Tag Archives: DNA analysis

Seminar CLXXXV: checking what the genes mean

The week after the seminar just reported, I was back down at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to hear no less a notable than Professor Patrick Geary of UCLA address us with the title “Preliminary Reflections on Genomic Evidence and Medieval Migration History”. Perhaps because I was only just out of Oxford at this point, I had all kinds of misgivings about this talk: other notable historians who’ve lately got into scientific methods have perhaps let enthusiasm outrun rigour, and the only previous time I’d seen Professor Geary talk I’d taken away what seems to have been a quite misleading impression. In fact, this talk was earnest, humble even, critical and very interesting.

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples, source unclear

Professor Geary was introducing to us a seriously international collaborative project that seems to have no name, quite hard to do these days, but which is described on his web-pages as “Tracing Longobard Migration through DNA Analysis”. You can probably see immediately why my alarm bells were ringing: a lot of fashionable work has been done with DNA lately that hasn’t thought terribly hard about what the actual meaning of its data might be. Professor Geary took us through the immediate problems: if you are using the DNA of modern populations, then you are looking at the sum of their total genetic background, including not just the episode of change in which you as historian might be interested but everything before and since, including the Black Death, the Wars of Religion, Industrial Revolution, various kinds of diaspora, and ultimately every human population change since the Second Ice Age, so it too often becomes a matter of proving what we already wanted to believe rather than showing anything new.1 On the other hand, historical DNA is far harder to come by, rarely adequately preserved, usually only recoverable in either its mitochondrial components (which descend in the female line) or its Y-chromosomal components (which do so in the male line) but not both (or so he said) and still has the same back-history problem even if subsequent accretion can be eliminated. And of course, both of these approaches tell you only what the (successful) components of someone’s biological descent were, not what they thought they were or how they behaved. DNA is not, now that we’re out of the nineteenth century, much of a determinant of identity. So what on earth can we hope to show with it?

Supposedly 'Lombard' funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf

Supposedly ‘Lombard’ funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf. Photo by James Seakley [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, the answer is of course in comparison. We can, with adequate funerary archæology, hope to see change in the DNA record, and can get some idea of the size, gender and composition of the groups in movement in the so-called Age of Migrations. Checking these findings against texts, material culture and stable isotope analysis can then also give us some means of establishing whether culture or population change in any one correlates with change in any of the others, which is really quite important to do since so much of what is wrong with current work on migrations in any one of these genres of evidence is the assumption that it must do so.2 Already, at what was then an early stage of this project, Professor Geary’s colleagues sifting through data from recent excavations were getting results showing mixed populations in movement, ‘Lombard’ cemeteries that did not include just Lombards and so on, though there was not enough asked here about how the checking category was constituted, I think. It was easy to miss such things when the following example was of a cemetery in Thuringia where they had women buried with material culture kits usually held to signify Thuringian origins and ones betokening Saxon identification and found from the isotopic analysis that it was the Saxon ones who were local! Given that most of us would perhaps cynically have expected no correlations at all, or in the case of some perhaps hoped for positive ones, negative ones was not what was expected by anyone! So some synthesis of this project’s results should prove eye-opening for us all, but will hopefully also allow some actually founded generalisations about what, in fact, an early medieval migration might have been like to be in the middle of.

Artistic depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage

Depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage, apparently what the Deutsche Post still think that looked like

There were, as you might imagine, lots of questions, and this not least because the actual presentation was relatively short. Some of the questions seemed to be aimed to reassure the questioner that this work would not be bringing back the spectres of nineteenth-century racialism that Professor Geary has previously done so much to dispel, but he assured us that the wrong questions of that era would continue to go unanswered.3 Others were keen to be assured that this work would not, ultimately, be able to disprove migrations, those others having their book sales to think of after all.4 The most interesting questions however came from Dr Mark Thomas, responsible for some of the DNA work that Professor Geary had attacked, and who was clearly coming from a very different place to the rest of us that made me briefly sad I was no longer so close to scientists as I had once been, so as to debate it with them: he was out to argue that historians’ tendency to make models more complex ineluctably made them subjective and therefore biased, and that the only hope for such work is to generate simple models that can thus hope to escape the biases inherent in, for example, choosing ‘ethnic’ markers.

