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Animal origin of 13th-century uterine vellum revealed using non-invasive peptide fingerprinting

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JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
DatePublished - 8 Dec 2015
Issue number49
Volume112
Number of pages6
Pages (from-to)15066-15071
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Tissue-thin parchment made it possible to produce the first pocket Bibles: Thousands were made in the 13th century. The source of this parchment, often called “uterine vellum,” has been a long-standing controversy in codicology. Use of the Latin term abortivum in many sources has led some scholars to suggest that the skin of fetal calves or sheep was used. Others have argued that it would not be possi- ble to sustain herds if so many pocket Bibles were produced from fetal skins, arguing instead for unexpected alternatives, such as rabbit. Here, we report a simple and objective technique using stan- dard conservation treatments to identify the animal origin of parch- ment. The noninvasive method is a variant on zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry (ZooMS) peptide mass fingerprinting but ex- tracts protein from the parchment surface by using an electrostatic charge generated by gentle rubbing of a PVC eraser on the mem- brane surface. Using this method, we analyzed 72 pocket Bibles originating in France, England, and Italy and 293 additional parch- ment samples that bracket this period. We found no evidence for the use of unexpected animals; however, we did identify the use of more than one mammal species in a single manuscript, consistent with the local availability of hides. These results suggest that ultra- fine vellum does not necessarily derive from the use of abortive or newborn animals with ultrathin hides, but could equally well reflect a production process that allowed the skins of maturing animals of several species to be rendered into vellum of equal quality and fineness.

    Research areas

  • pocket Bible | parchment | vellum | collagen | mass spectrometry

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