It wasn’t just monks who scribed and illustrated elaborate religious texts
Remnants of a rare pigment found in dental tartar of a woman buried around 1,000 years ago at a medieval monastery indicate that she may have been an elite scribe or book painter.
These pigment flecks come from ultramarine, a rare blue pigment made by grinding lapis lazuli stone imported from Afghanistan into powder, say archaeologist Anita Radini of the University of York in England and her colleagues. Elaborately illustrated religious manuscripts produced during Europe’s Middle Ages, from around 1,600 to 500 years ago, were sometimes decorated with rare and expensive materials, including ultramarine and gold leaf. The new discovery, reported January 9 in Science Advances, supports recent historical research suggesting that it wasn’t just monks who prepared these richly decorated books. Nuns did, too.
Based on the distribution of pigment in her mouth, the woman was probably licking the end of a brush in order to create a fine point while painting, the researchers say.
Other scenarios are possible, but less likely, they say. The woman might have prepared paint and pigment for herself or other bookmakers, consumed powdered lapis lazuli for its alleged healing powers or ritually kissed painted figures while reading from prayer books, a practice known from the late Middle Ages.
No books survive from the Dalheim monastery, which was destroyed by a fire in the 14th century, and little is known about its former residents. But the finding suggests that tartar analyses can help to identify other people who produced books in medieval European religious communities.
A. Radini et al. Medieval women’s early involvement in manuscript production suggested by lapis lazuli identification in dental calculus. Science Advances. Published online January 9, 2019. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aau7126.
B. Bower. Ancient Maya bookmakers get paged in Guatemala. Science News. Vol. 187, February 21, 2015, p. 14.