Fig. 3 from Thomas et al., "Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England"

I would feel better about his criticisms of historians did Thomas’s own work not include things like this graph, fig. 3 from his and others’ “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure” cited below

This boiled down into the clearest two-cultures confrontation I’ve ever observed, Professor Geary wishing to abjure Occam’s Razor to describe a process we can see must have been incredibly varied and Dr Thomas obdurate that if we historians tried to find that variation in the scientific data all we would wind up doing was repeating the process of choosing the patterns we like best, because the results would be too diffuse to clearly prove anything. Either of them could have convinced me separately: put together, it made me suddenly wonder whether we weren’t here exactly at the point where what we can genuinely know starts to dissolve, and amid the general hope that we would know a lot more for Professor Geary and his colleagues’ project I thus took away a nagging reminder that in real terms we actually ‘know’ almost nothing about the past, which implies not least that convincing people with racist agendas that they’re wrong is going to be tricky. Still: since even hard science is finding out these days that data does not convince, I’m not sure that leaves us so much further apart after all…4


1. One example of such work used by Professor Geary was Mark G. Thomas, Michael P. H. Stumpf & Heinrich Härke, “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in Anglo-Saxon England” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B Vol. 273 no. 1601 (London 2006), pp. 2651-2657, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3627, a paper also criticised by Magistra from a mathematician’s point of view here, and this one was indubitably the most sharp critique just because, unknown to Professor Geary of course, its lead author was in the audience. Also singled out, however, were Cristian Capelli, Nicola Redhead, Julia K. Abernethy, Fiona Gratrix, James F. Wilson, Torolf Moen, Tor Hervig, Martin Richards, Michael P. H. Stumpf, Peter A. Underhill, Paul Bradshaw, Alom Shaha, Mark G. Thomas, Neal Bradman & David B. Goldstein, “A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles” in Current Biology Vol. 13 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 979-984, DOI: 10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00373-7 and most of all Peter Ralph & Graham Coop, “The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe” in Public Library of Science: Biology Vol. 11 (San Francisco 2013), e1001555, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001555, this last for spotting Hunnic migration using modern state boundaries, uncontrolled dataset and strictly out-of-date scholarship with which to interpret, according at least to Professor Geary: the historical cites actually seem fairly up-to-date to me, but this is not a paper one can skim for solidity of interpretation, so I haven’t…

2. Isotopic work on other hand takes a particular joy in exploding everyone else’s ideas, e. g. Janet Montgomery, Jane A. Evans, Dominic Powlesland & Charlotte A. Roberts, “Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138, DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20111, and it’s hard not to like it for that but it is still using one form of evidence to show a bigger condition, even if that condition is undefined free flow of movement.

3. Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton 2003).

4. If this all leaves you wanting more, you may be pleased to know that Professor Geary has written what seems to be a short version of this paper as “Using Genetic Data to Revolutionalize Understanding of Migration History” in The Institute Letter Spring 2013 (Princeton 2013), web version here.

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Iberia: your genes are riding up on one side

I’ve been sitting on this paper for a while, hoping I could get some geneticist to collaborate on the write-up, because while I recognise enough of the words in genetics at least not to fall off when the argument goes round corners, I certainly can’t evaluate whether it’s soundly based or not. Simon Ford back at Clare in Cambridge gave it a once-over and thought it basically sane, though—and my thanks to him—and the point has come to write about it. Please bear in mind that I am not an expert in this stuff and would welcome any corrections or different perspectives, and read on. The work in question is a paper with twenty different authors that appeared in the American Journal of Human Genetics for 2008 entitled “The Genetic Legacy of Religious Diversity and Intolerance: Paternal Lineages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula”.1 What it does is to take samples of the DNA of 1140 people from all over modern Spain and Portugal and compare them to similar datasets from Morocco and Tunisia plus an independently-derived average one for Sephardic Jews. The point of all this is the historical context that the Iberian Peninsula has, for a lot of its history, had a considerable Jewish population (`Sephardic’ actually comes from the Hebrew for Spain, ‘Sefarad’) and, of course, between about 710 and 1610, a fairly significant Muslim one that was ruling most of the area for most of that time. And, despite the fairly pompous title, what this paper does is compare what they consider to be the known history of the peninsula with the current genetic traces of population admixture.2

Haplogroup Distributions in Iberian, North African, and Sephardic Jewish Populations

"Haplogroup Distributions in Iberian, North African, and Sephardic Jewish Populations." "Sectors in pie charts are colored according to haplogroup in the schematic tree to the right, and sector areas are proportional to haplogroup frequency."

