The 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 vitellus.
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
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 time."
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 parchment.
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 properties.
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 design purposes.
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,
Manufacture of vellum & parchment
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 frame.
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 included lime.
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 leather strips.
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 treatments
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 bookbinding
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 bindings.
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
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 century.
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
See here for how to make an imitation vellum/parchment paper, its
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 & Social History/Cologne
Big Synagogue Museum, Wlodawa – Poland
William Cowley. England
Stacie Dolin (Limp Vellum bindings) http://njstacie.blogspot.com/2009/03/some-vellum-love.html
Henk De Groot. Holland http://www.dedas.com/parchment/uk/products.html
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