the Cohen gene story has been complicated by a new analysis of the evidence pointing to several independent male lines contributing to the still-almost-unique genetic ‘signature’ that they pointed out: I learn this from a post at Michelle Moran’s History Buff that links to this Science Daily article reporting on Michael F. Hammer, Doron M. Behar, Tatiana M. Karafet, Fernando L. Mendez, Brian Hallmark, Tamar Erez, Lev A. Zhivotovsky, Saharon Rosset & Karl Skorecki, “Extended Y chromosome haplotypes resolve multiple and unique lineages of the Jewish priesthood” in Human Genetics Vol. 126 (London forthcoming), already online via DOI:10.1007/s00439-009-0727-5.

3. Steve Harding, “The Wirral and West Lancashire Viking DNA Project”, paper presented before the Midlands Viking Symposium, University of Nottingham, 9th April 2005; further publications linked here.

4. McCormick, “Molecular Middle Ages”, p. 95, citing (n. 45) Michel Drancourt & Didier Raoult, “Molecular Insights into the History of Plague” in Microbes and Infections Vol. 4 (2002), pp. 105-109 and (n. 46) M. Thomas P. Gilbert, Ian Barnes, Matthew J. Collins et al., “Absence of Yersinia pestis-specific DNA in Human Teeth from Five European Excavations of Putative Plague Victims” in Microbiology Vol. 150 (Reading 2004), pp. 341-354; Drancourt & Raoult, “Molecular Detection of Yersinia pestis in Dental Pulp” ibid. pp. 263-264; & Gilbert et al., “Reponse to Drancourt & Raoult”, ibid pp. 264-265.

5. McCormick, “Molecular Middle Ages”, pp. 89-90 citing (p. 90 n. 26) pers. comm. from Professor Christopher Howe, already implicated with the dodgy mutation palæography project from the same lab, and (n. 27) N. Poulakakis, A. Tselikas, I. Birsakis et al., “Ancient DNA and the Genetic Signature of Ancient Greek Manuscripts” in Journal of Archaeological Science Vol. 34 (2007), pp. 675-680 and (n. 28) Odile Loreille, Susanne Hummel & Bernd Herrmann, “Multiplex in ancient DNA Studies: Application to Ancient Parchment Analysis” in Ancient Biomolecules Vol. 3 (2001), pp. 298-299.

2 responses to “I should have read this the moment I got it, part IV

  1. Pingback: Cambridge to Siena and back part two: the actual conference « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Pingback: Seminar CLXXXV: checking what the genes mean | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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