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    Table of Contents
    Main Sections
    I. Function of Books
    II. Book Production
          1. Parchment
          2. Papyrus 
          3. Paper 
          4. Ruling
          5. Pen 
          6. Ink 
          7. Gilding 
          8. Pigments 
          9. Bookbinding
    III. Book Structure
    IV.Typology of Books
    V. Book Illumination
    Back to the previous subchapter                II. Materials and Techniques of Manuscript    Production  Credits
    1. Parchment

    Parchment is made from the skin of an animal. The process of transforming the animal skin into a clean white material suitable for writing medieval manuscripts was the task of the percamenarius, the parchment-maker or parchmenter. In the late Middle Ages parchment-makers took their place among the artisans and tradesmen of every town.

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    In normal usage, the terms parchment and vellurri are interchangeable. The word parchment, usually pergamenum in medieval Latin, derives from the name of the city of Pergamum whose ancient King Eumenes is said by Pliny to have invented it in the second century BC during a trade blockade on papyrus. The word vellum has the same origin as veal or veau in French, in other words, calf, vitellus in Latin, and is strictly the writing material made from cow skin. But except with magnification and a good knowledge of dermatology it is practically impossible to tell the prepared skin of one animal from another.

    The preparation of parchment is a slow and complicated process. Early craftsmen's manuals emphasise that the selection of good skins is crucial. Medieval farm animals probably suffered from diseases and ticks, and these can leave unacceptable flaws on the skin of the flayed animal. A parchmenter, looking over available skins in the abattoir, would probably also have to consider the colour of the wool or hair as this will be reflected on the final surface of the parchment: white sheep or cows will tend to produce white parchment, and the shadowy brown patterns which are one of the aesthetically pleasing features of parchment may often be echoes of brindled cows or piebald goats. First of all the parchmenter has to wash a skin in cold clear running water for a day and a night according to one recipe or simply 'till it is clean enough', according to another. As the skin begins to rot, the hair naturally falls out. In hot countries the damp skins may have been laid out in the sun to allow this to take place. Usually, however, the process of loosening the hair in parchmentmaking is artificially induced by soaking the skins in wooden or stone vats in a solution of lime and water for between about three to ten days, stirring the vats several times a day with a wooden pole. One by one, the wet slippery skins are taken out and draped hair side out over a great curved upright shield of wood. The parchment-maker scrapes away the hair with a long curved knife with a wooden handle at each end. The bare skin is revealed underneath, looking pink where the animal's hair was white and paler where it was brown. Where possible the outer film is scraped away too. This surface where the hair has been is known as the grain side of the parchment. The de-haired and tidied-up pelt is then once more rinsed for two further days in fresh water to clear it of the lime.

    In the second phase of the process the skin is actually made into parchment. It centres around the drying of the skin while it is stretched on a frame. The pelt, floppy and wet from its last rinse, is suspended spread-eagled in a wooden frame.

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    This frame can be hoop-shaped or more-or-less rectangular. The skin cannot be nailed to the frame because it shrinks during the drying process and the edges would tear away (and in any case the frames are used over and over again and would become unserviceable if riddled with nail holes) and so instead the parchmenter suspends the skin by strings attached to adjustable pegs in the frame. Every few centimetres around the edge of the skin the parchment-maker pushes little pebbles or smooth stones into the soft border, folding them in to form knobs which are then looped around and secured with cord. The other end of the cord is then anchored into the slot of a revolving peg in the frame. One by one these knobs and strings are lashed around the edge until the whole skin resembles a vertical trampoline, and the pegs are turned to pull the skin. As it stretches, any tiny gashes or cuts accidentally made in the flaying or de-hairing will be pulled out into circular or oval holes.

    It is not uncommon to see such holes in pages or margins of medieval manuscripts. If the parchmenter notices cuts in time they can be stitched up with thread to stop their expansion into holes; sometimes in pages of manuscripts one sees holes with stitch marks around their edges, evidently indicating that cuts were mended but nevertheless split their sewing and opened up again under pressure.

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    The skin is now tight and rubbery but still wet. The parchment-maker keeps it wet initially by ladling on scoops of hot water. He then begins scraping vigorously at the skin using a curved knife with a central handle. An ordinary knife would have a sharp corner and so could also easily cut the tight surface. The crescent-shaped knife was called a lunellum and occurs in medieval pictures of parchment-makers as their most recognisable tool, and is used to give both surfaces a really thorough scraping, especially the flesh side of the skin.

    As the work progresses the parchmenter is constantly tightening the pegs and tapping them with a hammer to keep them fixed. Then the skin is allowed to dry on the frame and it shrinks and becomes tighter still as it does so. When it is all dry, the scraping and shaving begins again. The skin is now as tight as a new drum and the noise in the workshop of the metal knife on the surface is considerable. In the early monastic period of manuscript production parchment was often quite thick, but by the thirteenth century it was being planed away to an almost tissue thinness. The grain side where the hair had once been has to be scraped away especially at this final stage to remove the glassy shine unsatisfactory as a writing surface. Now the pegs can be undone. The dry thin opaque parchment is released and can be rolled up and stored or taken to be sold. Probably when medieval scribes or booksellers bought vellum from a parchmenter it was like this, not yet buffed up and rubbed with chalk in preparation for the actual writing. Prices of parchment of course varied greatly, but sheets were mostly sold by the dozen.

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    Parchment   is extraordinarily durable, far more so than leather, for instance. It can last for a thousand years, or more, in perfect condition. Good parchment is soft and thin and velvety, and folds easily. The grain side of the sheet, where the hair once was, is usually darker in colour, creamy or yellower (especially with sheep parchment) or brownish grey with goat parchment.

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