Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Question of Evidence

The fundamental exercise of the medieval historian is teasing a narrative out of an often scattered or incomplete body of evidence.  At our last meeting, we once again discussed some of the problems that evidence (or the lack of it) can pose for the researcher of animals in the Middle Ages.  How should we interpret archaeological findings, for example?  Do medieval animal remains offer us a comprehensive view of the ways in which people and animals during the period encountered one another?

In the case of the latter question, we seemed to agree that it is highly problematic to argue for continuity of animal experience for the whole of medieval Europe going off of isolated archaeological evidence alone.  Nevertheless, an archaeological approach can be extremely useful as a means of filling in gaps in our knowledge stemming from incomplete records or conflicting accounts.  Our readings on rats and the plague were informed by substantial use of archaeological data and epidemiological/statistical modeling.  The findings of these modern scientific approaches were interpreted against the backdrop of more standard forms of medieval historical evidence (writings and art), resulting in novel theories about the relationship between rats and the spread of plague in the fourteenth century.  It seems to me, however, that David E. Davis either undercuts the importance of his own research or underestimates its potential value for the historian when he says that the Rattus rattus’s presence in Europe prior to the outbreak of the plague is of lesser concern to the medievalist than the plague’s consequences (Davis, 468).  Most historians, I would wager, value understanding of the causes behind events just as highly as they do understanding of the consequences of events—but this is just a personal quibble I had with Davis’s presentation.

On Friday we also discussed another important piece of evidence relating to uses and conceptions of animals in the Middle Ages, the medieval manuscript.  As Bruce Holsinger, Carlo Federici, Anna di Majo, and Marco Palma point out, even confronting the textual evidence available to us from the medieval period (or at least those pieces of it not written on paper) raises certain zooarchaeological concerns that are not factors for historians of other cultures and periods.  Simply put, the medieval corpus is quite literally corporeal, a vast collection of “millions of stains on animal parts” (Holsinger, 619).  To borrow Holsinger’s borrowed Borges metaphor, parchment manuscripts are the camels of medieval animal studies, at once the (relatively) numerous and tangible remains of animals from the period and a largely untapped source of potential insight into the biological footprint of an age (the value placed on many manuscripts makes evaluation of them as archaeological specimens difficult, for a variety of reasons).

Reading Holsinger and Federici, et al., I was reminded of Michael Clanchy’s influential assessment of medieval literacy and the rise of written culture, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307.  Whereas Holsinger exhorts medievalists to recognize that the prodigious intellectual ferment of the Middle Ages was predicated on the widespread slaughter of animals, Clanchy sets aside whatever moral implications are bound up in slaughter as textual transmission.  He speaks instead to the monetary costs of parchment in England during the early thirteenth century.  Rather than focusing on the value of the animal from which a manuscript’s pages were derived, Clanchy underlines the direct relationship between a manuscript’s value and the high cost of the labor that went into producing it (Clanchy, 122).  Clanchy argues that parchment was not nearly as expensive as one might suspect.  By extension, he puts forward that the animals used for making parchment also were not as expensive as we might think.  Citing Postan’s work on thirteenth-century animal demography in Wiltshire, which we discussed two meetings ago, Clanchy maintains that a small quantity of sheep skins (relative to the total number of sheep in a single locality) could have provided the royal chancery with parchment for a year.  The chancery, moreover, would have been the largest consumer of parchments at that time (Clanchy, 123).  I mention Clanchy’s study not for the purpose of minimizing animal slaughter for parchment during the period but rather to provide some additional context for Holsinger.  Indeed, it took many animals to make a book, but then there were also many animals.

Clanchy also is noteworthy for certain assertions he made scarcely twenty years ago which no longer hold true, namely that “Once a parchment has been scraped and prepared for writing on, it is usually impossible to tell which species of animal skin is being used” (Clanchy, 121).  As shown in our reading by Federici, et al., new approaches to the problem of medieval zooarchaeological evidence are constantly in development.


*--Clanchy also addresses another animal-derived product not mentioned in our readings: wax made from bees, which was used for note tablets and for sealing documents (Clanchy, 57-62).  He makes some interesting connections between increased wax production and a rise in letter writing during the thirteenth century.  Almost all of From Memory to Written Record is available here.

Carlo Federici, Anna Di Majo and Marco Palma, “The Determination of Animal Species Used in Medieval Parchment Making: Non-Destructive Identification Techniques,” in Roger Powell: The Compleat Binder, eds. Guy Petherbridge and John L. Sharpe (Turnhout: Brepols, 1996), pp. 146-53.

Bruce Holsinger, "Of Pigs and Parchment: Medieval Studies and the Coming of the Animal," PMLA 124. 2 (March 2009): 616–623.

David E. Davis, “The Scarcity of Rats and the Black Death: An Ecological History,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 16.3 (1986): 455-70.

Michael McCormick, “Rats, Communications, and Plague: Toward and Ecological History,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34.1 (2003): 1-25.

Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).


  1. Very good point about the relative labor cost of parchment as opposed to absolute numbers of animals used. A modern analogy might be the relative number of animals killed to make fur clothing as opposed to the numbers killed for food. Fur is a highly visible use of animals, but burgers are far more destructive in absolute numbers. Good points, too, about the bees and about the ways in which the nature of our evidence changes as our abilities to retrieve information from it change.


  2. We talked about the main animal products: things like parchment, leather, fur, food, fertilizer and such. However, we didn’t talk much about all the secondary type products that animals in the Middle Ages provided, all the things we don’t think about much but were essential to daily life. For example, animal fat was essential for cooking, for soap making, cheap candle making, as well as greasing tools and wheels and such. Beeswax was essential for high quality candles that were used in the church or in wealthy homes as well as for the wax tablets that monks and scribes would write on to take notes before transcribing them onto a more permanent medium. Bone was used for both handles of tools and tools themselves, and bone styli were essential to carve the wax tablets. Fish vertebrae were a popular, inexpensive, and ready-made rosary bead if one couldn’t afford carved bone or wood. Limb bones of mammals were carved into flutes and parts of other instruments for entertainment and communication. Horsehair was used for brushes when painting while eggs were a primary ingredient in many paints. Quills were preferred for writing on parchments while plants, bugs and shells were used in the making of dyes and paint colors. There are a lot of products that the animals provided that allowed medieval people to then produce the products that we normally associate with them: the artwork, the parchments, the tools, the religious traditions and such. These could not have happened without the more ignored and forgotten animal products that made such things possible.When we are establishing the relative labor costs and necessities, we cant forget these.