The Whirligig of Time

Every once in a while, I come across something that seems at odds with the history I’ve learned. Admittedly I’m the product of an older, more gendered Zeitgeist, and in the intervening years, have struggled to accept what I might once have termed historical revisionism. Each epoch seems to want to believe its own version of the past and interprets artifacts -whether newly discovered, or housed in dark drawers in museums- accordingly. Traditionally, of course, history has been written by the victors -the powerful- and so it has always been a matter of conjecture how accurately ethnographical descriptions of the time, captured the lived reality of the era.

It is often tempting, either through lack of sufficient historically corroborative evidence, or currently prevailing attitudes, to denigrate the achievements of women in the past. Evidence of the contrary, must needs run a gauntlet of well-entrenched, and therefore not entirely impartial judges. The current of paradigms run deep and largely unnoticed until challenged, and the resulting turbulence, no matter how insightful and epiphanous, can nonetheless be unsettling.

How can history change if it has already occurred? Is it merely interpretational -like the apocryphal two people crossing the same bridge seeing different bridges? Or more nuanced, more coloured by our present day conceits than we would like to think -the hammer judging everything to be a nail?

Sometimes a sturdier explanation arises from evidence being viewed with modern and, hopefully, more objective techniques -techniques like, say, DNA, or perhaps, sophisticated chemical analyses which largely remove any subjective biases.

One such study I discovered while strolling through the various online magazines to which I am habituated, seemed unusually compelling. It was an article written by Sarah Zhang in the Atlantic that outlined how the analysis of dental plaque in the remains of a medieval woman revealed the existence of hitherto unexpected female scribes in what had been seen as an almost exclusively male profession.

A brilliant blue was found in the dental tartar of a 1000 year old woman buried at a women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany. ‘It was ultramarine … a pigment that a millennium ago could only have come from lapis lazuli originating in a single region of Afghanistan. This blue was once worth its weight in gold. It was used, most notably, to give the Virgin Mary’s robes their striking color in centuries of artwork. And the teeth that were embedded with this blue likely belonged to a scribe or painter of medieval manuscripts… [T]hese embedded blue particles in her teeth illuminate a forgotten history of medieval manuscripts: Not just monks made them. In the medieval ages, nuns also produced the famously laborious and beautiful books. And some of these women must have been very good, if they were using pigment as precious and rare as ultramarine.’

Anita Radini from the University of York, and her co-author Christina Warinner, a microbiome researcher at the Max Planck Institute were actually looking for other things, but became captivated by the blue particles on the teeth.

Alison Beach, an historian at Ohio State University who studies female scribes from 12th century Germany has cataloged the overlooked contributions of women to medieval book production and she noted that ‘while most manuscripts with signatures are signed by men, the vast majority of manuscripts are unsigned. But a small number of surviving manuscripts are signed by women, and scholars have found correspondence between monks and nuns about book production.’

The question about the lapis lazuli was obviously how it got into the woman’s dental plaque in the first place, though. Was it through some sort of medicine, or even from devotional kissing the of the manuscript? Both of these things were ruled out by knowledge of contemporary practices, and the fact that the particles were particularly fine suggested that ‘the stones were purposefully made into pigment.’

Finally, it was concluded that ‘two scenarios are most likely: The woman was a painter who could have ingested ultramarine paint while licking her brush to a point, or she breathed in the powder while preparing pigment for herself or someone else.’

Either way, though, the findings are certainly evidence of the largely unreported roll of women in medieval life -and the respect accorded them in their areas of expertise. Admittedly, in this case the scriptors and illustrators were nuns, and presumably more educated than the vast majority of feudal peasants of the time outside of their walls -and yet, so were most of the men in the grips of that same system.

Given the intellectual equality of the genders, I wonder how much more there is about historical women we do not yet appreciate. Since women were not usually allowed to sign the religious scripts on which they had worked, how many other things were they contributing that has been lost to time? I cannot believe that men when confronted with problems, whether in trade or everyday practical issues, would not consult with their wives for solutions -especially if survival was at stake.

Of course, special cases like Hildegard von Bingen spring all too easily to mind. She was a German Benedictine abbess living between 1098 and 1179, and so roughly contemporaneous with the lapis woman (whose bones were dated to between 997 and 1162). As Wikipedia describes her, she was a ‘writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.’ I have to admit that I only became acquainted with her because of her music, not her numerous other talents, but the very fact that she was able to be fêted in her own time despite her apparent lack of instruction in ‘the Seven Liberal Arts, which formed the basis of all education for the learned classes in the Middle Ages’ encourages me to think that others, albethey less well known, were also able to succeed along with her.

Still, I suppose we may have to await future discoveries to appreciate just how much women in less publicized arenas contributed to the well-being of their families, or the success of their husbands engaged in other endeavours.

But hurray for teeth, eh…?