The York Gospels: a one thousand year biological palimpsest
By Matthew D. Teasdale et al.
Published Online (2017)
Abstract: Medieval manuscripts, carefully curated and conserved, represent not only an irreplaceable documentary record but also a remarkable reservoir of biological information. Palaeographic and codicological investigation can often locate and date these documents with remarkable precision. The York Gospels (York Minster Ms. Add. 1) is one such codex, one of only a small collection of pre-conquest Gospel books to have survived the Reformation. By extending the non-invasive triboelectric (eraser-based) sampling technique eZooMS, to include the analysis of DNA we report a cost effective and simple-to-use biomolecular sampling technique.
We apply this combined methodology to document for the first time a rich palimpsest of biological information contained within the York Gospels, which has accumulated over the 1,000 year lifespan of this cherished object that remains an active participant in the life of York Minster. This biological data provides insights into the decisions made in the selection of materials, the construction of the codex and the use history of the object.
Introduction: Illuminated manuscripts are objects of great worth and value, often in the past elaborately decorated and bound, emphasising their importance, not only as literary texts but also as physical objects of intrinsic and spiritual value. Moreover, a contemporaneous collection of animal skins bound together provides a remarkable biological resource, which may inform upon the husbandry of the animals and in turn shed light on the assembly of the codex.
The utility of parchment documents as a store of biological information is confirmed by a number of molecular studies, which have successfully retrieved DNA sequences from parchments and produced comparisons with modern reference populations of cattle, sheep and goat. These analyses have utilised isolated parchment fragments, which are then digested as part of the DNA extraction process. Understandably, such studies have not yet included bifolio from bound volumes.