Articles,  Blog


PARCHMENT Parchment is the writing material that we
almost automatically associate to the Middle Ages.
Hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and charters written on parchment have been preserved up
to the present, and that is possible because this material is extraordinarily resilient. In this segment we will see what exactly parchment
is, how it is different from vellum, how it is made, and some of its properties. And we
will conclude with the most luxurious varieties of purple dyed parchment and the so to say
recycled parchments or palimpsests. Although we associate parchment with the middle
ages, parchment is not a medieval invention. According to Pliny, the invention of parchment
is due to king Eumenes II of Pergamon during the second century BC, but actually the use
of parchment is much much older, going back in time to the first Egyptian dynasties, although
in lesser quantities than papyrus. However, the term “parchment”, pergamenum
in Latin, appears quite late in our sources, since up to the 3rd century AD the name with
which it is referred to is membrana, thus membrane. Another name to refer to this material is
vellum. Originally vellum is a parchment made from the hide of a calf, vitulus in Latin.
But as it happens it is extraordinarily difficult to assess when the hides used were made from
calves or other animals, and as a result the words vellum and parchment have become exchangeable
and depend on the local preferences. In other languages the difference between
parchment and vellum might be a little bit different. In Spanish, for instance, vitela,
which is equivalent to the English vellum, is reserved for high quality parchment, very
white, thin and soft, no matter what species it comes from although as a matter of fact
it almost is calf skin. It might be a productive discussion in the
forum could be how the two words and their translations are used in your countries. From animal skin to parchment (or vellum)
the hide undergoes a quite complicated process that from very old times demanded a high degree
of professionalization, and therefore we find parchment makers in primary sources from at
least the 9th century AD. To start with not all skins were equally adequate
to become parchment. A parchment maker who wished to achieve a high quality product started
choosing skins without wounds or scars and if possible of a light and uniform colour.
Otherwise the parchment would retain at least a glimpse of the changes in shade. If the
animal had not been appropriately blooded at the time it was slaughtered, blood accumulated
in the capilaries would leave very characteristic marks in the parchment. The first operation was then washing the hide
in cold clean water, running water if possible. When the hide starts rotting, the hairs will
start falling spontaneously. In warm climates it would be possible to let the skins in the
sun in order to accelerate the process, but the normal practice was to submerge them in
lime water during some days. Afterwards the hide underwent a series of
operations which had the purpose of completely removing the epidermis and hypodermis and
stretch the part of the dermis called reticular layer. The first of these operations was setting
the hide on a wooden bench, hair side upwards, and with a long curved knife the parchment
maker removed the hairs and if possible also the outer layer of the skin. If the skin was still greasy it would go back
to the lime vat for some time. And after that the parchment maker works out the inner side
in a similar way he had done with the outer side, removing all residues of flesh and grease
that could remain adhered to the hide. And when he is satisfied with the result he
rinses it in clear water, in order to wash off the rests of lime. And so the first and dirtiest phase of the
process comes to an end, and the second one starts. It will be in the second phase when
the skin is finally turned into parchment. The hide, still soaked, is extended on a wooden
frame, as tense as possible. In order to adjust the tension the frame has been provided with
wooden pegs from which the skin is hung by means of kind of bottoms made with pebbles
wrapped in the borders of the hide. Then, holding the frame against a wall with
his foot, the parchment maker starts scraping the hide with a special blunt knife in the
shape of a semicircle called lunellum, because this shape resembles a crescent moon (luna
in Latin). The goal of this operation is scraping away the outer and inner layers. As the process advances the parchment maker
adjusts the tension of the skin turning the wooden pegs, and when he is satisfied with
the result he will let the skin dry in the sun, still hanging on its frame. While the hide is being stretched, any cut,
however small it might be, any accidental fissure made on the skin will grow more conspicuous
in the shape of circular or oval holes. If the parchment maker discovers them soon enough
will try to sew it in order to prevent them from growing. When everything is already dry, the scraping
process resumes, this time mostly on the hair side, in order to eliminate the glossy texture
that would prevent the ink to fix, and also in order to reduce the thickness of the leaf. And only when he was totally satisfied the
parchment maker could cut off the parchment from the frame. But the product was not yet
ready. A last operation remained, and that was polishing the leaves with pumice and rub
them with chalk or gypsum. And only then the parchment was at last ready
to be sold. Prices fluctuated enormously, and so did qualities.
These depended of course on the skills of the parchment maker, but also on the original
quality of the hides. In general, it can be stated that young animals yielded a better
parchment. On the contrary it is very dangerous to determine
from what species a certain piece of parchment comes from, unless one has the advantage of
a DNA analysis. But there are nuances that can give some clues. Calf vellum tends to
be whitish and of a better quality; goat tends to grey, and sheep to yellowish. Another clue
can be found by examining the hair follicles, which in bovines are shallower. If we turn now to the inner side of the leaf,
we will observe that it is whiter than the exterior and tends to convex, curving outwards
naturally, this tendency being more prominent in low quality parchments. Quite often we will find defective hides,
which nevertheless have been utilized in the manuscripts. The defects can be cuts or holes
that occurred during a moment of distraction of the parchment maker or a wound of the animal. Some of these have been meticulously repaired
in different ways and even darned with coloured threads. If the book to which the parchment was destined
was meant to be a luxury product, the parchment could be dyed, and afterwards written with
inks of gold or silver. In these cases, the cost of the book would
be really astronomical, and not just because of the gold and silver, but because the purple
in which the leaves were dyed, if it was Tyrian purple, could reach prices higher than gold. These codices are known under the generic
denomination of codices purpurei. They were relatively common from the 4th century onwards,
and apparently they have imperial associations. At the other end of the spectrum we have the
palimpsests or codices rescripti, which are just manuscripts that are reusing the parchment
from previous ones, after removing their writing. The way the writing was cleaned off from the
leaves, so that these could be reused has been described in manuscripts originally written
in Tegernsee and now preserved in the library of Munich. It goes like this: In an already used parchment, if you want
to write again, forced by need, take milk and smear with it the surface and let it rest
like that during a whole night. Then, after spreading flour on it, leave it under a weight
to prevent it from wrinkling when it starts drying, and wait until it is completely dry.
Then, once you have done all this, polish it with pumice and chalk, and it will recover
its pristine whiteness. Among all the preserved palimpsests or codices
rescripti probably the most relevant ones are the Ciceronian treatise De republica (Vat.
Lat. 5757), the Gayus’ Institutiones of the Cathedral of Verona and Plautus’ Comedies
now in Milan. Until the beginnings of the 20th century,
in order to render the primitive script or scriptio inferior readable, scholars used
chemical reagents, such as gallic acid, that in the long term have severely damage the
parchments. Fortunately, this procedure has been abandoned in the present, and in its
place the leaves are photographed under ultraviolet light and then a virtual restoration follows. CREDITS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *