DNA testing to unlock mysteries of medieval manuscripts

Washington: The presence of thousands of painstakingly handwritten and compiled books from medieval Europe have intrigued scholars about when and where they originated.

Now a researcher from North Carolina State University (NCSU) is relying on the latest genetic tools to work out techniques that will shed light on the origins of these important cultural artefacts.

Many medieval manuscripts were scripted on parchment (animal skin) and NCSU assistant professor of English, Timothy Stinson is working to perfect techniques for extracting and analysing the DNA in these skins.

Each manuscript can provide a wealth of genetic data, Stinson explained, because a typical medieval parchment book includes the skins of more than 100 animals.

His long term goal is to create a genetic database
that can be used to determine when and where a manuscript was written.

"Dating and localising manuscripts have historically presented persistent problems," Stinson said, "because they have largely been based on the handwriting and dialect of the scribes who created the manuscripts - techniques that have proven unreliable for a number of reasons."

Stinson said genetic testing could resolve these issues by creating a baseline using the DNA of parchment found in the relatively small number of manuscripts that can be reliably dated and localised.

Once Stinson has created a baseline of DNA markers with known dates and localities, he can take samples from manuscripts of unknown origin. Stinson can then determine what degree of relationship there is between the animals whose skins were used in manuscripts of unknown origin and those used in the baseline manuscripts.

Stinson hopes this DNA comparison will enable him to identify genetic similarities that would indicate the general time and locale where a book was written.

On a larger scale, Stinson says, this research "will also allow us to trace the trade route of parchments" throughout the medieval world - a scholarly achievement that would provide a wealth of data on the evolution of the book industry during the Middle Ages, said an NCSU release.

Stinson will be presenting his findings at the annual meeting of the Bibliographical Society of America in New York City on Jan 23.