And these are, in a sense, the results. You have to realise, before you start to read this thing, that we are in a game not of certainties or clear causation here but rather of statistically significant correlation. So, you will notice that the three African samples (which they got from elsewhere3) are dominated by haplogroup E3b2 (and I’m not even going to try and explain what a haplogroup is; I would just have to copy it from a better explanation like this one anyway) but the Iberian ones are dominated instead by various branches of R1. This doesn’t stop each of those groups having some trace of the other one’s dominant element, because these things occur throughout most of humanity by now, and the question is not usually down to a single genetic signature like the ‘Cohen gene’ but to a pattern being convincingly like another pattern. If you compare it to the Sephardic Jewish signature at top right (again, from elsewhere, on this occasion a separate survey by two of the authors whose data is only given as supplemental information online4) you’ll see that there the significant marker seems to be the balance of groups G, J2 and all other J groups, which is a bit harder to spot. So, rather than just try and spot colour matches it seems worthwhile to say what the paper’s authors think they’ve found, given that they have crunched this data in a number of other ways that don’t make such colourful images, and then remark on that. Their conclusions were, roughly:

  1. Obviously, the Gibraltar Straits do mark a genuine divide in the make-up of the populations, which is not to say that there’s no common blood (ultimately, after all, we’re all cousins) but that there is a statistically significant (and fairly obvious) difference.
  2. The Basque country and Gascony have a strong showing from haplogroups that barely show up elsewhere (R1b3f, otherwise only strongly represented in Catalonia and the Balearics, weirdly; R1b3d; and in the Basque Country proper, R1b3b, which actually doesn’t show up anywhere else on the plot except for a sliver in North-West Castile, although I wonder if the big sample size there might not be something to do with that) and are also statistically quite different because of that.
  3. In the peninsula overall, admixture from an African-type parental population appears to be 10·6%, but this varies widely; there is none in the Basque zones, but 21·6% in Castile, i. e. twice as much as elsewhere.
  4. Admixture from a Jewish-type population is rather higher, 19·8% overall, but again with variation: none at all in Minorca, but 36·3% in Southern Portugal.
  5. The diversity of haplogroups within the dominant one from Africa is lower in the Iberian Peninsula than in Africa, suggesting that only a subset of the African population as it now is is represented in the peninsula’s genes.
  6. Contrariwise, the diversity of the Jewish sample in the Iberian population is higher, suggesting a longer-term admixture (though see below).
  7. The African sample is represented, not as one might expect most strongly in the south around Granada and least strongly in the north, but rather in the west, especially Castile and Galicia, that is the furthest parts north of the west, as well as also in Minorca which is less surprising maybe.5

Some of this makes perfectly good sense with what we know of the demographic history of this area, although it does persistently have to be borne in mind that we are talking about a history covering all of the last, say, three thousand years, piled up and indistinguishable. There is some possibility of distinguishing chronology with such evidence: as the authors say, the low diversity of the African sample in the Iberian peninsula compared to the Jewish or African-local ones suggests that it arrived more recently than the others because it has presumably had less time to spread and average out. But this is not ‘proving’ the Muslim conquest from genetics or anything; it is noticing a particular phenomenon that the conquest we already knew about provides an obvious explanation for. Likewise, the strong Jewish signal in South Portugal is odd until you consider that Portugal, unlike Castile or Aragon-Catalonia, didn’t expel its Jews and therefore picked up quite a lot of exile population from the reconquered areas of those two kingdoms, i. e. the south, in the fifteenth century, who have presumably left some trace in the genepool since then. On the other hand, the western-side bias of the African signal is very strange. It is certainly true that Muslim settlement, for most historians at least, is unlikely to have been substantial outside of Córdoba’s immediate zone of control, and we can do quite a lot about suggesting from place-names which groups wound up where.6 That would explain the low signal in Catalonia, but it patently conflicts with the high signal in Galicia. The authors suggest that this is down to the forced relocation of the morisco populations to the north and west after the war of 1567-71,7 and so indeed it may be—we have to watch that we don’t immediately conclude “OMG settlement in 711!” from this data given that it also includes all movements since—but if so it seems very strange to me that the areas where we know Muslims were for longest show less of a trace, and that suggests that the incomers were distinctive and also didn’t mix very much, whereas the moriscos blended into the wider population much more.

Horseshoe arches in the Leonese church of Santiago de Peñalba

Horseshoe arches in the Leonese church of Santiago de Peñalba, another kind of evidence for cultural admixture, more or less contraindicated by the genetic evidence

There are also three problems with their conceptual framework that I see which I think need discussion. The first, they have anticipated and headed off, although they don’t phrase it quite as I would, which is that if this Jewish signal prototype they have is already based on Jews from only this area then inevitably, you’d think, it is going to be much more admixed with Iberian material than a sample of a population outside Spain. In other words, there is a risk here of concluding, “Iberian Jews… are quite Iberian“, what is somewhat less exciting than the assertion “Iberian populations surprisingly Jewish”, which is more like what the paper actually says. The authors were not worried about this, as far as I can tell, but were concerned that the self-identification of the Jewish population that was used to obtain the sample on which they relied, i. e. the DNA of people who think they’re Jewish by descent, might well be less exclusively Jewish than those people thought. The counter that they have to this also works for my worry, however, it being that there are within that Jewish sample, as well as quite a lot of haplotypes shared with Iberian populations, three or four that are not but do match strongly with the Middle East. So, as long as they aren’t Greek or Phœnician (the long time-frame again), which seems unlikely given that they are as strongly visible in the West as the East, that does show some genuine Semitic ancestry to the sample group.

