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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Dec 8;112(49):15066-71. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1512264112. Epub 2015 Nov 23.

Animal origin of 13th-century uterine vellum revealed using noninvasive peptide fingerprinting.

Author information

BioArCh, Department of Archaeology, University of York, York YO10 5DD, United Kingdom;
Department of English, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4121;
Institut de recherche Religions, spiritualités, cultures, sociétés, Université catholique de Louvain, 1348 Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium;
Department of English/Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19014;
UMR 7041 Archéologie et Sciences de l'Antiquité (ArScAn), Archéologies environnementales, Université de Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, F-92023 Nanterre Cedex, France;
Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S1 4ET, United Kingdom;
Target Discovery Institute, Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 7FZ, United Kingdom;
Department of Conservation, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge CB3 9DR, United Kingdom;
Collection Care, Norfolk Record Office, Norwich NR1 2DQ, United Kingdom;
Department of Manuscripts and Printed Books, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge CB2 1RB, United Kingdom;
Smurfit Institute of Genetics, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 2, Ireland;
Collection Care, The University of Manchester Library, The John Rylands Library, Manchester M3 3EH, United Kingdom;
Department of Italian, University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PL, United Kingdom;
School of Art History, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Fife KY16 9AL, United Kingdom;
Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210;
Department of Preservation, The Royal Library, DK-1016 København K, Denmark;
Department of History, University of York, York YO10 5DD, United Kingdom.
BioArCh, Department of Archaeology, University of York, York YO10 5DD, United Kingdom;


Tissue-thin parchment made it possible to produce the first pocket Bibles: Thousands were made in the 13th century. The source of this parchment, often called "uterine vellum," has been a long-standing controversy in codicology. Use of the Latin term abortivum in many sources has led some scholars to suggest that the skin of fetal calves or sheep was used. Others have argued that it would not be possible to sustain herds if so many pocket Bibles were produced from fetal skins, arguing instead for unexpected alternatives, such as rabbit. Here, we report a simple and objective technique using standard conservation treatments to identify the animal origin of parchment. The noninvasive method is a variant on zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry (ZooMS) peptide mass fingerprinting but extracts protein from the parchment surface by using an electrostatic charge generated by gentle rubbing of a PVC eraser on the membrane surface. Using this method, we analyzed 72 pocket Bibles originating in France, England, and Italy and 293 additional parchment samples that bracket this period. We found no evidence for the use of unexpected animals; however, we did identify the use of more than one mammal species in a single manuscript, consistent with the local availability of hides. These results suggest that ultrafine vellum does not necessarily derive from the use of abortive or newborn animals with ultrathin hides, but could equally well reflect a production process that allowed the skins of maturing animals of several species to be rendered into vellum of equal quality and fineness.


collagen; mass spectrometry; parchment; pocket Bible; vellum

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