The modern book is so familiar to us that we don’t often stop to consider the technical achievements that brought about its current form. The form of the book has evolved over centuries, to adapt to our needs and in response to the availability of new materials. The codex as we know it became the standard format for the transmission of texts in western Europe from around the second century, developing a series of consistent features which persist today. This innovative new format owed much to the most important European writing material of the Middle Ages—parchment.

Parchment is made from the skins of animals, mostly commonly from sheep, goats and cattle. Superseding the papyrus of classical times, parchment became the dominant material for documents and manuscripts for over a thousand years. Even after the advent of the printing press, which was more suited for use with paper, parchment persisted. Parchment was used in parallel with paper for hundreds of years before its own eventual decline, beginning in the sixteenth century. Parchment was, and still is, made by hand. It can only be made by hand. It remains in use for important documents (for example, it is still used for acts of the British Parliament and Freedoms1 of some cities in the UK; William and Kate’s wedding documents were written on parchment) but is now only produced in small quantities. It is used mostly by bookbinders, conservators and calligraphers.

Papyrus, made from strips of pith from the papyrus plant (Cyperus papryrus), is brittle with little resistance to folding. Thus sheets of papyrus were pasted together to form rolls in order to accommodate long texts. By comparison, parchment is amazingly strong, flexible and resistant to handling. Several skins could be folded and sewn together in a bundle called a gathering or quire. These bundles were then stacked and secured together in a format that allowed longer texts to be compiled than had previously been possible. When protected by a cover of leather or wood, parchment manuscripts were significantly more robust and portable than a papyrus scroll. This permitted texts, and by extension knowledge, to travel farther and to be read more often. In fact the earliest parchment manuscripts were associated with the transmission of the Christian texts that would eventually be collected to form the Bible.

Additionally, parchment manuscripts were able to support a variety of media, allowing them to be used not just for writing but also for the painted decoration. These illuminations consisted of complex layers of gesso, pigment and gold leaf. In this way parchment manuscripts were transformed, becoming not just methods for the preservation and transmission of information but prestigious compilations of art and artistry, an amazing number of which survive today.

There is a myth that surrounds the invention of parchment. It is said that there was a rivalry between the great libraries of Alexandria, in Egypt, and of the ancient Greek city of Pergamon. To prevent the library at Pergamon eclipsing that of Alexandria, the Pharaoh supposedly placed an embargo on the export of papyrus, on which the great libraries depended. Since papyrus was manufactured from reeds that grew exclusively along the banks of the Nile, the citizens of Pergamon were compelled to develop an alternative writing support, thus bringing about the invention of parchment.

The reality is that skin, along with clay and wood, were used as supports from the earliest invention of writing. Parchment-like materials are found from classical times and earlier. Many fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on skins, and skin was used as a support for writing in the Roman Empire—though contemporary accounts inform us that these materials were often dark in colour and inconsistent in quality. If any invention can be credited to Pergamon, it may be the perfection of certain processes that allowed a consistently high quality writing material to be manufactured in useful quantities. These two processes were the use of lime and the drying of skins under tension.

Fresh animal skins can be treated in several ways to bring about distinct chemical and physical changes, producing materials with very different properties. If a skin is dried without any treatment, it becomes a hard and transparent material known as rawhide. Rawhide is not permanently fixed and can be resoftened with the addition of moisture. If the skin is treated with tannins, permanent bonds form between the collagen molecules and the skin becomes leather. Leather is flexible, opaque and waterproof—a versatile and lasting material, though not especially suited as a writing surface.

Parchment is a material quite distinct from rawhide and leather. To make parchment, skins are placed in a series of baths containing lime (calcium hydroxide). The alkaline solution breaks down keratin, the material that comprises the epidermis and hair. After liming, the hair is scraped away with a blunt blade. This process, known (not unsurprisingly) as dehairing, leaves behind the more stable skin component, collagen. The skin is rendered soft and pliable, with a consistency like raw pastry. In this state it is transferred to a frame where it is secured by the edges and allowed to dry under tension. Once on the drying frame, the skin can be further scraped to reduce the thickness and remove more epidermal material. In medieval times, the liming would take between six to eighteen days, and little has changed in modern production.

