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That’s Why the Lady is a Scribe: Dental Analysis Solves a Medieval Mystery

That’s Why the Lady is a Scribe: Dental Analysis Solves a Medieval Mystery

A woman scribe

Recently, a pair of researchers stumbled onto a fascinating proof of women in the medieval workforce. Anita Radini of the University of York was seeking to unlock the mysteries of diets via starch particles preserved in dental tartar, and Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute was after the DNA of ancient oral bacteria. But, as they both looked at the teeth embedded in the skull of a German nun dead for a thousand years, they saw something unexpected. Something… blue??
 
The blue was a pigment, suspended in the mystery sister’s dental plaque. After few calls to fellow experts and some further laboratory work, Radini and Warinner determined it to be ultramarine, a super-rare and expensive pigment made from the ground-up semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, and used in the illumination of religious manuscripts. It turns out that task of illumination was not just entrusted to the stereotypical monks — because of the evidence of ultramarine in her dental plaque, the former occupant of the mystery skull was determined to be a scribe. And, considering how pricy ultramarine was, she must have been good.
 
“[Fellow expert and historian Allison] Beach even came across a letter dated to the year 1168, in which a bookkeeper of a men’s monastery commissions sister ‘N’ to produce a deluxe manuscript using luxury materials such as parchment, leather, and silk. The monastery where sister ‘N’ lived is only 40 miles from Dalheim, where the teeth with lapis lazuli were found. Beach also identified a book using lapis lazuli that was written by a female scribe in Germany around AD 1200. The pigment would have traveled nearly 4,000 miles from Afghanistan to Europe via the Silk Road. All the evidence suggests that female scribes were indeed making books that used lapis lazuli pigment in the same area and around the same time this woman was alive.”
 
Before this proof was found, some folks were throwing up hilarious roadblocks to this medieval artisan getting her due, going so far as to postulate the lapis lazuli got in her teeth because she was tasked with cleaning up the monks’ workroom. As a woman in business, I can’t help but roll my eyes at this — plus ça change, am I right? But I also salute this ancestor who blazed her own, brilliant blue path through her industry. (And the science that brought her work to light!)