Crafts, Medieval

Shedding Some Light on Those Beastly Dark Ages

I saw this story the other day, and sent the link to my stepdaughter and sister at approximately the same time as my stepdaughter sent the link to me and my sister, and only a moment or two before my sister sent the link to my stepdaughter and me. The circle of life. Connections. Not quite psychokinesis, but almost. I love it when that sort of thing happens among those I love.

It’s the story of an 11th-century nun at a small German monastery just south of what is now Frankfurt. The monastery was completely destroyed in a fire in the fourteenth century, but records remain, and the nearby cemetery has been excavated. Among the remains retrieved are those of a nun, aged somewhere between 45 and 60 when she died in approximately AD 1100.

What puzzled and fascinated scientists were the blue flecks in her teeth. (What puzzled and fascinated me is how she apparently had, well into middle age, managed to hold onto such a fine set of choppers at all, given what we think we know about the times in which she lived. But I digress.)

Blue flecks. Teeth.

Scientists, studying her teeth and the plaque that had accumulated on them (no Obamacare. No dental insurance. No regular six-month cleaning and polishing) noticed that it contained a number of brightly colored flecks that they couldn’t explain, but which they didn’t think could be ascribed to her diet (which is the thing they were actually researching). So they sent some scrapings off for X-ray spectroscopy and were shocked when the substance was identified as tiny bits of lapis lazuli, a rare, semi-precious stone mined, at the time that the nun lived, only in northeastern Afghanistan.

Why would a small German monastery have access to this rare and beautiful rock, and what could it possibly be used for?

As it turns out, that’s an easy question to answer. Lapis Lazuli is the source of ultramarine blue, a pigment used in only the most highly priced and decorative illuminated manuscripts, and only by the most experienced and expert of scribes. After all, you wouldn’t want to waste any, after its almost 3,000-mile journey on the Silk Road to your little cloister and into your tiny scriptorium.

All the evidence points to this unnamed nun being a skilled painter of manuscripts and one who worked at her calling for years (given the layers of plaque and the depth and number of colored flecks in her teeth). And this has turned at least more than one assumption about the soi-disant “Dark Ages” on its head.

First: Historians are beginning to rethink the network of connections and the depth and complexity of the trade routes at the time. After all, if a small, undistinguished, little monastery like this one had ultramarine blue pigment for its scribes to use, it must have had access to, and traded with, the folks selling it.

Second: You know all those stories you’re used to hearing of the monks saving Western Civilization by copying ancient texts, in the monastic libraries (about the only thing those “Dark Ages” ever seem to get any credit for)? And you know those illuminations, showing them, cloaked almost from head-to-toe in their religious habits, working away, writing, drawing and painting like mad? Saving Western Civilization? For us “ungrateful little twerps“? (One of the funniest scenes, from one of my favorite movies.)

Get ready for a gender-bending exercise, courtesy of a small 11th-century lady who, as was standard practice during her lifetime, and as part of her life’s work, used to moisten her paintbrush now and then by putting the end of it in her mouth and adding a little saliva to make the color flow.

Ready?

Some of those men were almost certainly women.

And the best part? No gruesome surgery or trans, or dis, figuration was required for them to live their dream and do the work they were born to do, hundreds of years before most people believed such a thing was even possible, or that such a thing could stand.

Just a bit more evidence that really, people haven’t changed much over the last millennium. And I’m glad.

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