What is interdisciplinarity, really?

Last month, a story about a medieval woman with lapis lazuli in her teeth hit the headlines. It sounds bizarre but actually makes a lot of sense – researchers examined the tartar on the teeth from her skeleton and found the precious stone, which they theorise was present because the woman was a manuscript illustrator. Lapis lazuli was used in making ink, and the woman may have either breathed the pigment in, or else licked her brush while in the process of painting.

This is pretty cool, I hear you say. But this incredible discovery isn’t even (in my opinion) the best part – it has the potential to change the course of medieval studies and rewrite history, as it has traditionally been thought that medieval manuscripts were the domain of male monks.

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Photo courtesy of David Jones

This ground-breaking finding was made possible by a great deal of interdisciplinary research, the result of collaboration between a range of specialists in science, archaeology, and medieval history. And this isn’t the only recent discovery made in the field of medieval history that was facilitated by a coming-together of the arts and sciences. Thanks to multispectral imaging, a scientist at the British Library is now making previously illegible, hidden portions of manuscripts available to be read and studied by medieval historians (such as this previously unreadable, erased portion of a 9th-century manuscript, https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2019/02/new-records-of-slavery-from-anglo-saxon-cornwall.html).

Perhaps most remarkable finding facilitated by interdisciplinary study recently was the discovery of a new species of bacteria found in the soil of a churchyard in Northern Ireland, thanks to folklore that tells of a ‘healing grave’ (for more see here – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-46651702). This has the potential to change the course of medicine, tackling the overuse of antibiotics through the creation of new ones, thanks to the antibodies found in the bacteria.

These are just examples from the worlds of history, folklore and medieval studies – there are thousands of crossovers between even the most unlikely subject pairings, and thousands more probably waiting to be discovered. For example, it’s becoming more and more clear that interdisciplinarity is key in the world of conservation, especially reintroduction, which relies on a strong relationship between social scientific and ecological research. I’m hoping to make a career out of interdisciplinary practice, collaborating with ecologists and biologists on such issues.

It’s a long-standing tradition in my group of friends (fellow Masters and PhD students), to ridicule each other about the nature of one another’s research. One of my closest friends is a PhD student in chemistry, and we like to have faux-arguments about whose research is more worthwhile. His research is ‘sticking things on silicon’ to me, and mine to him is just all about Beowulf (the only Old English poem he’s heard of). But it’s not a case of whose work is better – arguably we could all help each other’s work in some way or another, even make incredible discoveries, by collaborating (case in point: that same friend kindly offered to take some photos for me for this blog – which are a lot better than I could do myself!). It also helps to widen our horizons and social networks, gain skills in other types of research, and broaden our creative and academic outlets.

Often, ‘interdisciplinarity’ feels like one of those buzzwords that you have to put in funding applications, that doesn’t really seem to have any meaning. It’s something that you throw in to try and convince readers of the wide applicability of your research. But this isn’t what interdisciplinarity really is – it’s not about spreading yourself thin trying to cover as many bases as possible, it’s about experts in different fields coming together, helping each other, making discoveries, and facilitating change based on the relationship between their fields. It’s a vital component of 21st century academia.

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Photo courtesy of David Jones

Yet the lapis lazuli in the medieval woman’s teeth also shows that interdisciplinarity is centuries old. Manuscripts were themselves interdisciplinary efforts between artists, scribes, and the people (you might say scientists) who created the parchment and ink. It just goes to show that when collaborating and combining our skill-sets we can produce incredible things, some of which might be enjoyed and studied for centuries to come.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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