The process of liming has to be carefully controlled. If the lime liquors are too strong, or if the temperature is too warm, the process will proceed too quickly. If it is cooler or the liquors are mild, the process will be slower. If the skin is exposed to too much liming it will weaken the collagen, creating a poor-quality product that is easily damaged during the scraping process. If the liming is inadequate the hair and epidermis will not be fully released, which also risks damage to the skin during dehairing.

Parchment as a material is not far removed from its animal origins. It retains many anatomical features, the most obvious of which is its two distinct sides. The side internal to the animal is known as the fleshside and is usually smooth and compact, sometimes slightly waxy, and occasionally bears evidence of blood vessels. The side external to the animal is known as the grain or hair side and, depending on the amount of epidermal layer retained, can appear entirely smooth or may bear distinctive hairs, follicles and residual pigmentation. The pattern of the follicles can, with some difficulty, be used in the identification of the animal species.2 Other features of the animal that may be visible include the line of the spine and the axillae, which indicate the armpit or groin of the animal. The position of the axillae can be identified by the relative thickness and flexibility of the parchment, the natural curvature of the skin and changes in the density and arrangement of the follicles.3 Further, the organic nature of parchment means that it retains evidence of the life of the animal. Skins from older animals are frequently larger and more yellowed. They often have scars evidencing injuries or parasites. If the skins weren’t processed rapidly, dark patches may indicate where blood pooled after slaughter.

Some of the most appealing features of parchment manuscripts are those that demonstrate the forgiving relationship between the material and craftsman. The variable surface and shape of parchment meant that irregularities were frequent, and parchment-makers and scribes developed many approaches to address them. Small holes and splits in skins were often stitching while the skins were still wet. Visible evidence of these sewn repairs are found frequently in manuscripts, with and without their threads. Gaping holes and irregular edges were frequently retained, the scribe adjusting the text to flow around them. These marks draw attention to the living nature of the material, something almost incomprehensible in these days of reams and reams of pristine white paper.

Parchment represents just one stepping stone, though a significant one, along the journey from the oral traditions of the ancients to the masses of written communication that punctuate our modern lives. Paper, as the hard-working accomplice of the printing press, allowed a greater number of texts to be produced more rapidly than had previously been possible, disseminating information at an ever increasing pace. This trend accelerates exponentially with every new generation of digital technology.Intriguingly, many of the modern manifestations of writing are reminiscent of the formats that parchment replaced. It has been noted that the computer screen reinstated the relevance of the scroll format and that the wax or clay tablet are paid homage by their digital namesakes. However, with the efficiency and convenience of the new formats, stability and longevity have been sacrificed. For all its vulnerabilities, parchment has outlasted both the papyrus that preceded it and much of the paper that followed. And digital formats? Well, that's a whole other can of worms. Parchment, if made with some care and kept in reasonable conditions, can easily last a millennia. When a five-year-old hard disk is considered archaic, the longevity of parchment and the information it supports is an achievement enviable by twenty-first century standards.

Libby Melzer is Senior Conservator of Paper and Parchment at the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation (CCMC). She is currently completing a Masters about parchment characterisation as part of an ARC project “Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in Australia: researching and relating Australia's manuscript holdings to new technologies and new readers”. She can be contacted via email at eamelzer (at) unimelb.edu.au.

  1. The medieval term ‘freeman’ was used to describe someone who was not the property of a feudal lord. To be awarded a “Freedom” in the Middle Ages or the Victorian era was to be granted the right to trade, earn income and own land. Freedoms are still awarded today in certain cities but are largely symbolic.
  2. The identification of old animal skins is difficult, as the history, size and characteristics of domesticated animals from the medieval period are to a great extent unknown. Distinct breeds were not established until the modern period.
  3. Axillae and other markings can be used to estimate the size, weight and approximate age of the animal. This in turn can provide clues to the size, type and wealth of the society in which a book was produced. For example, if a book required the more than 100 animals and the quality of the parchment suggest the animals were of uniform age and in good health, a large prosperous herd is indicated. If the animals were of a young age when slaughtered, this could suggest the society maintained livestock for dairy production, rather than meat. The processing of such a large number of skins also suggests systemised and most likely commercial production.
  Detail of a parchment repair from an 11th century manuscript. Image by Libby Melzer.

 

Detail of a parchment repair from an 11th century manuscript. Image by Libby Melzer.