Episode 9: Biocodicology: From Dust to Data

“Things spilled on it from people touching it, mice running across it, insects, dust…all this stuff lands in the books.”

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About this Episode

Recorded September 17, 2021. Produced and edited by James Harr.

Guests: Sarah Fiddyment and Timothy Stinson

Content: James and Aylin talk to Sarah Fiddyment and Timothy Stinson about their work in the emerging field of biocodicology, the study of the biomolecular information found in manuscripts.

Sarah Fiddyment received her BSc in Biochemistry from the University of Zaragoza in 2006. Her MSc and PhD (awarded in 2011) were both completed at the same university, working in the field of proteomics in cardiovascular research. She moved to the University of York in 2012 after being awarded a Marie Curie postdoctoral research fellowship to focus on the protein analysis of parchments throughout history. During this time she developed a non-invasive sampling technique that has enabled her to establish the emerging field of biocodicology. She was subsequently awarded a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship, and in 2019, Sarah joined the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge as part of the ERC funded Beasts to Craft project.

Timothy Stinson is Associate Professor of English at North Carolina State University. He received his PhD in English Language and Literature in 2006 from the University of Virginia and was a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University for two years prior to joining the NC State faculty in 2008. He is co-founder and co-director of the Medieval Electronic Scholarly Alliance, director of the Society for Early English and Norse Electronic Texts (SEENET), co-director of the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive, associate director of the Advanced Research Consortium (ARC), and editor of the Siege of Jerusalem Electronic Archive. He has also collaborated with colleagues in the biological sciences to analyze the DNA found in medieval parchment manuscripts.

Further Reading

Episode Transcript

Automated transcription by <https://otter.ai>, manually corrected by James Harr.

[Music: TeknoAXE, “Chiptune Nobility,” CC BY 4.0]

Aylin Malcolm 00:10

Hello and welcome to Coding Codices. I’m Aylin Malcolm, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Digital Medievalist postgraduate committee. 

James Harr  00:19

And my name is James Harr. I’m a postdoctoral teaching scholar in the Data Science Academy at North Carolina State University. And I’m also a postgraduate committee member for Digital Medievalist.

Aylin Malcolm 00:40

We’re very fortunate to have two scholars joining us today, Sarah Fiddyment and Tim Stinson. Dr. Sarah Fiddyment holds a PhD from the University of Zaragoza, which she earned while working in proteomics in cardiovascular research. In 2012, she was awarded a Marie Curie postdoctoral research fellowship, to focus on the protein analysis of parchments and moved to the University of York. She was then awarded a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship and in 2019, she joined the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research as an associate on the Beasts to Craft project. Her numerous accomplishments include a noninvasive sampling technique that permits researchers to extract proteins and DNA from parchment surfaces without damaging them largely by using PVC erasers. This technique has been crucial in establishing the field of biocodicology, or the study of the biomolecular information found in manuscripts. Recently, she was the lead author of a study of a 15th-century burning girdle strip of parchment that as Sarah and her collaborators argue, was probably actively used during childbirth, but I’m sure we’ll hear more about that in a few minutes. 

James Harr  01:51

And Tim Stinson is an associate professor of English and a university faculty scholar at North Carolina State University. He is a member of the program faculty for the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program, and an affiliate faculty of the Jewish Studies program both at NC State and he is currently a fellow at the National Humanities Center. Tim received his PhD in English language and literature from the University of Virginia, and his research interests include Middle English poetry, codicology, history of the book, and digital humanities. He is a leader in the application of digital technologies to medieval studies. He is a cofounder and codirector of the Medieval Electronic Scholarly Alliance, director of the Society for Early English and Norse Electronic Texts, co director of the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive, Associate Director of the Advanced Research Consortium, and editor of the Siege of Jerusalem Electronic Archive. Tim is the recipient of an NIH digital humanities fellowship, and planning and implementation grants from the Mellon Foundation for his digital humanities work. Tim’s work collaborating with colleagues in the biological sciences to analyze the DNA found in medieval parchment manuscripts has garnered international press coverage in outlets such as the BBC, The World Today, National Geographic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Science. So welcome to you both. And thank you for joining us today. 

Timothy Stinson  03:09

Thank you. 

Sarah Fiddyment  03:10

Thank you.

Aylin Malcolm  03:11

So as your biography suggests, you’ve come to this research from quite different backgrounds. I’m curious to know what drew you to biocodicology and how you started working in this emerging field. 