Iberian, North African, and Sephardic Jewish Admixture Proportions among Iberian Peninsula Samples

"Mean North African, Sephardic Jewish, and Iberian admixture proportions among Iberian samples, based on the mY estimator and on Moroccan, Sephardic Jewish, and Basque parental populations, are represented on a map as shaded bars on bar charts. Error bars indicate standard deviations, and three-letter codes indicate populations, as given in Figure 1."

That takes us straight to the second problem, though, which is one of missing populations. I am broadly happy that most of the Muslim army of 711 and subsequent settlement was probably composed of Berbers and other Africans (even if allegedly some of them might have been Vandals by descent…), I think this is one of the things that Guichard’s work makes acceptable, but nonetheless they weren’t all Berbers, there was an actually-Arabic presence in the officer corps, because we know some of them by name, and of course there was also a massive civil war in 741 kicked off, as the chronicles of the time (at least, compared to the chronology of the genetic evidence) see it, by a fresh wave of settlement direct from Syria.8 So it seems to me that when we see a Middle Eastern genetic sample, it doesn’t have to be Jewish, and that ideally there would be some way to check this sample for what might be a tiny tiny Arabic representation, but might not (and it would be really nice to know which and where).

The bronze inscription of Botorrita, in eastern Ibero-Celtic characters

The bronze inscription of Botorrita, in eastern Ibero-Celtic characters

Then there is another missing population, which is the actual Iberians. Quite early on the authors decide that the best comparator for the African and Jewish samples is the Basque one, as it shows no or little mixture with those groups, so everything else in the peninsula is then thought of as being more or less of a mixture between the three `parental’ samples. Well, OK, but whenever the Basques arrived in Spain, other groups followed, most obviously the Celtic groups we now call Iberians, and also maybe some Visigoths, you know, though we don’t seem to credit that those were numerically significant any more.9 I don’t think it diminishes the significance of the African and Jewish samples being different in the ways that they are too much, but I think that a better conceptual model might have been instead to take a total average of the peninsula and emphasise differences from it globally, rather than thinking in terms of `amibasqueornot’. Or, again, perhaps it would just be nice to have had some potential Celtic (or even Gothic) comparators factored in too so that we might get some sense of where those groups might have been best preserved, if they are at all. The paper’s only 11 pages long, after all, though I realise that I may just have idly asked for about three or four more years’ computing and sampling.

Interior of Santa María la Blanca, Toledo, previously a synagogue built in Almohad style

Interior of Santa María la Blanca, Toledo, previously a synagogue built in Almohad (i. e. a Berber Muslim) style. From Wikimedia Commons

So, in short, this stuff is really interesting but it’s very difficult to distill it down to historical events without essentially using what we already know to explain this new data. I get a certain kick out of knowing that some of the more traditional Reconquista-minded scholars would have been horrified to think that heroic Castile was actually more African and more Jewish than other areas of the peninsula but, if that’s down to post-reconquest resettlement by the kings, that becomes less of a delicious irony and more likely to be a reflection of the fact that populations who feel their identity may be dissipating are more likely to stress it aggressively. I think that these samples could actually be interrogated to tell us more about the settlement period by, for example, adding Arabic and Celtic comparators (if the latter can really be assembled, given how vague a group `Celtic’ populations are when considered historically10). At the moment, though, the main early medieval takeaway from this, which is what I at least am really interested in, is that it looks to be demonstrable that the African settler groups who (probably) arrived with and after the Muslim conquest really didn’t mix very much with the local populations. That’s not nothing, but I would still like to know if we might some day be able to guess at how much of the settling population they were from this kind of data, and thus guess also at the change in the élite too.


