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.
In normal usage, the terms parchment
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.