Timothy Stinson  03:22

Well, I can start there. So my background as Jamie just told you is really in medieval English poetry. So I did a PhD, and English language and literature. And during my studies, I got interested in editing. And the way this usually works, as many of your audience probably know, is for medieval studies, you tend to have for those poems that survived more than one copy, you tend to have very different versions of the poem, and none of these versions are identical. In fact, many of them are very different. So you go around looking at all the extant copies, and you start to record differences between them and try to work your way back. So well, you know, what’s the what’s the likely original reading that the author wrote for any given part of the poem. So I set sail, not literally, but figuratively, for England. Made the beautiful triangle that medievalists get to do where you go to the British Library, Oxford, Cambridge, a few other spots and looking at manuscripts. And these are some of my earliest encounters with actually getting medieval manuscripts in my hands. And I went there to look at the text. That’s why I was trained to study. That’s why I was interested. And as soon as I touched those books, I just thought, wow, you know, I want to know something about the book. Why does no one talk about the book, of course, I learned pretty quickly a lot of people do talk about the book. But I was very struck by these things, as physical objects, as you know, in many cases, 600-year-old physical objects that that evidently have a complex a biography of their own. And I was struck in most cases by the animal nature of these books. You know, here you have hide glue, parchment, numerous animals and their leather bindings. And I thought, wow, these, these things are fantastic. I really want to know more about them as objects. And as medievalists, we’re trained to figure out when and where something is from based on clues such as dialect, because as everyone knows, dialect changes, both in time and place. If we, if we listen to, you know, someone from Brooklyn and someone from Scotland isn’t from Jamaica speaking English, we would be able to pick out right away where they’re from. And it changes the course over time. And so does handwriting, you know. If you see a document from the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th century, there’s a good chance you could put them in order without specialist training. So medieval, so trained to use these sorts of clues and say, roughly when and where something is from, but this is often is not all that satisfactory, you might get something like, Midlands, mid-14th century, right? Which is, which is not not all that specific. So, I was there trying to figure out such things about these manuscripts. And I just said, “Wait a minute,” you know, these are these are on animal skin. If you go across campus, you ask a scientist, when and where’s this book from, they’re not going to, you know, get out the magnifying glass and check out the shape of the letter G or say, Well, look, there’s a long A retained from, from Old English. So, this indicates this slow disappearance of this heading to the north. So, we can we can figure this out. Not to make light of those. Those are in their own right fastening disciplines. But there there are different ways to answer that. And I thought I really thought we should ask someone else the same set of questions. And so the first thing I thought of, of course, was DNA. And I set about looking for folks to collaborate with on that.

James Harr  06:47

Thank you, Tim. And Sarah, what brought you to biocodicology. 

Sarah Fiddyment  06:51

I’m a biochemist by training. And I was doing my PhD in a hospital working on cardiovascular research. I was doing proteomics and protein analysis. But I’ve always had an interest in history and archeology, although I trained in the sciences, there’s always something that I’d always loved. And just through sheer chance, I had attended a course that they were offering on scientific techniques applied to cultural heritage, which is something that I thought sounded great. And through going to that I met various people, and I said, you know, I’ve got this background in proteins, but I’d really love to work in this field. Do you think it’s possible? And they all told me, you should contact Matthew Collins in the University of York who is a specialist in proteins, and he works on ancient archaeological artifacts, etc. So yeah, I contacted Matthew. And I basically said, like, Oh, do you think I can like even move into this field? Because you know, I’m just a trained like, protein scientist. And he’s like, No, this is great. Like, you can definitely come into the field of archaeology, which I think is one of the benefits of archaeology is quite a mixed discipline. And he basically just talked over some of the projects that were that were possible that he was currently working on. And one of the things he mentioned was at the University of York, they have the Borthwick Archive, which is a huge archive that has 1000s of documents, many of them written on parchment, and he recently been there, they just recently renovated and he was telling me about, you know, all these all these documents are effectively animal skins. Like that’s how we see it as sort of biologist it was, like less about the book, unfortunately, but more about the potential of these animals that are dated and located which for us is an incredible resource. And that really sparked my interest. And I love the idea of actually being able to work with something like medieval manuscripts, which otherwise was for someone, my background would be completely inaccessible. So yeah, and I got a Marie Curie to go to York to work on that. And initially, our project was, it was a small project, it was like two years. And we were going to target these parchment documents from Borthwick and our initial plan was to take very, very small destructive samples to be able to analyze you know, what animals for the archive, etc. But basically, when I got there, it’s like my grant almost didn’t happen because we had a meeting with the conservators there and they’re like, no, no, you cannot take disruptive samples from our parchments, which I completely understand now. So we had to pretty quickly come with a new idea to work around this, because we knew we were going to be using proteomics techniques. So using mass spectrometry, which is incredibly sensitive, only very small amounts. We actually talked about the idea of using just like, you know, waste if they like cleaning or scraping. And yeah, by working with the conservators, we use some of their cleaning techniques and found that this noninvasive eraser seemed to work perfectly. So it just spiraled from there. Once we had a noninvasive technique, the libraries just opened up to us. They were a lot happier about us being able to analyze their sample.