1. Susan M. Adams, Elena Bosch, Patricia L. Balaresque, Stéphane J. Ballereau, Andrew C. Lee, Eduardo Arroyo, Ana M. López-Parra, Mercedes Aler, Marina S. Gisbert Grifo, Maria Brion, Angel Carracedo, João Lavinha, Begoña Martínez-Jarreta, Lluis Quintana-Murci, Antònia Picornell, Misericordia Ramon, Karl Skorecki, Doron M. Behar, Francesc Calafell and Mark A. Jobling, “The Genetic Legacy of Religious Diversity and Intolerance: Paternal Lineages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula” in The American Journal of Human Genetics Vol. 83 (Bethesda 2008), pp. 725-736, DOI 10.1016/j.ajhg.2008.11.007 (open access). Twenty authors seems like enough, really, although I can’t help feeling that they could also have credited the historian they consulted with (see below) and, after all, this is very far from the most extreme case of multiple authorship I can think of.

2. For the known history, they appealed to Dolors Bramon (ibid. p. 734, Acknowledgements), who is the current expert on what is to be learnt about Christian Iberian history from Islamic sources; her little anthology, De Quan Erem o No Musulmans: Textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’Obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa (Vic 2000), is a frequent source of great help to me. So that was an unusually good choice, really, but apparently not a research contribution. Hmph.

3. Adams et al., “Genetic Legacy”, p. 727, citing E. Bosch, F. Calafell, D. Comas, P. J. Oefner, P. A. Underhill and J. Bertranpetit, “High-resolution analysis of human Y-chromosome variation shows a sharp discontinuity and limited gene flow between Northwestern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula” in American Journal of Human Genetics Vol. 68 (Bethesda 2001), pp. 1019–1029, and B. Arredi, E. S. Poloni, S. Paracchini, T. Zerjal, D. M. Fathallah, M. Makrelouf, V. L. Pascali, A. Novelletto and C. Tyler-Smith, “A predominantly neolithic origin for Y-chromosomal DNA variation in North Africa”, ibid. Vol. 75 (2004), pp. 338–345.

4. Adams et al., “Genetic Legacy”, p. 727 and describing work by Doron M. Behar and Karl Skorecki; the data is tabulated in the online version of the paper as “Haplogroups and Y-STR Haplotypes of Iberian Peninsula and Sephardic Jewish Samples” here (PDF).

5. Here as elsewhere, the sample from Asturias is just too small to allow significant conclusions, which may be just as well considering how much that one would expect is missing from it. This gives me pause, again, about drawing conclusions too far from the other areas with proportionally lower representation in the samples, including not least Minorca of course.

6. For the somewhat localised nature of the Andalusi state, I am used to citing Eduardo Manzano Moreno, La frontera de al-Andalus en la época de los Omeyas, Bibliotheca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991), though I had the great pleasure of meeting the author this week and he tells me that he would now revise most of it! Extremely frustrating, as I have come to see it as canonical, which may be exactly why he would like to change it. Anyway. For place-names and settlement, the work of resort is by Pierre Guichard, either in French as Structures sociales « orientales » et « occidentales » dans l’Espagne musulmane (Paris 1977) or trans. into Castilian & rev. as Al-Andalus. Estructura antropológica de una sociedad islámica en Occidente (Granada 1998), though Dr Manzano tells me this too must be considered obsolete now. I don’t know if I’d agree there (or, it turns out, with quite a lot else Dr Manzano would argue, which was fun; more on this in due course). Compare Jessica A. Coope, “Marriage, Kinship, and Islamic Law in Al-Andalus: Reflections on Pierre Guichard’s Al-Ándalus” in al-Masaq Vol. 20 (London 2008), pp. 161-177, which is interesting because it disagrees with Guichard in exactly the opposite direction to Dr Manzano. For an English introduction to these issues, albeit a controversial one, see Roger Collins, The Arab Conquest of Spain, 710-797, History of Spain 4 (Oxford 1989). Collins caught it from the critics here because he effectively refuses to use Arabic historical writing, reckoning it all far too late and legendary to be anything other than misleading. There is also, of course, the fact that he doesn’t read Arabic, and this makes him an easy critical target because of course how can he know what he’s missing? but if you compare the exactly contemporary and much more traditional ‘Abdul Wahid Dhanun Taha, The Muslim Conquest and Settlement of North Africa and Spain (London 1989), I would say that it is fairly clear that Collins had a point. The fact that we can get three books like Collins, Taha and Guichard all purportedly telling the same story and disagreeing so incredibly (to say nothing of Manzano’s Frontera) is a measure of how charged these debates are. Without that charge, after all, how could we ever have had the now-legendary Ignacio Olagué, Les Arabes n’ont jamais envahi l’Espagne (Paris 1960, 2nd edn. 1973), to which cf. Pierre Guichard, “Les Arabes ont bien envahi l’Espagne : les structures sociales de l’Espagne musulmane” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 29 (Paris 1974), pp. 1483-1513. I may have become sidetracked here.

