Scholars study old manuscripts by analyzing linguistics and writing styles to learn about the authors and the world in which they lived. But researchers are missing a wealth of information they could glean from biological materials in the texts because libraries prohibit invasive sampling of rare and precious books.
“It’s even harder to sample a rare book than human fossils or teeth,” Matthew Collins, a biochemist who has spent the last five years studying a 900-year-old copy of the Gospel of Luke, told Science Magazine.
Collins and his team have created a non-damaging way to collect DNA and other biological substances from old manuscripts by sampling tiny fibers librarians pull out of the books when they dry clean the pages.
Researchers who analyzed the biological material from the Gospel of Luke learned scribes at St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, England, most likely produced the book around 1120 A.D. and used calf, sheep, and goat skins for the pages.
Timothy Stinson, a medieval poetry scholar at North Carolina State University, anticipates biological analysis of old texts will reveal “the whole bustling medieval world of monks, scribes, readers, poets, country gentlemen” and anyone who touched the books over the centuries.