James Harr  10:00

I just find it fascinating that two very different research tracks from two very different scholars have converged into this line of research, but I think it speaks very highly of the interdisciplinarity of medieval studies today.

[Music: Random Mind, “Rejoicing“]

James Harr  10:25

So I guess the follow up question that we want to ask is, so what are you working on now? What are your current projects in biocodicology? 

Timothy Stinson  10:32

Well, I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a new team here at North Carolina State University, with some colleagues in the College of Veterinary Medicine. And you know, we’ve been in touch with Sarah and Matthew Collins in the UK, I did some work with Sarah and Matthew, a few years back. And what we’re looking at we are now testing 100 manuscripts here at Duke University. And we are we’re doing a couple things, we are doing some comparison between the PVC eraser technique and another technique we developed here in house that uses cytology brushes. And Sarah knows about this, I was asking her about this a few years back and sent her some … we did some of the same thing with Sarah, I sent her a few brushes to say how do these compare. So we’re still looking somewhat this is early days enough that we’re still refining techniques and looking at techniques, what’s the best way to get this stuff out, non destructively, because that really was an impediment, as Sarah says, in the early days, I was going around to dealers at markets, you know, buying my leaves and taking little slices off of them. Because early on, there’s no other way to do it. So we’re still refining technique. We’re also looking across a wide geographical time and space. We’re doing a small number of samples from a lot of manuscripts, and then some deep dives on a few individual manuscripts. And we’re interested to see how results might compare across centuries. And then if there are geographical differences.

James Harr  12:02

So, for example, what would you look for?

Timothy Stinson  12:05

If you look at parchment and Middle Eastern context, you know, if you’re looking at Hebrew manuscripts or Syrian manuscripts or Ethiopic codices, does the does the substrate that is the parchment, the preparation methods differ historically, or in different places in a way that would affect the viability of the data? That’s something we’re interested in? And then this question of sexing, which is to say, you know, are we going to have more male or female animals, when we look at which animals furnish the skins that became the parchment? Logically, you would, you would think that there would be more males and females, but we’re, we’re always surprised. That’s one great thing about this work is every every time we do anything, we know, it’s very early days, still, but the results seem to surprise us. So we’re waiting to see what comes with that.

Sarah Fiddyment  13:00

So I’m currently working on the Beast to Craft project, which is an ERC funded, it’s big European project. And we’re basically it’s an interdisciplinary project where we’re looking at parchment from different aspects. So from a craft perspective, from a conservation perspective, myself, looking at protein analysis, there’s also genetic analysis. So really just looking at parchment as a medium, as aa biological reservoir for animals of genetics, but also the craft and production that goes into producing parchment for bindings for books, etc. So it’s coming from many different perspectives. And I’m obviously focusing mainly on the proteins. So again, looking from different geographic locations, different forms of production of parchment, and how we can maybe tell by our biochemical analysis, how the parchment is being produced. And then the one area that I’m focusing more on, which I’m more interested in at the moment, is related to birth girdle. Or looking at stains on parchment. So starting to look apart from the obvious information we can get about the animal. What other things can we find on the surface of these parchment that can give us an idea about the use and the history of the subject?

James Harr  14:15

Just a follow up question. Sarah I know you work with noninvasive peptide fingerprinting, and that’s with the erasers that are used. Is that correct?

Sarah Fiddyment  14:23

Yes. Yes.

James Harr:  14:25

Could you could you speak a little set just slightly about the process of the the erasers versus the cytology brushes, just to make it a little clearer what they do what the process is.

