Photo by Daniel Schwen
A friend pointed me to this recent article in Scientific American about the emerging use of DNA testing on medieval manuscripts. Because medieval manuscripts were generally written on parchment (usually from cows, but sometimes sheep or goats), it's possible to get DNA from the manuscripts and determine if folios are from the same animal or related animals. Given that so much of the work of dating manuscripts is interpretive--examining the text, the handwriting, the abbreviations used--it would be exciting to see what we could find out from using a different set of methods. If we know that a manuscript was written at a particular place (if, for example, the scribe identified himself or his location) but DNA testing on the parchment revealed that the skins came from animals more common to places distant from the scribe, we might be able to learn more about trade routes.
This kind of scientistic approach has yielded wonderful insights in other areas of medieval history. For example, garnets used in Merovingian jewelry (6th-8th centuries) came from the Czech Republic, but also as far away as Scandinavia or the Indian sub-continent. This recent book, which arose from a conference at Harvard, outlines some of the ways that science can inform medieval history, with often exciting results.