7. Adams et al., “Genetic Legacy”, pp. 732-733.

8. Testified to even in the Christian Chronicle of 754, also known as The Mozarabic Chronicle though `Mozarab’ is one of those words that means too many things and should be retired, as translated in Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Translated Texts for Historians 9 (Liverpool 1990, 2nd edn. 1999), pp. 111-160 with commentary pp. 25-42, cc. 82-86 in which the chronicler helpfully tells us that he wrote a whole book about this already so won’t repeat himself here. Do we have the book? No, we do not. Ah well. Nonetheless, it is this proximity to events that caused Collins to favour Christian sources over the Arabic ones. On the difficulties with the term `Mozarab’, see Richard Hitchcoock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: identities and influences (Aldershot 2008), passim but esp. pp ix-xx.

9. Roger Collins, Visigothic Spain 409-711, History of Spain 3 (Oxford 2004), pp. 25-26.

10. On which you can see the brief and bracing statements of Guy Halsall, who risks Godwin’s Law at an early stage of a book by comparing Celticism to Germanism in his Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 24-25.

Cambridge to Siena and back part two: the actual conference

The Università per Stranieri in Siena is just opposite the station, a little way out of town proper. This had the rather strange advantage that I could walk in with my bags and register, more or less straight off the train. I almost immediately ran into Eileen Joy too, which added to the feeling that I’d walked into a weird parallel-universe version of the Academy. The New Chaucer Society are to be congratulated on the quality of their freebies and the friendliness of the staff, and also on the quality of the nibbles and the coffee, though the latter did keep running out. It being, you know, a university in Italy, I don’t believe they can have been unprepared for how much Italian coffee conferring academics can drink, I think it was just parsimony somewhere which was a pity. Otherwise, though, initial impressions good.

Università per Stranieri

Università per Stranieri, Siena

Unfortunately I now tried to be clever. I decided that I didn’t really stand to get much out of the keynote, but that I could use that time finding my hotel, getting a much-needed shower and then popping back down for sessions that looked more likely to interest me. Sounds cunning doesn’t it? But friends, it is hot in Italy around midday in July. By the time I found the hotel, with only one wrong turn but a long one, caused by a road with both its ends on the same roundabout (see reflections on Siena’s geography elsewhere for context to this sort of confusion), I was very much more in need of a shower than I had been. And I was too early for check-in, which opened at the same time as the sessions I wished to return to, so they wouldn’t let me in. The guy on the desk could have been less helpful, but only by refusing to speak English. So I had to climb back down the hill in the full afternoon sun, with all the same bags I’d schlepped up there. And of course I’d had really very little sleep, so this came hard and I sweated the more. I arrived back at the conference with white bands across my shirt where the bag straps had rubbed my sweat dry and very much less than presentable. So bad did I look and feel that I dived into the loos to try and sponge down a bit, both me and the evil-smelling shirt, and found that of the two men’s loos one had a working dryer and one had working taps, if by working you mean they ran for two seconds if you held your hands just right beneath them. It was not easy to look like a scholar or indeed smell like one in these circumstances. I later discovered in fact that more or less everyone was feeling like this, because the room containing the keynote had had no functioning air conditioning, but I still think I looked more obviously freaky than most because of the sweat-stains, which I could only partially wash out with the resources to hand, so I spent most of the day shamefacedly keeping safe distances from people and trying not to stink, which probably didn’t help me make friends.1 As you may imagine, my good impression of the Università per Stranieri’s facilities had now sunk rather.

Università per Stranieri

All very fine till the air conditioning fails

But, I was indubitably at at least part of the 17th Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society, on the 17th July 2010, my notes tell me so. So, the papers!

45. Animal Theories and Methodologies

I chose this one because it looked like the best opportunity I’d ever get to collect a set of legends, Bruce Holsinger and Carolyn Dinshaw being names I’ve seen in many a place, spoken with awe or envy often, but until now names only. So this was something of an education.

  • Bruce Holsinger, “Membrane Æsthetics”. This was a cunning conceit, which Professor Holsinger set up with the idea of extracting DNA from manuscript parchment. We know this can be done, of course, albeit not yet with useful results, and he mentioned most of the projects doing it (though not Michael Drout‘s, to which I took the liberty of alerting him afterwards). Then he set about describing one that he was purportedly involved in but had had to abort when it transpired that, as he revealed in deadpan Hammer horror style, “the parchment… is human!”
    Christ in Majesty in the Codex Amiatinus

    Christ in Majesty from the Codex Amiatinus, ink and dyes on sheepskin

    This was of course a spoof, but the idea was presumably to get us reflecting on the sheer amount of death involved in medieval manuscript culture. Yes, it probably took 500 sheep to make the Codex Amiatinus (I pulled that figure out of the air, but of that order I believe), we take this too easily—500 sheep man, that’s how many families’ entire herds? How many individual throats cut and bled out? More than the monks could eat, we can be fairly sure. Yes, OK, we do forget this too easily. (Though it bothers us far more than the people of the time, presumably.) And of course the idea was—I supposed, he merely said, “was I doing that?” when it was suggested—to reinstil the appropriate horror to the source material.