Sarah Fiddyment  14:36

Sure, I can Yeah, I’ll talk about the erasers and then Tim, he can talk about the cytology brushes which he developed. In the case of the erasers. So, like I said, I was working in the Borthwick Archive with the conservation staff, and we were looking at methods of cleaning parchment that were used by the conservator. So these were accepted methods that they allowed to use on their parchment. So I tried various things, smoke sponges and some different types of gums. And one of the things that they use, although not routinely, but they are accepted to use are PVC erasers. And all we do with these erasers is we take a new fragment of eraser, a small fragment, and we very gently wipe it on the surface of parchment. So we’re not rubbing, it’s very, very gentle wiping. And what we’re doing is we’re collecting all the little crumbs that are generated. So like when you use an eraser normally to rub out your your mistakes, all those little crumbs that you normally blow away, those are the little crumbs that we collect. And we need a really, really tiny amount. We basically say to people, if you can see crumbs, that’s enough, like as long as you can see one or two, that’s it. So we collect these little fragments, and then that’s taken to our lab. And they’re very stable, like you don’t need to like they can, you can collect crumbs and keep them in a drawer for months, or it just they really don’t degrade in any way. And in the lab, we use a very simple protocol to extract the proteins. So it’s just a saline solution, and we heat it up, and that pulls off the collagen, which is the main protein that we’re looking at. It pulls off the collagen molecule in solution. We then use another enzyme called trypsin, which is another protein that basically cuts up collagen, because collagen is a very, very long molecule. And it’s too long for us to read intact. So we have to cut up on small fragments. And then we use a mass spectrometer, in our case, a MALDI TOF, to be able to discriminate this peptide. So basically, it’s called time of flight, what it’s going to do is mesh measure the mass of these little fragments, these little peptides. And it gives a characteristic fingerprint for each of the different collagens of the different animals. So by matching up these unique print fingerprints, you can identify the animal that it’s come from.

Timothy Stinson  16:51

So for the cytology brushes, these brushes they’re designed to collect cells without damaging skin. So probably the most well-known application of medically is, you know, pap smear brushes, these are basically exactly what we’re using. But also sometimes, you know, perhaps those little brushes, you’ve seen that people scrape inside their cheeks or something like that these things grabbed cells. But of course, they don’t really injure. That’s the idea behind them. And so we found that rubbing those on the parchment picks up enough cells for analysis, but doesn’t damage even if you look at it under a microscope, which the conservation scientists at Duke did when they were checking out this technique. You don’t see any marks leftover on the parchment. And we just cut the heads off the brushes, they go into these little tubes, and they’re incubated with what’s called extraction buffer. So the solution kind of gets the cells off of the teeth of the brushes. This is I’m not a scientist, but as I understand it’s purified for PCR extraction. And then there’s an assay kit that goes with that. And that measures essentially quantities. And depending on the questions we’re trying to answer, there are different other techniques. So for example, there’s digital droplet PCR, which is useful for species and sex determination. And I mentioned that this has been done in the lab of Kelly Meiklejohn, one of my colleagues here at NC State in the Veterinary School, working with Melissa Scheible, and they both have a background in forensic science. So indeed, Kelly came here from the FBI, which I thought was super cool. You know, when I met her, I was like, wow, someone from the FBI working on these manuscripts. But something I hadn’t realized I hadn’t really thought about before I met them is that when you when you don’t the medieval manuscript, you’re dealing with highly degraded DNA. And if you think about this sort of classic double helix, the one thing everyone knows about DNA, with all these base pairs on it. And in a forensic context, which indeed a medieval manuscript is a forensic context, what you’re dealing with are really fragmented parts of this. So if you imagine these 1000s of base pairs in this neat row, which you would get if you got a blood sample from a living person, right, a complete a complete set. That’s not what you find in forensic environments. You find two things. One is that these base pairs are all broken up. So you might get this piece down here and this one up here, this one up here. And if you take multiple samples, you might get different base pairs. So forensic scientists are trained to as it were, rebuild those, those base pairs in the proper order and figure out what this is we’re looking at. But the other thing you get Sarah referred to is this kind of environment. And these basically a microbiome she mentioned stains but there’s all sorts of things you know, acne from human beings like the bacteria and human acne is one of the grosser things we’ve encountered. You know, things spilled on it from people touching it, mice running across it, insects, dust, which is often human skin cells. All this stuff lands in the books. And so we’re also interested here in thinking about that as a as a sort of microbiome. Right that there’s, I initially conceived this as the DNA I want to get and all the contamination on top of the DNA I want to get. But you know, in working with these teams, I’ve come to see that there’s actually a lot of interest in here. And one DNA is indeed the animal scan, which we’re able to get, it seems like we’re able to get pretty reliably both of these techniques, but there’s a lot of other stuff there that’s of interest that we can capture using these techniques.

[Music: Random Mind, “Rejoicing“]

Aylin Malcolm  20:56  

I love that process through which the contaminant becomes the object of interest. I think that’s so fabulous. So, as digital medievalists, we think a lot about collaboration, even this podcast is the result of continuous collaboration within our committee. So Jamie and I wanted to ask you about interdisciplinary collaboration, both the benefits and challenges of working with such a diverse group of experts. You know, you have various scientists, archaeologists, specialists in different literary cultures, conservators. Tim, I’m sure that this has only increased with your current work across different geographic regions. So how have you built your teams? How have you communicated findings in one field to researchers in another? And then as a related question, I’m also interested in the reception of your work across disciplines and whether you’ve met with any resistance. I know that in some cases, your findings have confirmed codicological findings. So perhaps that’s a sign of the productive relationships that this work might encourage. 

