SCI­ENCE AND NA­TURE Teeth show woman was me­dieval scribe

Rare ev­i­dence that women in­volved in cre­at­ing il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts

Times Colonist - - Life - CHRISTINA LAR­SON


About 1,000 years ago, a woman in Ger­many died and was buried in an un­marked grave in a church ceme­tery. No record of her life sur­vived, and no his­to­rian had rea­son to won­der who she was. But when mod­ern sci­en­tists ex­am­ined her dug-up re­mains, they dis­cov­ered some­thing pe­cu­liar — bril­liant blue flecks in the tar­tar on her teeth.

And that has cast new light on the role of women and art in me­dieval Europe.

The blue par­ti­cles, it turns out, were lapis lazuli, a semi-pre­cious stone that was highly prized at the time for its vivid colour and was ground up and used as a pig­ment.

From that, sci­en­tists con­cluded the woman was an artist in­volved in cre­at­ing il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts — a task usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with monks.

The dis­cov­ery is con­sid­ered the most di­rect ev­i­dence yet of a par­tic­u­lar woman tak­ing part in the mak­ing of high-qual­ity il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts, the lav­ishly il­lus­trated re­li­gious and sec­u­lar texts of the Mid­dle Ages. And it cor­rob­o­rates other find­ings that sug­gest fe­male ar­ti­sans were not as rare as pre­vi­ously thought.

“It’s kind of a bomb­shell for my field — it’s so rare to find ma­te­rial ev­i­dence of women’s artis­tic and lit­er­ary work in the Mid­dle Ages,” said Ali­son Beach, a pro­fes­sor of me­dieval his­tory at Ohio State Univer­sity.

“Be­cause things are much bet­ter doc­u­mented for men, it’s en­cour­aged peo­ple to imag­ine a male world. This helps us cor­rect that bias. This tooth opens a win­dow on what ac­tiv­i­ties women also were en­gaged in.”

Though her name re­mains un­known, the woman buried in the Ger­man church­yard was prob­a­bly a highly skilled artist and scribe.

Ul­tra­ma­rine, as the pow­dered form of lapis lazuli is known, was the finest and most ex­pen­sive pig­ment in me­dieval Europe, more valu­able even than gold.

The stone came from a sin­gle source: the mines of Afghanistan. Be­cause of the cost of car­ry­ing it to Europe, ul­tra­ma­rine was re­served for the most im­por­tant and well-funded artis­tic projects.

“If she was us­ing lapis lazuli, she was prob­a­bly very, very good,” said Beach, co-au­thor of a re­port pub­lished last week in the jour­nal Sci­ence Ad­vances. “She must have been ar­tis­ti­cally skilled and ex­pe­ri­enced.”

The re­searchers pored over old paint­ing man­u­als to form a hy­poth­e­sis as to how the woman got blue flecks in her teeth: She pe­ri­od­i­cally licked the tip of her brush to bring it to a fine point for de­tailed work.

“If you picture some­one in the Mid­dle Ages mak­ing a fine il­lu­mi­nated man­u­script, you prob­a­bly picture a monk — a man,” Beach said.

That’s in part be­cause monas­ter­ies kept bet­ter records than fe­male re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions did, and be­cause men were more likely to sign their works, she said.

In re­cent years, scholars have iden­ti­fied in­di­rect doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence that women par­tic­i­pated in mak­ing the ex­pen­sive, hand­crafted books that re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties used be­fore the in­ven­tion of the print­ing press.

For in­stance, a 12th-cen­tury Ger­man let­ter com­mis­sioned a li­tur­gi­cal book to be pro­duced by “sis­ter ‘N’.”

The sci­en­tists ar­rived at the lat­est dis­cov­ery by ac­ci­dent. A build­ing ren­o­va­tion in 1989 un­cov­ered the woman’s tomb, along with those of other women who were ap­par­ently part of a fe­male re­li­gious com­mu­nity at­tached to the church.

Ra­dio­car­bon dat­ing of the skele­ton re­vealed the 45- to 60year-old woman died be­tween 997 and 1162.

In 2011, a team of sci­en­tists de­cided to use the fairly new tech­nique of an­a­lyz­ing hard­ened de­posits on the teeth — tar­tar — to gather in­for­ma­tion on long-ago di­ets. Mi­cro­scopic traces of an­cient wheat starch, for ex­am­ple, can be found in tar­tar.

“Tar­tar is re­ally amaz­ing,” said co-au­thor Christina Warin­ner, an an­thro­pol­o­gist who stud­ies an­cient mi­cro­biomes at the Max Planck In­sti­tute in Ger­many. “It’s like a lit­tle time cap­sule from your life.”

But Anita Ra­dini, an arche­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of York in Bri­tain, saw some­thing un­der the mi­cro­scope she wasn’t ex­pect­ing: “It looked like nothing I had seen be­fore — bright blue par­ti­cles, al­most like robins’ eggs.”

The re­searchers ruled out other bluish pig­ments com­mon in the Mid­dle Ages, which mostly were made with mix­tures of cop­per, cobalt or iron. None of those met­als were present.

They used what is known as mi­cro-Ra­man spec­troscopy to iden­tify the par­ti­cles.

“I was com­pletely sur­prised it was lapis lazuli,” Warin­ner said. “It’s very rare and very ex­pen­sive.” She added: “There is no lapis lazuli in the burial en­vi­ron­ment. The only way it could have got­ten into her teeth is be­cause she was de­lib­er­ately us­ing it in some way.”

Alexis Ha­gadorn, who is head of con­ser­va­tion at Co­lum­bia Univer­sity Libraries and was not in­volved in the study, called the find “very ex­cit­ing.”

“While there are some archival records that iden­tify in­di­vid­ual me­dieval scribes, most of the pro­duc­ers of me­dieval books re­main stub­bornly anony­mous,” she said.

“This study is un­prece­dented in us­ing arche­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence from hu­man re­mains to sug­gest a di­rect con­nec­tion be­tween an in­di­vid­ual and the work of the scribes who cre­ated the most sump­tu­ously dec­o­rated books.”

Me­dieval women’s artis­tic and lit­er­ary work “has been open to chal­lenges and ques­tions, since we rarely have signed images or iden­ti­fi­able ‘named’ fe­male artists,” said Fiona Grif­fiths, a his­to­rian of the me­dieval pe­riod at Stan­ford Univer­sity, who was not in­volved in the study.

“Here we have ev­i­dence of a fe­male scribe/artist,” not from a sec­ond­hand source, “but from residues in her mouth.”


A me­dieval woman’s lower jaw shows pig­ment from lapis lazuli, a semi-pre­cious stone prized for its vivid colour. Re­searchers hy­poth­e­size the woman worked on il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts and pe­ri­od­i­cally licked the tip of her brush to bring it to a fine point.

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