The Bible Before Printing
Part 4: Techniques of the Scribal Arts
A. Making Parchment
PART I - GENERAL DISCUSSION
I will discuss parchment making in two parts, first a general discussion then secondly a photographs of a demonstration of parchment making using millennium old methods. In the history of mankind many materials have been used as writing media including stones, clay tablets, bricks, wood, papyrus, linen, wax tablets, metal, ivory, bone, leather and paper. In recorded ancient history, the three main forms of media used above all else have been papyrus, parchment and paper. Here I will discuss parchment which was the primary media used from the Roman period (approximately second century BCE) to the rise of popularity of paper in the 16th century CE for writing and book production.
Parchment is the result of non tanned processing of animal skins to produce a hard, durable, white material of even opacity and uniform thickness which will take pigments, inks and dyes in a suitable manner for writing. At its basics, parchment is animal skin that has been rendered hairless, washed and dried, then sanded to a smooth surface. Parchment is usually made from pigs, sheep, goats and calves, but due to the small sizes of these skins, adult cows were the main material used as they retained the largest cutting area.
Parchment and Vellum
Often the terms parchment and Vellum are used interchangably in history. Technically vellum is the highest quality parchment made from calf skins only, with uterine vellum, the apex grade, being made from aborted or newborn calves. To avoid confusion, I will only use the term parchment in this discussion.
History of Parchment
Leather and Skin In his Histories, Herodotus wrote that the Assyrians of Mesopotomia (8th century BCE) preferred animal hides to clay tablets and wrote on un-haired sheep and goat skins. The early simple process used to make leather created difficulties in drying the wet leather to a smooth, slat sheet free of wrinkles which detracted from their use which lead to papyrus being the dominant writing media throughout the Mid-East, with the Kingdom of Egypt being the main production center. Wheelock, 1928 refers to several manuscripts in the National Library of Paris and the Vatican that was written on tanned human skin.
Pliny wrote in his Natural History that in the second century BCE a library was set up at Pergamum in Asia Minor by King Eumenes II and "according to Varro, because of the rivalry between Ptolemy and Eumenes about their libraries, Ptolemy suppressed the export of papyrus, to which Pergamum responded by building a vast workshop to produce parchment". The major innovation of Pergamum was to simplify the salt bath and drying the wet animal pelt in a stretched state, which produced extremely durable, smooth taunt sheets of uniform pale color. Parchment documents have been discovered in Kurdistan (1909) which bore dates equal to 88 and 22 BCE, and in 1923 excavations at the site of a Roman fortress in Dura bore dates equal to the 189-196 BCE range. By the end of the first century BCE parchment had become popular since it could be cut for small tags and labels and parchment was far more advantageous over papyrus due to its flexibility, that both sides could be written on, and writing on a parchment could be scraped/sanded off and the parchment could be used again. By the end of the third century CE, parchment was the preferred writing medium of the Roman world.
Scroll versus Codex
For much of antiquity (until 200 CE) among mid-East civilizations (Babylonian, