Writing on Dead Things

Parchment (also referred to as peramenum by people who want to sound smart) was the writing support of choice up until around 1450. It looks and feels a little bit like paper but, instead of being made of rags or wood pulp, it’s made of animal skin. The skin would be treated and made softer with oils to specially prepare it as a writing surface. Parchment is rumoured to have been created in Asia Minor by Eumenes II of Pergamum in 2 BC.

If you’ve ever eavesdropped on a conversation about parchment, you may have heard some people refer to parchment as vellum. While the terms aren’t always considered distinct, parchment typically refers to the skin of adult animals whereas vellum typically refers to the skin of baby animals. Note that, in this post, my use of the word “parchment”  includes both parchment and vellum, since they’re very similar. Nevertheless, because you would need two or three baby animals’ skins to make the same amount of parchment as one adult animal’s skin, vellum was generally more coveted. It also looked nicer, as it was finer and whiter (whiteness was, and still is, a good quality for writing supports to have) than parchment. And, as if the skin of babies wasn’t enough, the most valuable kind of parchment was called uterine vellum, which was made from the skin of a stillborn or unborn fetus. I guess sometimes good things can come from abortions?

Here’s a great (silent) 40-second video about how to make parchment:

Now, to expand on what you just saw, here’s a more in-depth (but still not comprehensive) step-by-step guide to parchment-making. As you can probably imagine, the smell of parchment during production is pretty revolting. Mmmm, rotting flesh.

1. Pick your animal. You want its skin to be as free of cuts, scrapes, and bug bites as possible (more on that below). You also want to make sure your animal has lived a good, happy, and fulfilling life, and that it doesn’t look too sickly.

2. Kill your animal. Drain it of its blood. Try to suppress your vampire-esque urges and resist drinking the blood. Once all the blood is gone, skin the animal.

3. Soak the skin in some clean water (well, as clean as you can get in the Middle Ages) to remove all the crap on it. Literally. There will probably be crap on it. You probably don’t want to write on that.

4. Once the skin is relatively clean, move it to a lime bath (of lime and water) and let it soak for a while. Do not stick your hand in that lime bath unless you want to hurt yourself – use a wooden rod to stir the skin every once in a while to ensure the lime doesn’t settle on just one part of it.

5. Remove the skin from its bath; after it has soaked in the lime for a while, the hair will slide right off. Remember that the lime bath isn’t good for humans, though, so make sure your hands are protected by some thick gloves or oven mitts.  If the hair is being extra stubborn you can put the skin in another lime bath and repeat the hair-removing process, although it’s not necessary unless you really screwed up the first time.

6. While the skin is still wet, attach it to a frame – also called a hearse – and secure it with little pebbles called pippins. Slowly stretch the skin until it’s pulled taut in the hearse.

7. Use a crescent-shaped knife called a lunarium or a lunellum to scrape at the skin, making its texture even. There’s a special way to use this knife – it takes time to become a master parchment-scraper. Seriously, it does. Anyway, despite this scraping, you can actually tell which side of the sheet is the hair side (the outside of the animal) and which is the flesh side (the fatty inside of the animal). The hair side of the parchment shows the animal’s hair follicles, unless the material is stretched stupidly thin. These follicles can usually reveal which type of animal the skin came from; for example, goat follicles are much larger than sheep follicles, and calf follicles are usually in rows while sheep follicles are more clustered. There may also be hints as to what part of the animal was used, such as skeletal evidence (where the animal’s bones created density differences in its skin) and axilla areas (where the skin was naturally extended). Even the best of parchment-scrapers can’t remove all of these features.

8. Leave the skin to dry. Some parchment makers covered the skin in some sort of paste to make it stronger and/or make it look nice, while some left the skin in the sun. How you dry your skin should depend on what you want the finished product to look like.

9. Once the skin is dry, cut as large of a rectangle out of the stretched skin as possible. There’s your sheet of parchment! You can chuck the unused skin, or save it for later DIY home projects.

Once you have a bunch of sheets of parchment, it’s time to turn them into a book. In parchment book production, it was common practice to match hair sides with hair sides and flesh sides with flesh sides, so that open books had a somewhat uniform look. This matching of sides is called the Rule of Gregory, and it can be achieved in two ways:

1. Arrange your pile of parchment sheets carefully, one on top of the other, so that the sides match up. This leaves a lot of room for error.
2. Fold your parchment sheets. I don’t know why these folding patterns always work, but they do. It’s… magical.

One professor told me that during mass manuscript production sheets were typically folded first and then written on, whereas during mass printed book production sheets would be printed first and then folded. I know the latter is true, but I’ve heard contradictions to the former; another professor later told me that Continental scribes would typically write and then fold, while Insular scribes would typically fold and then write. In short, let’s just assume that people did both.

However, up to the tenth century, Insular and Continental parchment was produced slightly differently due to the availability (or lack thereof) of different materials. For example, parchment could be made using any kind of animal skin, but was mainly made out of goatskin, sheepskin, or calfskin. However, Insular parchment-makers didn’t initially use sheep, as domesticated sheep weren’t too common on the British Isles until the invasion of the Normans in the eleventh century. I guess it’s alright, though, since calf generally made the best-quality parchment anyway, although quality depended much on preparation.

An example of a hole in parchment, written around. Click the picture to read more about parchment imperfections.
An example of a hole in parchment, written around. Click the picture to read more about parchment imperfections.

While you always want your parchment to be as flawless as possible, it’s extremely difficult to find a “perfect” piece of parchment, as the material comes from animals that do animal things. Often you can see scar tissue in parchment. Even worse, sometimes cuts and scrapes weren’t given the time they needed to heal into scar tissue, and when the parchment was stretched little cuts became gaping holes. These holes would either be left alone or sewn shut, but the parchment would almost never be thrown out because of such an imperfection. It was too valuable a material to waste. Scribes would just write around it.

Then there were the faults of the parchment producers. For example, veining, when you can see the animal’s veins in the parchment, occurred when the animal wasn’t fully bled before its skin was turned into a writing surface. Striation occurred when the parchment maker scraped with his lunarium a little too vigorously and created bunched-up areas of skin. However, even when some of these mistakes were blatantly obvious, the parchment was used anyway because an animal had already been killed and it takes time and money to raise those things.

So parchment wasn’t just used willy-nilly, as paper is today. People wanted to get the most out of their dead animals, and would squish as much onto a sheet as possible. This is why the material was sometimes reused. The dried ink of a previous text could be scraped or washed off the page, and a new text could be written on top. We all these pages palimpsests. When a book is made entirely of palimpsests, we call it a codex rescriptus. Interestingly, some of these overwritten texts are the only copies we have available of some very important works by such celebrities as Cicero and Seneca.

The monetary value of parchment also explains why the size of a parchment book is often a pretty good indication of its perceived importance. For example, a breviary (a liturgical book used almost daily) probably would have been large because: 1. It’s a Holy Book; 2. It’s for frequent use in a Church (and the priest is probably reading it aloud, from a fair distance); and 3. It makes for good decoration. After all, the book probably isn’t going anywhere. It probably just stays right where it is on the altar and is rarely moved. A personal Bible, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t be so large because it would suck to have to lug around an unnecessarily massive book. Plus, if you could afford your own personal Bible, your slaves probably did all of your heavy lifting for you.

Parchment isn’t one of my specialties – if I got something wrong, let me know in a comment!

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