    Skulls in the burial pit at Ridgeway, Dorset

    Skulls of dead Vikings unearthed at the Ridgeway, Dorset


    Now, this bothered me, but it took me a while to work out why, fully. My notes indicate some frustration: I find “[cf. eating]” signalling my recognition that this is in some ways just the vegetarianism debate again: in what ways and for what purpose is it acceptable for humans to kill animals? But more annoyingly yet, it finally came to me, look, there are actually a whole bunch of people out there whose subject material is actually human remains, they’re called archæologists. And they, especially in Prof. Holsinger’s country of employment what with NAGPRA, face these dilemmas that he had jokingly raised, for real all the time and it’s not funny. So I thought in the end that by trying to make animal work more serious he wound up diminishing those who work on the human in a direct way, and thus opening questions he hadn’t really given any space to at the cost of the point he actually seemed to be making.

    Can it be a bad paper that makes one think so, you might ask? And should I really be annoyed, therefore? Am I actually failing to demote the human from its state of privilege and thus fundamentally out of step with the session’s ethic? Or was he just floating something about which taste and interdisciplinarity might both have counselled wider frames of reference? I leave that to you to decide.

  • Sara Schotland, “Talking Bird/Gentle Heart: bonding between women and across species in the Squire’s Tale“, argued that the bird in the Squire’s Tale that consoles the heroine needs to be read as dually female and animal, and not together; it’s almost Christological. She also suggested that Chaucer here let women express themselves through painting, thus giving them access to authorship. This is tangled stuff for someone like me still wrangling with intentionality and authorship, so I’ll move on.
  • Petrarch's preserved cat

    Petrarch's allegd cat


    Sarah Stanbury, “Derrida’s Cat”, working off Derrida and setting out of how the category of animal is one that has historically licensed and still licenses genocide (though see of course the vegetarianism debate referenced above) and yet seems to end, in this respect, at the doorstep over which the pet may cross, and then took this into the Miller’s Tale where a cat is allowed to pass into the scholar’s otherwise private space thus enabling the narrative. Sadly, the third and only surviving, physically at least, cat mentioned, Petrarch’s, is likely to be a fake. I liked this paper, it was both sparklingly clever and had a point that even one so non-literary as me could grasp.
  • Lastly, Carolyn Dinshaw, “It’s Not Easy Being Green”, scoring easy points with the audience with the title alone, then went deep into the iconography of the Green Man, a figure who turns up repeatedly in medieval church architecture and appears to have subcutaneous foliage. My notes may be simplest:

    This flouts boundary between human and plant, organism and environment, deconstructing whole world by dissolving absolute separation of our categories: “nothing exists independently”. Subcutaneous foliage! Under-things under things… A horror of interdependency betrays our incompleteness and provokes fright/fight reaction. We should stop being part of something bigger and work on intimacy, which is queer and terrible.

    She has the gift for this stuff, does Professor Dinshaw and it was easy to see why she’s become so legendary.

    Green Man at Llangwm Church, Monmouthshire

    Green Man at Llangwm Church, Monmouthshire; loads more linked through

  • So that was a good one to end with, and there were lots of questions, not least from Karl Steel and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, about animals and materiality respectively, and Mary Kate Hurley suggesting that animals’ wishes (like the cat that wants to go out) ought to lead us to question our self-determination. Mary, blog more will you? Cheers. (These people get mentioned because I knew them by name; there were other fine questions asked too, especially about parchment production by people who knew their stuff, but I can’t name them alas.) All lively and clever, anyway, even if far out of any field where I could say who was saying new things and who wasn’t. Sadly, I didn’t quit there.

51. Latin and its Rivals, 2: Chronicles in the Age of Chaucer

I chose this because it looked like the most hardcore historical thing on offer and I figured it would be nice to get back to an area where I could evaluate a bit more rather than being dazzled by big smiles, human and non-human warmth and bait-and-switch rhetoric. I was quite wrong.

