History Of Vellum And Parchment
According to the Roman Varro, Pliny's
Natural History records, vellum and parchment were invented
under the patronage of Eumenes of Pergamum, as a substitute for
papyrus, which was temporarily not being exported from
Alexandria, its only source.
Herodotus mentions writing on skins as common in his time, the
5th century BC; and in his Histories (v.58) he states that the
Ionians of Asia Minor had been accustomed to give the name of
skins (diphtherai) to books; this word was adapted by
Hellenized Jews to describe scrolls. Parchment (pergamenum in
Latin), however, derives its name from Pergamon, the city where
it was perfected (via the French parchemin). In the 2nd century
B.C. a great library was set up in Pergamon that rivalled the
famous Library of Alexandria. As prices rose for papyrus and
the reed used for making it was over-harvested towards local
extinction in the two nomes of the Nile delta that produced it,
Pergamon adapted by increasing use of vellum and parchment.
Writing on prepared animal skins had a long history, however.
Some Egyptian Fourth Dynasty texts were written on vellum and
parchment. Though the Assyrians and the Babylonians impressed
their cuneiform on clay tablets, they also wrote on parchment
and vellum from the 6th century BC onward. Rabbinic culture
equated the idea of a book with a parchment scroll. Early
Islamic texts are also found on parchment.
One sort of parchment is
vellum, a word that is used loosely to mean parchment, and
especially to mean a fine skin, but more strictly refers
to skins made from calfskin (although goatskin can be as
fine in quality). The words vellum and veal come from
Latin vitulus, meaning calf, or its diminutive
In the Middle Ages, calfskin and split sheepskin were the most
common materials for making parchment in England and France,
while goatskin was more common in Italy. Other skins such as
those from large animals such as horse and smaller animals such
as squirrel and rabbit were also used. Whether uterine vellum
(vellum made from aborted calf fetuses) was ever really used
during the medieval period is still a matter of great
There was a short period during the
introduction of printing where parchment and paper were used
interchangeably: although most copies of the Gutenberg Bible
are on paper, some were printed on animal skins.
In 1490, Johannes Trithemius
preferred the older methods, because "handwriting placed on
skin will be able to endure a thousand years. But how long will
printing last, which is dependent on paper?
For if ...it lasts for two hundred years that is a long
In the later Middle Ages, the use of animal skins was largely
replaced by paper. New techniques in paper milling allowed it
to be much cheaper and more abundant than parchment. With the
advent of printing in the later fifteenth century, the demands
of printers far exceeded the supply of vellum and
The heyday of parchment use was during the medieval period,
but there has been a growing revival of its use among
contemporary artists since the late 20th century. Although it
never stopped being used (primarily for governmental documents
and diplomas) it had ceased to be a primary choice for artist's
supports by the end of 15th century Renaissance. This was
partly due to its expense and partly due to its unusual working
Vellum and parchment consists mostly of collagen. When the
water in paint media touches parchment's surface, the collagen
melts slightly, forming a raised bed for the paint, a quality
highly prized by some artists. It is also extremely affected by
its environment and changes in humidity, which can cause
buckling. Some contemporary artists also prize this quality,
noting that the skin seems alive and like an active participant
in making the artwork.
To support the needs of the revival of use by artists, a
revival in the art of making individual skins is also underway.
Handmade skins are usually better prepared for artists and have
fewer oily spots which can cause long-term cracking of paint
than mass-produced parchment. Mass-produced parchment is
usually made for lamp shades, furniture, or other interior
The radiocarbon dating techniques that are used on papyrus
can be applied to animal skins as well. They do not date the
age of the writing but the preparation of the skin itself.
However, radiocarbon dating can often be used on the inks that
make up the writing, since many of them contain organic
compounds such as plant leachings, soot, and wine.
Manufacture of vellum &
Parchment is prepared from
pelt, i.e., wet, unhaired, and limed skin, simply by
drying at ordinary temperatures under tension, most
commonly on a wooden frame known as a stretching
After being flayed, the skin is soaked in water for about 1
day. This removes blood and grime from the skin and prepares it
for a dehairing liquor. The dehairing liquor was originally
made of rotted, or fermented, vegetable matter, like beer or
other liquors, but by the Middle Ages an unhairing bath
Today, the lime solution is occasionally sharpened by the
use of sodium sulfide. The liquor bath would have been in
wooden or stone vats and the hides stirred with a long wooden
pole to avoid contact with the alkaline solution. Sometimes the
skins would stay in the unhairing bath for 8 or more days
depending how concentrated and how warm the solution was
kept—unhairing could take up to twice as long in winter. The
vat was stirred two or three times a day to ensure the
solution's deep and uniform penetration. Replacing the lime
water bath also sped the process up. However, if the skins were
soaked in the liquor too long, they would be weakened and not
able to stand the stretching required for parchment.