Timothy Stinson  21:57  

Well, I think, to talk about the good side of this first, I think that’s mainly what this podcast is, is addressing. And we’ve been talking about all the potential so I’ll just say briefly, one of the benefits that we haven’t touched upon yet is simply how eye opening it is. The very thing I just mentioned, I thought about these books in one way. Right? I thought about them as repositories of textual information. And then I had this kind of awakening moment where I thought, A-ha, there’s a lot more here. But even so I was initially thinking of science as an avenue to answer humanities questions. And when I began to talk to scientists, they start to say, oh, you know, by the way, there maybe there’s some record of environmental change here. By the way, do you realize what absolutely, nonpareil final evidence is? We’ve been looking around in muddy pits hoping for, you know, a slaughter site from the Roman army encampment or something like that. Here it is, year by year with the date and time in many cases written on it, not time, but rather location. And so I had this ever expanding horizon from the interaction with other people from other disciplines of the sorts of questions, we could pose a potentially answer, it was way bigger than anything I’d hoped for. Yes, my questions and concerns were in the mix, but there’s so much more there. So there are, though quite a few challenges. And, you know, this, this, we both alluded to the fact Sarah and I of early roadblocks, where librarians looked at us and said, You’ve got to be kidding me, you know, you can’t come in here and, and mess up our manuscripts. And of course, that’s not what we want it to do, we were just hoping for some little sliver. And, you know, maybe when they were just binding, we could get a little bits or something like that. But we really had to figure out, it took years to figure out some way to get this, this information that didn’t damage the manuscript. And that’s, that’s, we think of that as an obvious thing as humanists, of course, you can’t go in and cut the manuscripts. But in fact, that’s also a cultural value. If you go to natural history collections, you can just you know, drill a nice little piece out of the dinosaur bone or you know, clip a little piece of squirrels toe off or whatnot, you know, if you need to for doing research. So this is this was a both a technological and cultural challenge to come against that. So from the start, we ran and things like that. A lot of problems though, because this is such a brand new field, persist and we’re still struggling with. One of those is funding how to go about who wants to fund this. I remember doing a call around to all the agencies here, in the US all the federal agencies, the program officers I’ve talked to seem genuinely interested, maybe they’re just good professionally and seeming generally interested. But my take was they really thought this was fascinating. And they would all say, but we don’t have a program that would cover that you maybe you should try the next agency down the block. And it’s tricky because it’s so new, it doesn’t fit into any of the established calls for funding. And, you know, in the humanities, there’s not a lot of money available, why would they fund scientific research? In the scientific context, it can be difficult sometimes if before you’re doing looks to humanistic, and there tend to be established programs that it doesn’t neatly fit into, then from the point of view of humanist, trying to find collaborators is very tricky. Because there’s a tremendous pressure on scientists, for their labs to be productive in terms of, you know, getting funding that funds, the lab funds, their graduate students and postdocs produces research. So when you’re doing something new and speculative, and the outcome might be something that’s going to be published in a journal of medieval studies that that’s not going to fly, you have to think of a way that works for this team for everyone to get some sort of professional credit. Similarly, from the point of view of humanists, there’s a problem of joint publication where there are a lot of authors in science journals, you know, if that’s your outcome, what good is that going to be on your CV? Everyone’s excited about it, but now aren’t quite sure what to do with it. You know what? Well, this is, this is fantastic. Look, this English professor’s out doing DNA work, how cool, but how does it count?

