“Medieval man must have had a depth of knowledge and response to this material [parchment] which we in our society find difficult to comprehend, but which we must strive to understand.” Christopher Clarkson
The aim of the ERC project Beasts to Craft (B2C) is to document the biological and craft records in parchment in order to reveal the entangled histories of improvement and parchment production in Europe from 500-1900 AD. In doing so it will help manuscript scholars better understand the writing support, biocodicology. But, by crossing traditional science and humanities boundaries, biocodicology does more than just this. It uses parchment as a biomolecular and craft record to explore the husbandry of livestock, the management of herds, the crafting of parchment and the development of increasingly sophisticated markets for the sale of animal by-products.
To document regional patterns of species exploitation and parchment quality
eZooMS Peptide mass fingerprinting of eraser crumbs, is already revealing national and temporal trends. O1 will continue to grow the existing database by (i) maintaining support to current collaborators (63 libraries and 42 archives) who have been supplying us with conservation waste, (ii) supporting other projects, (iii) working with new projects in Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark (Table 2 B2, WP5) and (iv) furthering collaboration in Eastern Europe (WP6).
To build up a detailed picture of temporal and regional trends in livestock genetics from parchment
B2C will (i) explore the impact of improvement on sheep genetics in Spain and England (16th - 20th C) (ii) inform on sex, ‘breed’ and phenotypic variation and (iii) expand the grid of modern and ancient variation. An important outcome of building the grid of ancient variation among animals will be the potential to DNA postcode documents whose provenance is unknown or questioned. This is a powerful and entirely novel tool for palaeography and stemmatology, which should be discernible to the level of British region and certainly distinguishable among different European landraces.
To document evidence of animal health on skins and compare with historical evidence of disease
B2C will use visual evidence to identify dermal disease, the use of poor quality skins, and from parasites and follicle medullation patterns explore the seasonality of slaughter. Pilot data has identified goat pox, tick bites and the punctures left in calfskin by departing warble fly (which emerge April - June). How much do documented episodes of livestock disease impact upon parchment production; for example the impact of scab outbreaks in the 13th c on the poor quality of manorial documents?
To link the records of bone and parchment to the textiles
As Michael Ryder recognised, parchment often preserves the remains of follicles and fibres, the very roots of the wool trade. He “illustrates a follicle group in a parchment from Yorkshire dated 1403. This was from a hairy sheep; and was similar in appearance to a modern Scots Blackface sheep”. Shotgun sequencing of 13th c bone and 16th c parchment from York agrees, these animals both have greatest affinity with the modern genomes of Scottish Blackface (Teasdale, unpublished data).
To document the craft record of parchment (500 - 1900 CE)
B2C will examine temporal trends in craft skills. We assume that stocks were region specific until the onset of improvement; “Every soil has its own stock” wrote William Pearce in his General Review of the Agriculture of Berkshire, 1794 . Craft skills must have been more mobile. We will use close inspection of clues left in the skins (and where possible in original bindings) and combined with O1 (data on species and parchment quality), will attempt to document craft. Working with breeders and parchment makers we will prepare replica parchments from the hides of rare breeds culled at different stages in the life-cycle (aborted foetuses to senile animals) prepared using a range of different methods, for use as a comparative data set (e.g. to assess the increase in inter-follicular distance or shape of tick bites, flay marks) caused by parchment production.
To link to other forms of digital data
B2C offers new data for interpretation of the parchment record, but to ensure re-use of these data we plan to build into the project (i) discoverability and (ii) comprehension. We will host workshops with leading digital archivists working with European and American collections (Borthwick, Getty, National Library of Congress, Folger Shakespeare Library, the Archaeology Data Service, Medieval Electronic Scholarly Alliance, Proteome Exchange, NCIB) to explore the best ways to forge new links between biomolecular and more traditional types of manuscript record.
To curate the parchment record
We seek to increase the value of our data to conservators. We will analyse parchment fragments for which we already have measures of hydrothermal stability using eZooMS Simon Hickinbotham will undertake detailed analysis of our peptide-mass fingerprint data to see if we can cross correlate eZooMS and hydrothermal parameters, and thus generate the latter from our data. This would result in curatorially useful ‘damage assessment’ estimates for the approximately 7,000 items of parchment we will have analysed held in libraries and archives across the world.
To bridge the humanities and science divide
The project sets new challenges for interdisciplinarity. B2C will provide a platform for a new generation of scholars to develop an integrated project to comprehensively explore parchment as a record of livestock and craft, and then explore how this new approach can add to manuscript studies and help scholars cross discipline boundaries.
John Wilcox supported by a B2C member will support 12 places at a two-week summer school (https://uiowa.edu/manuscript-materiality/) at which participants will both make a manuscript from parchment and then contribute a reflective piece to the B2C monograph.