After soaking in water to make
the skins workable, the skins were placed on a stretching
frame. A simple frame with nails would work well in
stretching the pelts. The skins could be attached by
wrapping small, smooth rocks in the skins with rope or
Both sides would be left open to the air so they could be
scraped with a sharp, semi-lunar knife to remove the last of
the hair and get the skin to the right thickness. The skins,
which were made almost entirely of collagen, would form a
natural glue while drying and once taken off the frame they
would keep their form. The stretching allowed the fibres to
become aligned running parallel to the grain.
Vellum And Parchment
To make the parchment more aesthetically pleasing or more
suitable for the scribes, special treatments were used.
According to Reed there were a variety of these treatments.
Rubbing pumice powder into the flesh side of parchment while it
was still wet on the frame was used to make it smooth so inks
would penetrate deep into the fibres. Powders and pastes of
calcium compounds were also used to help remove grease so the
ink would not run. To make the parchment smooth and white, thin
pastes (starchgrain or staunchgrain) of lime, flour, egg whites
and milk were rubbed into the skins.
Meliora di Curci in her paper "The History and Technology of
Parchment Making" notes that parchment was not always white.
"Cennini, a 15th century craftsman provides recipes to tint
vellum and parchment a variety of colours including purple,
indigo, green, red and peach." The Early medieval Codex
Argenteus and Codex Vercellensis, the Stockholm Codex Aureus
and the Codex Brixianus give a range of luxuriously produced
manuscripts all on purple vellum, in imitation of Byzantine
examples, like the Rossano Gospels, Sinope Gospels and the
Vienna Genesis, which at least at one time are believed to have
been reserved for Imperial commissions.
During the seventh through the ninth centuries, many earlier
parchment manuscripts were scrubbed and scoured to be ready for
rewriting, and often the earlier writing can still be read.
These recycled parchments are called palimpsests. Later, more
thorough techniques of scouring the surface irretrievably lost
the earlier text.
Use of vellum in
Vellum was commonly used in
bookbinding. It could be used to cover a wooden or
cardboard core or alone without any backing. Many vellum
bindings are simple and undecorated. Vellum was often used
to cover less-valuable or common books.
However, it could be decorated in a number of ways. Blind
stamping or impressing a design into wet vellum (or leather)
with a hot punch or roller was a common way of decorating
vellum bound books.
Sometimes it (or the designs) was also gilded. One
decorative technique, invented in the late 18th century,
involved the use of very thin and transparent vellum. A scenic
picture, coat of arms, portrait, or other design would be
painted on the underside of the transparent vellum.
This protected the painting from smudging or damage from
handling. The binding would also be decorated with blind
stamped and gilded decorations. This type of binding, named
after the family of booksellers/binders that created and sold
them, is known as a 'Halifax' binding.
Because vellum was expensive, it was not uncommon for old
manuscript pages to be reused to make bindings. A number of
valuable and important manuscripts have been recovered from old
Limp binding is a bookbinding method in which the book has
flexible cloth, leather, vellum, or (rarely) paper sides. When
the sides of the book are made of vellum, the bookbinding
method is also known as limp vellum.
The cover is made with a single piece of vellum or alternative
material, folded around the text block, the front and back
covers being folded double.
The quires are sewn onto cords such as alum-tawed thongs and
the sewing supports would be laced into the vellum cover.
The thongs would also often be used at the fore edge of the
covers to create a closure or tie.
In limp binding the covering
material is not stiffened by thick boards, although
paste-downs, if used, provide some stiffness; some limp
bindings are only adhered to the back of the book. Limp
vellum bindings for commonplace books were being produced
at least as early as the 14th century and probably
earlier, but it was not usually commonly until the 16th
and 17th centuries. Its usage subsequently declined until
"revived by the private presses near the end of the 19th
So there we have it, vellum and parchment have been used
since the earliest times, and still finds use today amongst
artists, scribes and bookbinders. Though now costly to produce,
it remains one of the most durable of library materials.
See here for
how to make an imitation vellum/parchment paper, its very
Thanks to the following people
for allowing the use of images and for assisting me with the
early history of parchment.
The Institute of Economic &
Big Synagogue Museum, Wlodawa –
William Cowley. England
Stacie Dolin (Limp Vellum
Henk De Groot.
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