13 January 2009

DNA: Tracing medieval manuscripts

DNA testing may unlock secrets of medieval manuscripts according to an article at ScienceNews.com. This interesting article may result in advances in various research areas including the Jewish world and genealogy.

Thousands of painstakingly handwritten books produced in medieval Europe still exist today, but scholars have long struggled with questions about when and where the majority of these works originated. Now a researcher from North Carolina State University is using modern advances in genetics to develop techniques that will shed light on the origins of these important cultural artifacts.

Many medieval manuscripts were written on parchment made from animal skin, and NC State Assistant Professor of English Timothy Stinson is working to perfect techniques for extracting and analyzing the DNA contained in these skins with the long-term goal of creating a genetic database that can be used to determine when and where a manuscript was written.

"Dating and localizing manuscripts have historically presented persistent problems," Stinson says, "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."

The researcher believes genetic testing could resolve such issues by creating a baseline using the parchment DNA of a relatively small number of manuscripts that can be reliably dated and localized. Each may provide rich genetic data as a typical medieval parchment book includes more than 100 animal skins.

He intends to create a baseline DNA database of known dates and localities and can then take samples from unknown manuscripts and compare them to determine the relationship degree between them. He hopes this comparison will make it possible to identify genetic similarities indicating 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.

On January 23 in New York City, Stinson will present early research findings at the annual meeting of the Bibliographical Society of America, as one of three researchers asked to participate in the society's New Scholars Program for 2009. Research funding came from the Digital Research and Curation Center at Johns Hopkins University and the Council on Library and Information Resources.

Read the complete article at the link above. On the surface, I think this new technique may prove valuable in uncovering valuable data concerning Jewish manuscripts held in archives, libraries and private family collections around the world.

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