Discovery of pious Medieval women who quietly painted and wrote books
January 9, 2019 3:06 PM   Subscribe

Anthropologist Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and her colleagues took samples of [...] fossilized dental plaque, or calculus, [from a woman who lived sometime between 997 and 1162 CE] in 2014 to check for microscopic remains of plants, which would offer clues about the medieval woman’s diet. But when they dissolved the sample to extract the plant bits, the process also released hundreds of tiny blue particles. [Ars Technica] Medieval women’s early involvement in manuscript production suggested by lapis lazuli identification in dental calculus [Science Advances | Anthropology - full paper]

More from Ars Technica:
Recent historical research suggests that for much of the Middle Ages, nuns were prolific producers of religious books, especially in Germany and Austria, where records as early as the 700s CE mention books transcribed and illuminated by women. In Germany, about 4,000 books produced between 1200 and 1500 CE can be attributed to 400 specific female scribes.

For the early Medieval period, when the unnamed illuminator of Dalheim lived and worked, it’s a different story. Fewer records—and fewer books—survive from those early days. And even at surviving libraries of women’s monasteries before 1100 CE, only about one percent of the books can be clearly connected with female scribes and painters.

But the woman from Dalheim tells us, through the telltale blue flecks in her mouth, that women were scribing and painting manuscripts in medieval Europe, even if history had forgotten them. Until the 1400s CE, most scribes and painters didn’t sign their work, as a mark of humility, and that has largely erased women from the record, leaving historians to assume all the scribes were men.

“The case of Dalheim raises questions as to how many other early women’s communities in Germany, including communities engaged in book production, have been similarly erased from history,” wrote Warinner and her colleagues. Warinner added in a statement to the press, “This woman’s story could have remained [hidden] forever without these techniques. It makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries—if we only look.”
[Christina Warinner named one of the Top 10 “Scientists to Watch” in 2017]
posted by filthy light thief (12 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
(from the other post, before it was deleted)
Some dismissed the idea that a woman could have been a painter skilled enough to work with ultramarine.
Some = men, maybe?

Traditionally, women are often the illuminators of manuscripts in Islamic cultures, while men do the calligraphy. Many of the traditional processes are close to the kitchen: laying up paper with layers of wheatpaste on a clean stone floor, reacting plant dyes with metal salts to make insoluble pigments, the massively laborious preparation of shell gold from gold leaf. So yeah, the women who illuminated manuscripts had to be trusted with these priceless pigments.

(I do love a good ultramarine, from modern synthetics like Ultramarine Blue Modern and International Klein Blue (IKB) to the ancient lapis lazuli temperas that look as bright today as they did 1000 years ago.)
posted by scruss at 3:18 PM on January 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

[Yeah, for reference this post came very shortly after one on the same subject by PussKillian; this one's meatier so we'll call it the keeper.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:24 PM on January 9, 2019

Can the pigment samples be used to determine which manuscripts she had worked on?
posted by ardgedee at 3:37 PM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Actual footage of the discovery.
posted by w0mbat at 3:57 PM on January 9, 2019

Who knew the Tide Pod Challenge had such a storied history?
posted by Riki tiki at 5:21 PM on January 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Some dismissed the idea that a woman could have been a painter skilled enough to work with ultramarine.

So... this particular medieval nun had an expensive, decades-long struggle with pica?

Per the Atlantic article from PussKillian's ex-FPP:
One [art expert] suggested to Warinner that this woman came into contact with ultramarine because she was simply the cleaning lady.

Warinner eventually reached out to Alison Beach, a historian at Ohio State University who studies female scribes in 12th-century Germany Over the past couple of decades, Beach and other scholars have cataloged the overlooked contributions of women to medieval book production. [...]

Beach even came across a letter dated to the year 1168, in which a bookkeeper of a men’s monastery commissions sister “N” to produce a deluxe manuscript using luxury materials such as parchment, leather, and silk. The monastery where sister “N” lived is only 40 miles from Dalheim, where the teeth with lapis lazuli were found.

Beach also identified a book using lapis lazuli that was written by a female scribe in Germany around a.d. 1200. The pigment would have traveled nearly 4,000 miles from Afghanistan to Europe via the Silk Road. All the evidence suggests that female scribes were indeed making books that used lapis lazuli pigment in the same area and around the same time this woman was alive.
The researchers also looked into manuscript-kissing by the devoted (not practiced in that place at that time period) and lapis ingestion for medical purposes (also not done there and then) as possible explanations for the dental remains, before finally arriving at manuscript creation (inhalation while grinding the pigments, and licking the brush into a point while illustrating).

But how far up one's own backside does an art expert have to reside, to learn "many years' worth of fine pigment particles embedded in dental plaque," and conclude, oh, the help! They'll eat anything.

I like these headlines:
NPR: A Blue Clue In Medieval Teeth May Bespeak A Woman's Artistry Circa A.D. 1000
Vice: Scientists Identify a Medieval Artist by the Blue Gemstone in Her Teeth
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:37 PM on January 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

But how far up one's own backside does an art expert have to reside, ... and conclude, oh, the help! They'll eat anything.

At least far enough that they are talking complete shit, obviously. Please, somebody find the name of this so-called art critic, because I would like to poke them (him) repeatedly with a very sharp object.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:52 PM on January 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

I had just read this. Isn't it great? It's the sort of image that reaches through time.

Just imagine the religious bent over her desk, illuminating her depiction of Mary. She looks up to gauge the daylight before reaching for her carefully prepared shell of the precious blue powder. Reassured that she will be able to finish in daylight - for candlelight will not do for a task such as this, besides the risk of soot - she takes up her favorite brush, and begins to limn the folds of the blue mantle, pausing every now and to lick her brush into a finer point. And some small grains of this, the rarest colour of her finest work, lodge unseen within the artist and are buried unseen for a thousand years.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:56 PM on January 9, 2019 [16 favorites]

Imagine hating women so much that you see evidence of artistry and say "no, she was just there to clean up after the REAL artists". I'm sad that the shitty art "expert" who put that theory forward wasn't named and shamed in any of the articles.
posted by poffin boffin at 6:11 PM on January 9, 2019 [11 favorites]

I like the idea that examining teeth can lead to finding out what materials a human might have worked with. Perhaps, in the distant future, someone will examine dental plaque from a skull and discover ink from overhead projector pens, like those licked all the time by one of my high school teachers.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:31 PM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

It wasn't just one expert. IIRC, didn't they have to take the samples to a bunch of places? I blame in party the legacy of Victorian scholarship
posted by happyroach at 11:43 PM on January 9, 2019

dental calculus

For when your sleeping brain has had it with your shit.
posted by condour75 at 12:31 PM on January 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

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