Posted on January 22, 2009
I have been fortunate enough to have several opportunities to handle medieval parchment – it is an experience I wish everyone could have. Parchment is an absolutely amazing material. It is soft to the touch – some of it feels like suede, some more like microfiber, and some like well-polished ivory. It was made in various thicknesses – some parchment is coarse and very thick and stiff, and some parchment is as thin as onion-skin paper. I have never written on parchment myself (mostly because modern parchment is inferior), but you can tell just from looking at it that it must be glorious to write on – it absorbs the ink, so that the ink sinks into the flesh much like a tattoo on human flesh.
Fortunately for medieval scholars, parchment is amazingly durable. It can survive huge fluctuations in temperature and humidity, it can survive being under water (the Book of Kells has endured a dunking or two), and really just about anything else you might want to do to it. Parchment books made in the early Middle Ages will long outlast any books being printed today.
Unfortunately, the making of parchment is somewhat of a lost art. There are still people who do it, and you can still buy parchment. But no one knows anymore how to make it as fine and smooth and soft and supple as they did in the Middle Ages.
So how did they make it? Well, for starters, they had to slaughter an animal – parchment is usually made from the skin of a sheep, cow, or goat. In fact, the whole reason books are proportioned like they are is that animal skins are rectangular. The skin is then soaked in a mixture of lye, urine, and other stuff until the hair falls off (and thanks to this smelly concoction, parchment-makers always had to live on the edge of town). Then it is put on a stretching rack, where it is stretched and scraped with a knife to get the remaining hair off and make it smooth. It was then rubbed with pumice to make a good writing surface. Parchment might go through several cycles of soaking and stretching until it is just right. Then it is cut into rectangles and written on.
One of my favorite things about parchment is how it bears the marks of the animal it came from. Some cheap parchment came from spotted animals, so the pages of the book have spots. You can often see the direction of the animal’s hair, and identify the swirly hair on the hip. If an animal had a scar, that shows up on the parchment too.
Here is more information about parchment: