Measuring medieval users’ responses to manuscripts: new technological approaches

What can the pollen and stains found in medieval manuscripts tell us about how they were used? Kathryn Rudy is collaborating with environmental and forensic scientists to find out

Medieval books are among the most enduring testaments of pre-modern culture. Inscribed on organic parchment, manuscripts’ signs of wear are self-documenting, recording how they have been handled, transported, upgraded, exposed, and used ritualistically. I will develop four techniques to quantitatively investigate how medieval manuscripts were used: pollen analysis, three-dimensional photography, parchment thickness analysis, and DNA analysis of stains. 

Some medieval manuscripts have extra texts and images for taking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But did owners take such manuscripts to Jerusalem and use the texts as they were intended, to walk from site to site while reciting prayers, or were such books used as imaginative guides for those who did not actually leave Europe? To answer this question, I will work with environmental scientist Dr Eileen Tisdall (Stirling) to collect dust samples from the gutters of these books and submit them to palynological analysis. Pollen, which is in the air all the time, comes from plants that are regionally specific. An object such as a book would trap some of this pollen within its pages. If a manuscript made in Bruges contains pollen from Palestine, it is highly likely that it had been taken on a pilgrimage abroad. Through this study, we can better understand which books people carried on long voyages. 

Surgical manuscript written and illuminated in Bologna, with curious brown splatters (Leiden University Library)

The second project involves how doctors used books. A manuscript made in Bologna in the fourteenth century (Leiden University Library, Ms. Vlf3; fig. 1) contains two texts: elaborate illustrated instructions for performing surgery on various body parts, and descriptions of diseases for which there is no cure. Folios in the former are splattered with red-brown fluid, and have hundreds of annotations in the margins. Folios in the latter are relatively clean, as if mortal diseases did not hold as much interest for the book’s early users. I want to know how fourteenth-century people used this book. To do so, I propose to transcribe the annotations, which further specify the diseases and their cures, and to test the brown stains with DNA analysis. 

For this component I will work with Dr Jan Cemper-Kiesslich (Dept of Legal Medicine, University of Salzburg), a forensic specialist with extensive experience in sampling from fragile substrates. He will identify the species of the stains. Perhaps medieval surgeons were practising on pigs or other species! If the sample is human, he will take a DNA-fingerprint including sex-markers and pathological markers, to show the genders and possibly the diseases of the patients. I will coordinate the blood ‘gloss’ and the fourteenth-century annotations to better understand how such a surgical manuscript might have enhanced the practice of medicine in the period. Did medieval doctors take the books into surgery with them?

Central to all my questions is the role of the physical book in various settings. These questions are of particular importance to us in 2018 as the forms of books and our habits with them shift dramatically. 

Professor Kathryn M. Rudy
University of St Andrews
Major Research Fellowship