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Scientists uncover biological history of 1000-year old York Gospel

10 November 2017


Unspotted: the 1000-year-old York Gospel

Unspotted: the 1000-year-old York Gospel

AN INTERNATIONAL team of scientists have unearthed the hidden biological history of the 1000-year-old York Gospel, one of York Minster’s most treasured possessions, which is still in use today.

Using a non-invasive DNA sampling technique, they were able to determine not only what species of animal provided the skins for its 167 parchment folia, but also their breed, and even their sex. Additionally, they were able to detect microbes responsible for destroying parchment before its effects begin to show: a breakthrough for conservation work.

The York Gospel is one of the few pre-Conquest books to survive the Reformation. Written in about 990 in the scriptorium of St Augustine’s monastery, Canterbury, it was brought to York by Archbishop Wulfstan in about 1020. The volume contains all four Gospels; a letter from King Cnut about land ownership; and the oaths taken by deans and other senior clerics, added between the 14th and 16th centuries.

The researchers, led by bioarchaeologists at the University of York and geneticists from Trinity College, Dublin, found that all but one of the folia were calf-skin, from breeds closely linked to modern-day Fresians or Norwegian Reds from northern Europe. Traditionally, male animals were used, but the experts found that the skins were from females.

“That surprised us,” Dr Sarah Fiddyment, a research Fellow in the archaeology department at York University, said. “Normally, in a dairy-based economy, you kill off the young males and keep the females for breeding. Was it a deliberate choice? Were they sacrificing females because this was an important book?”

Then they learned that, not long before the Gospel was created, a disease, similar to the present-day rinderpest, had devastated cattle herds. “So it could have been just an acceptable reuse of the hide of diseased stock,” Dr Fiddyment said. “It could just be that they were making the best out of a bad situation.”

The experts were also intrigued to find the microbe Saccharopolyspora, which is thought to be responsible for the degradation of parchment, often by purple spotting. “Although there is no obvious deterioration, it could be something that could be useful for future conservators to take into account,” Dr Fiddyment said.

The study is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, (25 October).



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