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DNA from Medieval Manuscripts

December 27, 2020

Illuminated manuscript showing Cistercian monks at work and prayer, Cambridge Collection (PD)

Scientists have succeeded in extracting DNA from a 1000 year old manuscript known as the York Gospels.  The manuscript contains the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, along with clergy oaths and land records [1].

Illuminated Manuscripts

Medieval monks crafted illuminated manuscripts which other churchmen read and handled, down the centuries.

Human and Animal DNA

That DNA from such individuals should have been obtained is nothing short of amazing.  DNA has, also, though been obtained from the cows and sheep whose skins became the parchment onto which the York Gospels were written.

Using animal DNA, researchers can trace medieval trade routes, or discover how a particular disease pathogen impacted medieval herds.  Three samples yielded enough DNA to compare cattle genomes from the Middle Ages with today’s.  The most complete parchment genome was similar to modern Holsteins and Norwegian reds.

Non-Destructive Testing

Surprisingly, the DNA was extracted without destroying a shred of parchment. Conservationists commonly use erasers to clean manuscripts.  The DNA from those eraser crumbs was sufficient!

Scientists have obtained DNA from parchment before.  However, this non-destructive method of testing greatly enlarges the pool of potential research material.

Science and the Humanities

There is a growing trend to bring together science and the humanities in studying medieval manuscripts.  Medievalists analyzing copy errors in manuscripts already use the same phylogenetic programs biologists use to study how DNA mutates with time.

The Truth of the Gospels

The monks creating such beautiful manuscripts could not have imagined how much later ages would learn from their work.  The aim of those humble men was to preserve and transmit the truth of the gospels by faithfully transcribing them.

We can only hope spiritual truth is not overshadowed by scientific advancements.

[1]  The Atlantic, “Sampling DNA from a 1000-Year Old Medieval Manuscript” by Sarah Zhang, 8/8/17,

Wishing You All A Happy New Year!


From → Christian, Faith, Religion

  1. Absolutely amazing, and so encouraging, Anna. Many thanks.

    I think scientific advances will only confirm long-held biblical truth. Was it CH Spurgeon (?) who said that we never have to defend a lion, all we need to do is open the cage door.

    And fortunately God has his faithful remnant.

    God’s steadfast love be with you in the New Year!

  2. Medieval manuscripts were always my love when I was an art teacher — they still are!
    Most of the pieces I did were based on such.
    And to think about extracting DNA from the parchment is amazing!
    I would tell the kids that art can be both utilitarian as well aesthetically pleasing — something pretty to look at and something to learn from- thank you for sharing Anna!!!! Fascinating!

    • Thank you so much for the comment, Cookie. I’m sorry it took so long to post. My spam filter was clogged.

  3. Yes, amazing. I love your conclusion Anna “We can only hope spiritual truth is not overshadowed by scientific advancements.”
    We as people get distracted easily from the truth (Jesus) as a person as well as His Word of truth preserved so well.

  4. Scientific advancements will further confirm spiritual truths 😊👍 We only know so little, and science only explains what happens in the material world–by modeling, because there’s so much we still haven’t seen.

    Happy Christmas, Anna. Bless you 🍀

  5. Anna, you wrote: “We can only hope spiritual truth is not overshadowed by scientific advancements.”

    Look around this world today. Even this article you quote from is all about scientific advancement with DNA and not a word about the spiritual truths in those manuscripts especially from one who reads them with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. It is the unbridled advancement of science that men look too and as a result “spiritual truth” is not even in the running and the cultures of the world are degenerating rapidly as a result. Scientific advancement without spiritual morality is the difference between using nuclear energy to make electricity to serve mankind and making it into bombs that can wipe the earth clean of all human life. Oh that mankind would yield and walk after the Spirit and not after the the old fleshly ways of Adam. Or as Paul wrote,

    This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you no longer walk as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart… But you have not so learned Christ;If so be that you have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus:” (Eph 4:17-21, KJ2000)

    • Your rebuke greatly saddens me, Michael. I thought you knew me better.

