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Ancient parchments reveal a blend of cultures, knowledge during the Middle Ages, Stanford scholar says

Rowan W. Dorin, assistant professor of history, with the miscataloged parchments whose mystery he is working to solve. 

(Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

When historian Rowan Dorin first stepped onto the Stanford campus in early 2017, he made it a habit to visit Green Library every week to dig through its collection of medieval documents and objects.

After a few months, Dorin, an assistant professor of history specializing in medieval Europe, discovered something out of the ordinary.

Three leaves of ancient parchment were labeled as a Hebrew translation of text about grammar, but its margins had Latin words like fish, capers and dill.

“It looked like some sort of food dictionary,” said Dorin about his first impression of the documents. “There didn’t seem to be anything grammatical about it.”

The miscataloged texts turned out to be written in Arabic using Hebrew letters, with Latin and old Spanish notes on the edges. They described the health qualities of pickled foods, causes of hiccupping and other ancient medical knowledge.

Dorin said the rare parchments showcase the sharing of knowledge that was happening among societies around the Mediterranean Sea during the Middle Ages, the historical period between the 5th and the 15th centuries.

“Most people associate the Middle Ages with plague, war and ignorance,” said Dorin, who is also an affiliated faculty member at the Taube Center for Jewish Studies. “We don’t usually think about the dialogues between different cultures or open exchanges of knowledge that were happening throughout that time. These documents are evidence for the conversations occurring among people from different linguistic backgrounds.”