Sarah Fiddyment  26:27

Yeah, I think I will echo everything Tim just said, because he’s completely right. What I would say is, I have been very lucky, and I’ve had an incredibly positive experience working since I started working in manuscripts, because people have been really open to, to listen to us to talk with us. And it’s not just been a question of, you know, we’re the scientists, we come in with this technique, and then we just give you an answer and go away, and then you just do. It’s very, very much been a back and forth. So we work closely with conservation, we work closely with, with curators, and people, you know, they give us a question. And we look at it from our perspective and said, Well, have you thought about this. And that’s the only way we can really move forward. Because if it’s, if it keeps being isolated of just what we have this technique, and we just run it as a service, and then people don’t engage with the science enough, and they just want the results for their for their studies. It really has to be this like, conversation, teamwork between everybody. And we’ve had a really good experience of that. And we’ve had people really come in from all the three – conservation, humanities and science – and really work together as a team. And that’s been, I think, one of our huge strengths. Yeah, I echo about the sampling, like I said at the beginning, but probably quite naively coming from the sciences, we expected to be able to have samples to use or be very small ones. And we were looked on with faces of horror. Like no, you cannot touch our books, which now obviously, having worked a long time with manuscripts now I also see it in that way. But yeah, there is a place to find a happy medium, but we were in a way it was good for us because it forced us to reevaluate how sophisticated our technique was and what we could use to forward our research. And we ended up developing this noninvasive technique, which then changed the way we could access. So it’s very much back and forth between the disciplines, but in a very collaborative sense. Working in the archaeology department, which, funnily enough, although not strictly speaking very close to manuscripts, it’s actually quite an interdisciplinary department. So we do have people both from sciences and both from more historical side. But it’s much it’s much more common to have this like integration of the humanities and the sciences. We are very used to using destructive samples. So in archaeology, there isn’t so much question about being given samples although we try and minimize you will go into drill a bone and you know, we might even be the bone of a famous king. And that’s not a problem. But taking a tiny sliver of a book, there was a lot more, I think, yeah, cultural importance are given some of these manuscripts. So that was certainly a challenge. But, but like I said, yeah, the more the bit techniques get better, we’re getting past that. And I think the more the conservation community is, is involved, and the more curatorial and the actual scholars see what we’re doing, it then becomes a more natural process. And people see that, oh, actually, we’re not doing anything that’s done that damaging, but we can get a lot of information out of it. And from our perspective, obviously, we start off seeing the, the parchment as a skins as a biological resource. So if we come from a very different angle, but you then start to appreciate, you know, the construction of the book, and why are they using particular animals in a particular sequence, which is something we didn’t expect or mixing up animals? And how does the production of the parchment actually affect the quality of the book, how it feels, but how also chemically, it looks to us? So it’s opened up a whole series of questions that initially we went into just thinking, you know, look at the animal, but there is more to that. And, in our case, for example, as Tim said, like the having a resource of an animal that basically has a time stamp on it, like the date and location for us is incredible. Like, we’re used to digging up things from the ground that have, you know, roughly a century’s worth of dating, maybe, give or take. So it’s an incredible resource that I think people move from the more biological sciences have not thought about. And when we’re talking about looking at, you know, rare breeds and, you know, domestication different the way animals have evolved, we have a really incredible resource there that can potentially be used. And we, yeah, I think we need to bring that highlight the importance of, of this incredible biomolecular reservoir that initially probably people have completely overlooked.

James Harr   31:00

It seems like in terms of potential contributions this this area of study can make, it’s still so undefined, that not really sure how it fits into these larger, more traditional areas of study, a conversation that often comes up in these podcasts is how labor is acknowledged and how scholarship is acknowledged. And to get back to what Tim was talking about, where does this study fall? In a scientific journal? Into a medieval studies journal? And but if you want to speak to that for a bit, that’d be fantastic.

Sarah Fiddyment  31:29

That was a bit of a learning curve for us as well. As Tim alluded to, we are very used to like all our publications are multi-authored, co-authored, you would not you would not publish on your own. And this is very accepted. And this is this is how we are graded for our you know, for our grant proposals, etc, you need to have these multi-authored publications. But obviously, when we talk to our colleagues in, in humanities, it was very different for them. And it was quite hard for some of them to actually put their name in these like, multi-authored papers, some really welcomed in love there. But others were a bit more apprehensive, understandably, because it’s a completely different way of publishing. And as Tim was talking about, the funding is exactly the same. Currently, we kind of fall between the cracks and a bit, because if we go for Humanities funding, the kind of work we need to do in the lab, we just don’t have the, like the humanities don’t have the resources for the amount of funding. Yeah, it’s not sufficient for some of the more sophisticated techniques that we need. However, if we go for pure hard science funding, you are competing against people who are doing cancer research, for example, and you know, you’re not going to be as high in the, in the order of grants. So it’s a it’s a hard one there. I mean, there are calls out there, and there is a lot starting to become like there were a lot of calls it start to require this interdisciplinary approach. And those are the ones we target and social sciences, archaeology, like I said, I know I’ve said it before, but it is that cross section and it has often been helpful to be able to secure funding. But yeah, it’s definitely a bit of a learning curve. And with our work, for example, although we primarily published in scientific journals, because of course, that’s what’s required of us. We are constantly thinking about how we can make our work accessible also to people more in purely manuscript studies and who may not have come across our work because, of course, we might be going to different conferences or, or etc. So it’s trying to be able to, to cater for different audiences, and make sure that everybody knows that everybody is equally welcome to join. And we need that, like, if we get siloed into these different disciplines, it doesn’t work. It needs to have the input from all the different angles at the same time to make it functional. And I think up until now we’ve been really lucky and it has, it has really worked.