  • George B. Stow, “The Author of the Continuation of the Eulogium Historiarum
  • Sylvia Federico Bates, “Walsingham’s Dictys in Chaucer’s Troilyus and Crisede
  • Andrew Prescott, “Thomas Walsingham and the Peasant’s Revolt”
  • James G. Clark, “The Audience of the Monastic Chronicler in late Medieval England”
  • Neither Bates nor Prescott had actually been able to get there, and their papers were therefore read for them. Not a good start, but actually those were the better two, short (despite not being in control of the text) and punchy; I enjoyed the Prescott paper so much that I wound up fruitlessly engaging the guy who’d given it about it afterwards, to little avail as of course it wasn’t his work. Stow overran by ten minutes and I personally tuned out when he revealed that he was summarising a paper in EHR.2 And Clark, I don’t know how much he overran by because I was the second person to walk out, I gather he went on right till the end of the session and nobody stopped him. It wasn’t uninteresting, even, being as he was suggesting that chronicles were actually getting out of their houses and being read, for example, at universities, but some of the audience might have liked to discuss at least a bit…

Anyway, there it was. Realising that I still wouldn’t be able to get to the hotel I made another slightly more successful attempt to wash and brush up and dry out—I must have been doing something right as I was told I resembled Johnny Depp by a lady I shan’t name and shame; before I had the beard I only ever got compared to Hugh Grant—and headed for dinner. Dinner, at a place called the Enoteca Italiana, was gorgeous, I mean sumptuous, I could see immediately why the conference fee had been so high and suddenly I didn’t mind. They served excellent wine and rather good food (albeit with almost no vegetables…) to a gathering of maybe a hundred and twenty people without let or hindrance and we all left very merry. Also, I found myself accidentally sitting at the same table as Derek Pearsall, for one, someone I knew vaguely from London with whom I turned out to have a lot in common for two, and last but not least Dr Virago, who is awesome (as indeed I had been told, but it’s always nice to find one’s friends are right). A wander through the streets afterwards with various of the party and some less recordable discussion was a welcome tonic too, and when I did, eventually, get into my room at the hotel, and shower at LAST, I was able to sleep sound and satisfied.

I have no notes on what happened the next morning, which is hardly surprising because it was US (as in, we have seen the enemy and he is…)

60. Blogging, Virtual Communities, and Medieval Studies

  • Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Blogging Past, Present and Askew
  • Carl S. Pyrdum III, who is ‘kind of a big deal’, “Blogging on the Margins: Got Medieval, Medieval Blogging, and Mainstream Readership”
  • Stephanie Trigg, “How do you find the time? Work, pleasure, time and blogging”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “An Englishman’s blog is his castle: names, freedom and control in medievalist blogging”
  • David Lawton, “Response”
  • I thought we were pretty awesome personally, as were our various learned commentators, blogarific and otherwise, but it’s weird how little any of us have blogged about it. My paper’s here, with the Powerpoint presentation here, for what it’s worth; I don’t see myself doing anything further with it, but I should warn you that it’s nothing like as humane as Jeffrey’s or as deep as Stephanie’s, and features 100% fewer robot Chaucers than Carl’s. Mainly what we learn from this panel, I think, is that it’s a very bad idea to let me near the controls of a computer with a live Internet connection that’s hooked up to a projector. The urge to improvise illustrations for other people’s remarks is very very strong.

Now after that I went to find lunch with Eileen Joy and Karl and Mary and a range of other people less blogular but equally good company, and it was nice, and then thanks to Eileen’s great kindness in letting me drop stuff in their flat for a short while, I was able to actually do some touristing. And that will come post after next, but first, I am long overdue with a range of important newses and they will come next.


1. But would embracing the stench have helped more, that’s the question isn’t it. I like to think mine was the path of a gentleman.

2. “The Continuation of the Eulogium Historiarum: Some Revisionist Perspectives” in English Historical Review Vol. 119 (Oxford 2004), pp. 667-681, if that’s of interest.

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

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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.

Manuscript DNA: an addendum

A follow-up to this post in which I talked about a John Hopkins University project to use DNA matching from parchment to try and pin down the origins of medieval manuscripts: one commentator expressed surprise that this hadn’t already been thought of, and of course it turns out it has, by no less a figure than Professor Michael Drout of Wormtalk and Slugspeak, who has now written as much there. It seems that I had forgotten his 2007 post about a project of his with very similar bases, which I rather regret. However, as Prof. Drout’s blog only allows comments from Google accounts, I can’t apologise there. Instead I will say, that if you were interested by this possibility, you should go and have a look at Prof. Drout’s new post because it goes into some details about the difficulties his team has encountered and explores the methodology a bit more clearly than the JHU press release, which largely discussed the theory. And, as he says, if it’s to work it will only work through large samples, so plural teams trying it is not necessarily a bad thing. All the same, I like to recognise claims to prior art.

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 about.com 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.