Women haven't always gotten the credit they deserved––then and now.
Combine society's tendency to undermine women's contributions with a rather thrilling archaeological discovery and you have both something cool and exciting to bring up to your friends, as well as a source of newfound inspiration.
According to a new study published in Science, a woman who died in Germany roughly 1,000 years ago and was buried in an unmarked grave in a church cemetery, had lapis lazuli pigment preserved in her dental calculus.
Lapis lazuli, which has a brilliant blue pigment, was mined only in Afghanistan and "transformed the European color palette," according to the researchers. Ultramarine, the powdered form of lapis lazuli, was the finest and most expensive pigment of the medieval era, and valued more highly than gold.
"The early use of this pigment by a religious woman challenges widespread assumptions about its limited availability in medieval Europe and the gendered production of illuminated texts," the research team wrote, noting that "the application of highly pure ultramarine in illuminated works was restricted to luxury books of high value and importance, and only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use."
You read that correctly. This woman, whoever she was, has challenged what we thought we knew about women and their role in the art world of medieval Europe. It gets better.
The researchers continue:
Before the 15th century, however, scribes seldom signed their works, raising questions as to the identity of early scribes and illuminators. Even among books in women's monastery libraries, fewer than 15% bear female names or titles, and before the 12th century, fewer than 1% of books can be attributed to women. Consequently, it has long been assumed that monks, rather than nuns, were the primary producers of books throughout the Middle Ages. Recent historical research, however, has challenged this view, revealing that religious women were not only literate but also prolific producers and consumers of books... From the 13th to the 16th centuries, during which documentary evidence and record keeping in Germany is more complete, more than 4000 books attributed to over 400 women scribes have been identified, and active scriptoria have been identified at 48 women's monasteries. However, identifying the early contributions of religious women to medieval book production is challenging due to the limited number of surviving books, the precarious documentation of women's monasteries, and the tendency of scribes to leave their work unsigned. As a result, individual female scribes remain poorly visible in the historical record, and it is likely that most of their scribal work has gone unrecognized. ...
Radiocarbon-dated to AD 997–1162, this woman represents the earliest direct evidence of ultramarine pigment usage by a religious woman in Germany. Moreover, because the monastery and the entirety of its contents were destroyed during a 14th-century fire, this finding of lapis lazuli potentially represents the sole surviving evidence of female scribal activity at the site.
"It's kind of a bombshell for my field — it's so rare to find material evidence of women's artistic and literary work in the Middle Ages," said Alison Beach, a professor of medieval history at Ohio State University. "If you picture someone in the Middle Ages making a fine illuminated manuscript, you probably picture a monk — a man," Beach added. "Because things are much better documented for men, it's encouraged people to imagine a male world. This helps us correct that bias. This tooth opens a window on what activities women also were engaged in."
Licking the tip of a paintbrush to get a fine tip would likely account for how the residue got into the woman's mouth, researchers posited. A frequently licked paintbrush is the most likely option, but the team also suggested the woman (identified as B78) could have helped produce the stone or used it in a medical treatment.
Some art experts are skeptical, however, dismissing the idea that a woman could have been skilled enough to use ultramarine. According to Christina Warinner, the study's co-author, one skeptic suggested that the woman came into contact with ultramarine because she was likely the cleaning lady.
This exciting news has captivated many people keen on seeing a new addition to the historical record.
Amazing historical detective work. Tiny flakes of lapis lazuli caught in a nun's teeth prove women were top medieva… https://t.co/3d2NlY5pzC— Emma Graham-Harrison (@Emma Graham-Harrison)1547389652.0
@_EmmaGH @TheAtlantic I loved this story, how our bodies hold secrets.— Madame Librarian (@Madame Librarian)1547391802.0
This is such an incredible bit of sleuthing. Scientists found mysterious blue particles in a 1000-year-old woman'… https://t.co/BrvlRc3ITE— Sarah Zhang (@Sarah Zhang)1547061461.0
This is SUCH a fascinating story and also it continues to amaze me the ways people will reach just so that they don… https://t.co/hvWaOyRMDy— Anne Thériault (@Anne Thériault)1547093495.0
The most delightful thing I've read in ages! "Beach also identified a book using lapis lazuli that was written by a… https://t.co/oIBxNMKJ2t— Dr. Stephennie Mulder (@Dr. Stephennie Mulder)1547070443.0
@sarahzhang @DrLindseyFitz That's awesome. Reading Oxford Medieval mysteries series by the late and wonderful… https://t.co/6XXmN4aRAY— Rufa Crispa (@Rufa Crispa)1547062908.0
I share in excitement about recent lapis lazuli discovery. But here's the thing: it *adds* to the existing scholars… https://t.co/diP2yQKSNy— Elizabeth Lehfeldt (@Elizabeth Lehfeldt)1547122122.0
We, for one, are happy to hear this woman is finally getting her due.