Phylogenetics of medieval manuscripts

Phylogenetics of medieval manuscripts

Lecture by Christopher Howe

Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge

Given on December 17, 2007

Length: 35 minutes

There are remarkable similarities between the error-prone copying of DNA sequences and the incorporation of errors by scribes as they copied manuscripts in the days before printing. Since the mid-19th century, manuscript scholars have used the distribution of ‘common errors’ to try to reconstruct the copying history of sets of manuscripts in a very labour-intensive way. We have shown that phylogenetic tree-building programs can be a powerful tool for scholars to analyse manuscript copying history much more rapidly than before. Of particular interest is the phenomenon of ‘contamination’, where a scribe would use more than one version of a text in constructing a copy. This has obvious parallels to lateral gene transfer and recombination. We are also interested in analysing DNA from the parchment itself to provide insights into medieval husbandry patterns as well as manuscript provenance.

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