      • Dear Anna, I did not mean this as a rebuke to you, but as a comment on how science is more often used by man for the worst. Such as focusing on the DNA found on a book of the Bible or a scroll instead of meditating on the very words written. The irony of science always amazes me. Mankind finds it easier to turn scientific discovery into a weapon than into a cure, thus we have terrible biologic weapons being unleashed on the world. Or how they kill an unborn infant in the name of science in order to extract stem cells.

        I am sorry you took it personal, Anna.


      • So right, Michael. Both medicine and science are gifts from God.

        God, Himself, is called the Great Healer (Ex. 15: 26). He directed that Abraham and his descendants submit to a surgical procedure, i.e. circumcision (Gen. 17: 10). The Bible repeatedly refers to medicine in a positive way (Prov. 17: 22; Isa. 38: 21; Ezek. 47: 12; Rev. 22: 2).

        And God created a world that is comprehensible by mankind. Many great scientists actually viewed science as a means of understanding God better. Readers can find several here:

        Yet, today we have deluded ourselves into believing mankind — the accidental product of evolution, so we are told — can exist w/o God. We are dazzled by our own cleverness. And the all the while God holds our very molecules together.

      • Anna, thanks for your kind reply. There was a time in early scientific discovery that men saw science as “understanding God better,” but it seems that ever since the writings of Darwin became foundational in the sciences, men have given that up and left God out of the picture. In fact Karl Marx used Darwin’s writings as a foundation for his writings that led to atheistic communism which has enslaved men and women by the millions ever since.

        There was a man named Michael Faraday in England in the early 1800’s that discovered the relationship of magnetism and electricity and he personally invented the first electrical generator and motor and many other discoveries that led the way for many of our modern electrical and electronic conveniences today. He was a devout believer in Christ and a praying man. A reporter once asked him what he contributed his genius to. He replied, “I just happened to be listening when the information came through.” He knew from the scriptures that, “…In Christ In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col 2,3, KJ2000). But today we seem to have in modern science a fulfillment of Paul’s words that they are, “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2Tim 3:7, ESV2011). We who believe know that in the eyes of God Christ is the summation of all truth and in Him is hidden the treasures of not only knowledge, but wisdom. Wisdom is active when man listens to God what He would have us do with that knowledge. With Michael Faraday, the knowledge he received confirmed him all the more in his faith in Christ, but few scientists have that wisdom today and as a result scientific discovery often leads to inventions used for evil.

        BTW, there has been a small group of astrophysicists that have seen God in their discoveries. Have you ever seen the documentary called, “The Privileged Planet?” It is a wonderful revealing of how God made the earth we live on and its relationship to the universe so that we would believe in Him.

      • No, I have not seen that particular documentary. However, the Oxford mathematician and Christian apologist John Lennox writes on the topic. I enjoy his work immensely, and highly recommend it to readers.

        Thank you for your comments, Michael.

      • Allan Halton permalink

        Hi Michael, I love Michael Faraday’s response, ““I just happened to be listening when the information came through.”
        I pray that we too may ever “happen to be listening.” Who knows what “information” might come through?

      • Anna, you can watch “The Privileged Planet” here:

      • Thanks! You are always a resource, Michael.

  6. Great post Anna,
    This is amazing, God said that knowledge would increase, and it sure has.
    It is sad how many writings and manuscripts have been destroyed through war in the Middle East.
    I am thankful God ensured The Word would never be lost.
    Wishing you a blessed New Year 🙂

  7. Allan Halton permalink

    Hi Anna, we are debtors to those early monks and scribes who painstakingly copied the original manuscripts over and over again. Who knows how many have been truly illuminated with the help of their illuminated manuscripts.
    A blessed New Year, Anna.

  8. Fascinating they were able to extract DNA from manuscripts that long ago

  9. Fascinating and quite amazing!

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