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Medieval Gospel Made of Sheep, Calves, Deer … and Goat?

Laura Geggel reports: During medieval times, bookmakers fashioned the pages and cover of a rare copy of the Gospel of Luke out of five different types of animals: calves, two species of deer, sheep and goat, according to new research.

In addition, one more type of animal left its mark on the cover of this 12th-century book: Beetle larvae likely chewed holes into the leather binding, the researchers said.

Now, researchers are learning unexpected secrets about the manuscript by noninvasively testing the proteins and DNA on the book’s pages, the researchers told Live Science.

Rare books — such as this copy of the Gospel of Luke — are difficult to study because they’re fragile, prompting many librarians to bar any research that would harm such manuscripts or their pages.

This rule is all too familiar to Matthew Collins, a biochemist at both the University of York in the United Kingdom and the University of Copenhagen. He wanted to sample parchments — documents made from animal skins — as a way to determine how people have managed livestock throughout history.

When Collins and Sarah Fiddyment, a postdoctoral fellow of archaeology at the University of York, approached librarians at the University of York’s Borthwick Institute for Archives, “we were told that we would not be allowed to physically sample any of the parchment documents, as they are too valuable as cultural-heritage objects,” Fiddyment told Live Science.

But Fiddyment didn’t give up. She spent several months learning how librarians conserve rare parchments, and, surprisingly, found a new method that allows scientists to study these specimens without disturbing them — one that involves an eraser.

Typically, librarians “dry clean” parchments by gently rubbing a polyvinyl chloride eraser against them. This technique pulls fibers off the page, and the resulting debris is usually thrown away.

But Fiddyment realized this debris held valuable clues about the book. By isolating proteins and other biological fragments within the debris, and examining them with a mass spectrometer — an instrument that identifies different compounds by their masses — researchers could learn all kinds of information about the manuscripts, she found.

“This was Sarah’s brilliant idea,” Collins told Live Science in an email. “Oddly enough, I think we relished the challenge.”

It wasn’t long before Fiddyment put this technique into action. A historian bought the aforementioned Gospel of Luke at a 2009 Southeby’s auction. An analysis of its “prickly” style of script indicated that scribes at St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, in the United Kingdom, created it around A.D. 1120, Bruce Barker-Benfield, the curator of manuscripts at the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, told the journal Science.

To learn more about the gospel, the historian contacted Collins. Using Fiddyment’s method, Collins and his colleagues learned that the book’s white leather cover came from the skin of a roe deer— a common species in the United Kingdom. The book’s strap came from a larger deer species — either a native red deer or a fallow deer, an invasive species likely brought from continental Europe after the Normans invaded in 1066. Read the rest of this entry »

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