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Funding boost for UCD partnership on pioneering research into ‘invisible’ work of medieval women

Posted 28 June, 2024

An international research effort co-lead by University College Dublin unearthing the significant role women have played in historical artistic work has received a near €1.8m funding boost by the (opens in a new window)Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

A team of historians and archaeological scientists from UCD, (opens in a new window)University of St Andrews, and the universities of Aberdeen and Turin, will explore the role of women in the spiritual, intellectual, artistic, social, and economic landscapes of medieval and early modern society.

Led by (opens in a new window)Alison Beach, Professor of Medieval History from the School of History at St Andrews, and Co-led by (opens in a new window)Dr Anita Radini at UCD School of Archaeology, the project ‘(opens in a new window)Word of Mouth: Embodied Stories of Premodern Women at Work’ aims to push the boundaries within which archaeologists and historians can track the invisible workforce of the past.

This pioneering research focuses on the period between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, and builds on the work of Dr Radini, who, as part of an international team working on health and diet in the Middle Ages, (opens in a new window)discovered lapis lazuli pigment in the mouth of a nun buried in medieval German monastery in 2019. Professor Beach’s historical work linked the discovery to manuscript illumination.

Lapis lazuli was one of the rarest and most expensive artistic materials in the Middle Ages, with very few highly skilled artists entrusted with its use in decorating only the most valuable religious items.

The pigment is believed to have been lodged in the woman’s teeth as she used her tongue to shape the end of a paintbrush, indicating that women played a more significant role in artistic work than had been reflected in historical records.

The extraordinary discovery by the UCD archaeologist saw her last year awarded the prestigious Dan David Prize - the largest award for history research in the world.

Dr Anita Radini, UCD School of Archaeology 

It also contributed to the growing volume of evidence challenging exclusionary narratives about the nature and scope of medieval and premodern women’s artistic and economic activities.

Now Professor Beach, Dr Radini and others are building on this discovery in a five-year project that will look in depth at the lives of over 300 premodern female skeletons from Germany, Italy, England, and Iberia through analysis of their skeletons.

“This project brings together a team of top historians and archaeological scientists to open new windows on the lives of medieval women who have been lost to history,” said Primary Investigator Professor Beach. “We can’t wait to get to work!”

Dr Radini, international Co-Lead, added: “I am truly delighted to be able to carry on with the work Alison and I started a few years back and to work with such a fantastic team! This project has true potential to change the way we look at the workforce in past societies, starting from women! I, too, cannot wait to start. I am also very excited to be able to continue to develop methods to track craft people from their skeletal remains, which has been a core part of my research for a number of years."

Moving between the library and laboratory, the project will integrate historical research with cutting-edge analysis of human remains, experimental archaeology, and materials analysis (the study of archaeological and historical artefacts), to provide novel and nuanced insights into these women’s lived experiences and evaluate social inequality among religious women.

Bioarchaeological analysis, which includes the physical, chemical and biomolecular examination of skeletons, will discern the physical traces left by craft and skilled artistic labour from those left by religious labour, such as extensive kneeling in prayer.

While a chemical analysis of bones and teeth will reveal the past dietary habits, and even childhood origins of the women studied.

Dr Rosa Boano, and St Andrews PhD student Sally Mubarak, who will co-lead the search of ancient biomolecules preserved in human remains

These results will be used to produce enhanced osteobiographies, life stories of individuals as told by their skeleton, which will be synthesised with textual analysis to establish a greater understanding of the activities in which women participated, and of the impact of this participation on women’s bodies and health.

Dr Rosa Boano and Professor Beatrice Demarchi of the University of Turin, who will lead the team in search of ancient biomolecules preserved in human remains, said they are "delighted to be part of this fascinating journey of discovery of working women's lives across Europe."

“We’re so excited to get started on this project,” said Professor Kate Britton from the University of Aberdeen who, along with specialist technician Dr Orsolya Czére also at Aberdeen, will lead the isotope (chemical) research.

“Isotope analysis provides a window into the lives people led hundreds of years ago – the choices they made, and even where they came from. We’ll use different methods to understand the types of foods these women regularly consumed, and to identify individuals who may have died and been buried far away from where they grew up.”

Dr Czére, whose doctoral research focused on using isotope analysis to explore the lives of Medieval Scottish people, including friars in Aberdeen, added: “These methods allow us to examine individual diet and mobility during late childhood, the teenage years, and into adulthood. Through this, we’ll witness the life-journeys of these women and gain crucial insights into the roles they played in, and how they were perceived by, their broader societies.”

“I think we are going to get some surprises,” added Professor Britton, “Women’s stories from the past are most often told for them, portraying a very restricted view of their life-journeys. In this project we are going to let them tell their own stories.”

By:  David Kearns, Digital Journalist / Media Officer, UCD University Relations

To contact the UCD News & Content Team, email: newsdesk@ucd.ie