Timothy Stinson  33:52

Yeah, my hope, Jamie is that this becomes what already is a field or a brand new field, but my hope is that it really continues to gain traction so that we have some sense of people understand biotechnology is a field is deeply interdisciplinary, that maybe even one day in the future, we have our own journals, we can publish it and that sort of thing. At the moment, it’s remains tricky territory, the thing that we we have a couple of advantages. One is, as Sarah pointed out, so far, this has been an amazing community in terms of mutual support, enthusiasm, but we’ve also had a lot of enthusiasm from, it seems to me all fronts, folks in the sciences, folks in libraries are have been very welcoming. We, I mean, we mentioned their reticence, rightly enough, I would be reticent, if I were them to, to have a slice into things. But also, librarians have been tremendously helpful and knowledgeable in helping us think through this from a conservation science point of view, and how we might handle this new type of data we’re getting from these types of things. So that’s been a big advantage. And folks in the humanities also seem very excited by this. I think at the moment, this probably would be the most difficult for someone who’s early-career, pre-tenure. You know, I was lucky enough — this came out I guess last year, I actually co-published with Sarah, and I think there were what four of us, Sarah? In that article in Bioinformatics. And I was totally thrilled. Wow, look at me, there’s my name in a science journal. You know, I only wrote two paragraphs and didn’t understand much of the rest of it. But nonetheless, I said, aha, look at me, you know, I, here I am, alongside Sarah and Matthew Collins, and this is fabulous, you know, I’ve arrived. But I don’t need to really worry about how much that counts, post tenure, someone, you know, pre-tenure would really have to think, well, how much time isn’t this? Is it going to count? Maybe have to make an argument for it. So I think this is probably a trickier question for people who are early career, this idea of counting the issue of funding and things remain a little bit thornier at the moment.

[Music: Random Mind, “Rejoicing“]

Aylin Malcolm  36:24  

Do you have anything else that you would like to share with us anything that you’re excited about in the future?

James Harr  36:29

Can we ask the surprise question?

Aylin Malcolm  36:30

Yeah, yeah, let’s do the surprise question.

James Harr  36:33


Aylin Malcolm  36:34

What have been your favorite surprises that you’ve uncovered in the process of doing this research?

Timothy Stinson 36:39

Well, I think Sarah has answered this, because my favorite surprise, Sarah, I think is the one who found it out, which was Sarah, the interleaving of the cattle and sheep in that last St. Luke. That blew my mind, honestly. You know, I showed just this week that graphic to someone, no, you’re not gonna believe I’m still like running around years later to people like you’re not gonna believe this, you know.

Sarah Fiddyment  37:03

This is actually a really good example of where you really need a cross disciplinary team, because we were given access to a twelfth-century glossed Gospel of St. Luke, and it’s in its original bindings. And originally this was very early on in our project. So we originally targeted a couple of the folia to get species ID. So you know, I took two random samples that came back as sheep and I was like, yes, fine. It’s sheep parchment and a colleague of ours, a conservator came along and have a look. And he just looked at the folia and he’s like, no, these are different. Like, you can see that there is definitely calf in here. So we were like, oh, okay, so we thought, okay, let’s do a systematic analysis of this book. Let’s target every bifolia, target bindings, and just see what’s in there. And one book ended up containing at least five species of animal so we had calf parchments, we had sheep parchment, and we had this goat parchment that was tucked away in the middle which no one expected. And we had two types of deer on the binding. So the covers were made of roe deer, and then the strap held it together was a fallow or red deer. So from what I did initially, very like naively said, like, oh, yeah, it’s just a sheep, you know, document turns out to have been this incredible like book with five different species and an incredibly it was there was a very fixed pattern of how the parchment was distributed. It wasn’t just, you know, a bit here a bit there. They had like pattern of interleaving the calf with the sheep. And then like the quires at the end, they only have sheep and this coincided where the scribe was changed to a different scribe. It turned out to be a worse scribe. So these all these questions that I talked to come out of this, what yo would thought was just gonna be like, you know, the analysis. And it just threw up all this other information. And it really got us thinking about how these books are produced, you know, is it to do with like, why are they using these different animals? Is it to do with, you know, availability of the of the livestock? Is it a personal choice that the scribes like one material versus another? It was really fascinating. And yeah, the goat the half goat as we’ve we’ve managed to discover because it’s only half a goat in there. Because Jiří Vnouček, who is the conservator who was actually looking at this, he works in the Royal Library and also is part of our Beast to Craft project. He’s able to often piece together these bifolia, to make the complete skins of the animal. And we were able to do that in this book. So he actually was able to put together you know, a few of the complete calfskin sheep, and goat is the back back half of the goat I think so. Where’s it coming from? Why is it used? We don’t know. It’s something we have to go back. We’re actually looking to go back and do more about this book. But it was an incredible it’s an incredible book. And yeah, just incredible find. Yeah, five, five species in one book.

