The ‘Viking skin’ nailed to the doors of a medieval church actually came from farm animals

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The quiet, unassuming church of St. Botolph in Hadstock, near Cambridge, has a macabre myth attached to it. At the end of the 19and century, during repairs, it was discovered that the doorway contained a large fragment of skin under its metal strips. The legend says that the skin came from a Danish (Viking) raider who tried to loot the church in the 11and century. Afterwards he was flayed alive and nailed to the door as a gruesome warning

This church is not the only one to have this “human leather” decoration on the front door. At least three medieval churches in England have these remains of skin: St. Botolph’s; St Michael & All Angels Church in Copford, near Colchester; and Westminster Abbey in London.

In the past, scientists have been interested in finding out if these myths were true, carrying out scientific examinations on some of the samples. However, there has been controversy over its actual composition.

In the 1970s, Ron Roseau from the University of Leeds, UK – a leather expert – analyzed St Botolph’s skin and concluded that the skin was human and likely that of a “light-haired or graying person”, supporting the myth. However, during the BBC program blood of the vikings (2001), DNA analysis revealed that the sample was of Bovid origin, although the accuracy of the results is uncertain.

At UK Archaeological Science Conference 2022 (UKAS), Ruairidh Macleod and his colleagues then analyzed the skin fragments from the four sites using a non-destructive technique called “Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry” or ZooMS.

This technique reveals the peptide sequence of the collagen in the samples, allowing scientists to identify which species the sample once belonged to. In this case, the scientists applied rubber gums against the surface of the skin, then extracted and digested the trypsin from the peptides that stuck to the gum waste.

It was discovered that none of the skin samples were human. Two samples were bovine in nature, while the sample from St Michael & All Angels Church was from a horse or donkey. This last sample could not be further identified because these species have a very similar collagen fingerprint.

But why did this story even happen in the first place?

“So it is interesting that very converging myths seem to have arisen for all the churches we analyzed that the hides came from Danish (Viking) raiders. Specifically, this is first attested to by Samuel Pepys in his diary in 1661, so the idea that these are flayed human skins of Danes has been around for a long time, Macleod told IFLScience.

“In the absence of samples proving actually to be human, it seems that this story may have originated first from one of the churches as local myth (the Hadstock and Westminster accounts are among the oldest), then quickly spreading to others where traces of parched skin were also found nailed to the door.

There may be another reason why animal skins are placed on church doors. Theophile have suggested that the function of nailing treated (untanned) animal skins to doors might have a more contemporary function and bear a more aesthetic explanation.

“Nevertheless, the morbid fascination associated with this myth probably explains its persistence, as well as its chilling effect on church defilers!” Macleod said.

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