Medieval Woman Who Wrote Sacred Christian Texts and Had 'Vast Global Communication Network' Discovered

medieval teeth
The lower jaw of a medieval woman who is believed to have produced sacred texts. Her skeleton was found at the site of a women’s monastery that existed 1,000 years ago. Christina Warinner

The remains of a medieval woman who produced sacred texts and was "plugged into a vast global communication network" that would have stretched to Afghanistan has been discovered in Germany.

The woman's skeleton was uncovered at the site of a women's monastery that existed from around the 10th century AD through to its destruction in the 14th century. Historical records indicate it was home to around 14 religious women.

An examination showed the woman died around 1000 to 1200 A.D., was between 45 and 60 years of age and had no evidence of trauma or illness. Further analysis revealed something unexpected—the presence of an extremely rare and expensive pigment in her teeth.

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This blue pigment, called ultramarine, was used by religious people in the Middle Ages to create manuscripts and sacred texts. More expensive than gold, it was used to illuminate texts and would have only been used by the most skilled scribes and painters. Ultramarine is made from lapis lazuli stone, which is mined from a specific location in Afghanistan.

Published in Science Advances, experts with Germany's Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the U.K.'s University of York found lapis lazuli pigment in the calcified dental plaque of the woman. They found particles in different teeth, which indicates they were entering the teeth over a period of time—rather than being a one-off anomaly.

After considering a number of different scenarios for how the pigment ended up in her teeth, researchers came to the conclusion that she would have been painting with ultramarine. She likely licked the end of the brush while painting, explained Monica Tromp, one of the study authors.

That a woman was producing these books challenges several long-held assumptions about the role of women during the Middle Ages.

"She was plugged in to a vast global commercial network stretching from the mines of Afghanistan to her community in medieval Germany through the trading metropolises of Islamic Egypt and Byzantine Constantinople," Harvard University's Michael McCormick, one of the study authors, said in a statement.

"The growing economy of 11th century Europe fired demand for the precious and exquisite pigment that traveled thousands of miles via merchant caravan and ships to serve this woman artist's creative ambition."

Instances of women producing religious texts are difficult to ascertain: Most scribes did not sign their work, and this was especially true of women. "Here we have direct evidence of a woman, not just painting, but painting with a very rare and expensive pigment, and at a very out-of-the way place," senior author Christina Warinner said. "This woman's story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques. It makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries—if we only look."

Justine Firnhaber-Baker, Senior Lecturer in Late Mediaeval History at the U.K.'s University of St. Andrews, who was not involved in the study, commented on the findings. "This is a really exciting paper on a number of different fronts," she told Newsweek. "First of all, it demonstrates just how interconnected the medieval world was that this rare item produced only in Afghanistan shows up in a minor female monastery in Germany. Most people assume that medieval Europe was cut off from the rest of world, but that just wasn't the case.

"Second, there's the new light that is shed on medieval women's lives. There is much more textual evidence for medieval women than most people probably think, but it is true that we know far less about medieval women than we do about medieval men. Work like this allows us to go beyond textual sources, which were mostly written by men about men—especially rich, powerful men."

She said we knew some women produced some books—but this research indicates female scribe activity might have been widespread as it was happening in such a minor place. "Finally, and maybe most important, is the partnerships between scientists and historians that produce this kind of work," Firnhaber-Baker said.

"The historians need the scientists for the genetic and molecular analysis that demonstrates that there is lapis in the teeth of a middle-aged woman who died sometime between the late 10th to early 12th century. But the scientists need the historians like Alison Beach, an expert in medieval manuscript production who contributed to this article, to interpret the significance of that fact."

Lapis lazuli particles were embedded in the woman’s teeth, as seen in this magnified view. Monica Tromp