Aylin Malcolm  40:04

Especially because goat is so rarely…the way that we think about it, we think of goat as coming from Italy or Spain, usually, but rarely in Britain.

Sarah Fiddyment  40:11

Yeah, well, yeah, obviously, in Italy is what we find most of it but actually having done many 1000s of parchments through the project, it’s not so unusual in England anymore, we are coming up with the goat. But it’s an incredibly interesting story. Because we don’t have the archaeological record for goat that we would hope to see tie in with these skins, we don’t have the same number of bones that we find for sheep and calf. So a question has always been like, where’s this goat coming from? So yeah, that’s definitely that’s on our agenda: Where’s the goat?

James Harr  40:44

I have to say, my favorite part about this manuscript is this example of the Gospel of St. Luke is the location of the goatskin in the manuscript itself.

Timothy Stinson  40:56  

That was my little contribution to the article we published which is, there is exactly one mention of goats and the Gospel of Luke. And it comes immediately after that goat skin. Well it comes immediately before the goat skin so the goat skin appears right after, which is you know, the story of the Prodigal Son. When prodigal son comes back is welcomed by the father, there’s all this celebration, and he kills the fatted calf to celebrate the return, whereas the good son who’s been there, toiling away for all the years to you know, you never gave me a single kid and a single goat to celebrate. So, I was pointing out to when I saw this goatskin, I was pointing out to them, Well, you know, it comes, that’s right, about the same moment in the book as if, as if it’s an inside joke like, hey kid, here’s your kid you want it, you know, I’m not willing to assert that. I was just saying, Look, this is this is interesting that it is right there. And it’s just that that book, the big surprise. It’s not only the number of animals in it, but the that that interleaving at the beginning is so strange. It’s you know, a sheepskin inside of a goats. Sorry, a sheepskin inside of a calfskin and inside of a sheepskin inside of a calfskin, you know, it’s like the, the Taco Bell entree of you know of codicology, right? Everything neatly stacked and like different all these different items. And so I thought, This is so strange that it suggested describe who’s going I don’t go to the store room somewhere pulling out leaves of parchment is in thinking about species, which just blew my mind and a lot of other people’s minds. And as Sarah pointed out, when we get to the second scribe, it’s all sheep, right that that goes away and we don’t it just begs for some sort of narrative but all we can do is guess and then on top of that this goat thing, you know, this weird goat thing right about the time it mentions goat. There’s at least a suggestion that there’s scribes aren’t just, you know, thinking about parchment as a substrate. Well, I just look for a decent looking sheet and I get busy copying. I’m sure some of them worked that way. But that book, at least it looks like something intentional. And this, Sarah, to your knowledge, is this the first book where someone actually went through and mapped out all the species in that way.

Sarah Fiddyment  43:27

Yeah, well, it’s the one we did first we’ve the one we published first that was the York Gospels that’s the other one we did a complete analysis and that one was a lot more with I won’t say the word boring but it was a lot more consistent. It was all calf with only sheep for like later editions. But yeah, this is the one we targeted first and it hasn’t been like fully published. And I was gonna say what’s interesting about the goat as well is that it’s not particularly good quality goat parchment normally goat is quite good. This actually has like It’s like has holes in it and it’s not particularly nice piece of goat so why are you actively chose to put that in? It’s really interesting story.

James Harr  44:09

Well, we would love to keep talking about biocodicology, but unfortunately, we are out of time for this episode.

Aylin Malcolm  44:15

Thank you so much for your time. This has been very fun and very exciting for both of us I think.

[Music: TeknoAXE, “Chiptune Nobility”]

James Harr  44:29

Thanks for listening to Coding Codices, a podcast by the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Committee. I’m James Harr.

Aylin Malcolm  44:35

And I’m Aylin Malcolm.

James Harr  44:37

And our guests on this episode on biocodicology were Dr. Sarah Fiddyment and Dr. Timothy Stinson. You can listen to more episodes of Coding Codices on our website, podcast dot digital medievalist dot org or the podcast provider of your choice. Of course, you can also get in touch with us at dmpostgrads at gmail dot com.