Campus & Community

DNA and the fall of Rome:

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McCormick uses grant to bring scholars together

Michael McCormick, history
Michael McCormick teaches a history class in Robinson Hall. (Staff photo by Jon Chase)

Michael McCormick is trying to figure out how to spend $1.5 million.

The money comes from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has chosen McCormick to receive one of its Distinguished Achievement Awards.

The awards, which made their debut last year, are designed to honor scholars in the humanities (McCormick is the Francis Goelet Professor of Medieval History). They are also designed to enhance scholarship and teaching at the institution with which the recipient is affiliated. This means that McCormick doesn’t get to deposit the money in his personal bank account, but he does get to have a major voice in deciding what to do with it.

“I want to use it to produce new knowledge, not just new interpretations,” he said. “I want to bring together people who have never spoken to each other before, who may have overlapping interests but don’t realize iMcCormick’s dream is to assemble an interdisciplinary team of scholars and have them focus their combined expertise on the fall of the Roman Empire and the origins of medieval Europe. He believes that when such a team begins to share insights, illumination may come in unexpected ways and from unexpected directions. Biologists, for example, may lead the way in discovering new information about life in medieval Europe.

DNA and the Middle Ages

“Medievalists are just beginning to be aware of the implications of the revolutions now occurring in the life sciences for the knowledge of the past,” he said. “Ancient DNA has proven to be remarkably tough and, even though it is usually no longer completely intact, enough can survive to open up new windows to the past.”

According to McCormick, some specialists have been able to establish kinship among people entombed in the same area of an early medieval cemetery. Others have used DNA evidence to distinguish wild from domesticated geese on Anglo-Saxon farmsteads, and thus illuminate the development of early agriculture and husbandry.

Techniques of biological research may even provide new insights into a field that has long been the province of traditional scholarship – the study of ancient and medieval manuscripts.

“Theoretically, the DNA of the animals whose skins furnished the parchment pages of ancient and medieval books survives in that parchment,” McCormick said. “It might be possible not only to determine the species of animal that supplied the skin, it might even be possible to reconstitute the history of the herds from which they came.”

The history of disease is undergoing a revolution today as well, precipitated by the revolution in molecular biology. And disease, McCormick points out, is not just about human suffering, important though that is. Networks of contagion are often networks of communication, and major epidemics have differential demographic and economic impacts.

In England, for example, recent research has provided molecular evidence that a particularly devastating form of malaria afflicted Roman Italy in the fourth century A.D. French medical researchers at the University of Marseilles demonstrated the presence of bubonic plague DNA in the excavated remains of victims of the 14th century Black Death. Such evidence is of great interest to McCormick and other scholars investigating the nature, extent, and impact of the great wave of plagues that helped bring down the Roman economy in the age of Justinian.

What the saints have to tell us

New techniques borrowed from the sciences may also shed new light on one of the most traditional historical sources, the lives of the saints. McCormick is interested in studying these texts using new techniques of linguistic analysis of language known as “computational philology.”

McCormick is particularly interested in saints’ lives from the early Middle Ages that have been rejected by Church authorities as spurious or wildly inaccurate. These tales of martyrs and miracle-workers have been floating for centuries in a sort of scholarly limbo, but McCormick, who has earned something of a reputation for discovering compelling historical data in unlikely places, believes they may have valuable truths to tell us.

“For example, there’s one text by a ninth century author about a disciple of St. Mark who takes ship in Venice and sails to Alexandria. Well, in the first century, when the story is supposed to take place, there was no Venice. A story like that might not tell you much about the first century, but it might tell you a great deal about ninth century shipping.”

McCormick believes these tales, which number in the thousands, contain a tremendous amount of data about everyday life in those remote centuries. He hopes to subject them to systematic study, beginning with a statistical analysis of their linguistic elements to try to determine their dates of origin.

By getting scholars from a variety of disciplines to focus on the Middle Ages, McCormick hopes to uncover knowledge that specialists might have missed.

“There’s a tendency among specialists in a field to dig more and more deeply in one area. Well, it’s hard to both dig deeply and see broadly. I’ve found that the scholarly conferences at which I’ve learned the most are the ones where I’ve met the most new people, people from outside my area of expertise.”

Travelers and traders

Digging deeply and seeing broadly may be difficult, but it’s a feat that McCormick has accomplished in his latest book, a 1,100-page tome that promises to change profoundly the way scholars look at what used to be known as the Dark Ages. It is also a work that gives ample evidence of his qualifications to lead a bold, innovative assault on unexplored scholarly territory.

“Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, AD 300-900” (Cambridge University Press, 2002) challenges the belief that these were years of economic stagnation for Western Europe, a time when the remnants of the declining Roman Empire were largely out of touch with the rest of the world, especially with the rising Muslim civilization, which reached its apogee during the latter half of this period.

Historians based this assumption on the scarcity of evidence of merchants traveling in the Mediterranean. But McCormick wondered whether scholars might be missing something.

“The people writing these sources, the chroniclers and biographers, were largely aristocrats, and they didn’t think much or write much about merchants. They didn’t write much about peasants either, but that doesn’t mean that the food was growing itself.”

McCormick began by studying diplomatic relations between Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and the Carolingian court, founded by Charlemagne in 800. He discovered that there were abundant records of diplomats traveling from the Carolingian court in Aachen (now part of Germany) to Constantinople, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Tunisia, and other cities in the Mediterranean world. In all, he discovered 669 travelers from this period, whose movements suggested the existence of a communications infrastructure linking Western Europe with the Middle East.

It seemed reasonable to assume that the ships on which the diplomats were traveling were also engaged in trade, but McCormick wanted to cross-check his evidence before making this assertion.

Accordingly, he examined texts written in a variety of languages – Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Old Church Slavonic – and found the same patterns of communication. He looked at other sources – the chronology and distribution of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, the well-documented movement of saints’ relics, the distribution of Arab coins in Western Europe. All told the same story, that travel – and presumably trade – between East and West was much heavier than had been thought.

He also found evidence that Europe was richer than had been believed. Europeans were importing silks, spices, and other luxury goods from the East. The West’s favorable trade balance brought up a further question – what were they exporting to pay for these items? McCormick’s research suggests that the West’s major export was slaves, fellow Europeans seized in war or kidnapping raids.

It was the Venetians, those prodigious traders who linked East and West, who served as middlemen in this human commerce. The demand for slave labor resulted from a labor shortage in the wake of a terrible plague that devastated the Mediterranean.

McCormick’s book, 10 years in the making, is being hailed by reviewers as a groundbreaking work and a scholarly tour de force. His new project, fired by the same penetration and enthusiasm, not to mention the generous funding from the Mellon Foundation, seems certain to produce similarly transformative results.

Asked what he thinks this interdisciplinary approach may tell us about life in the medieval period, McCormick replied with characteristic optimism.

“It’s hard to imagine what it might not tell us,” he said.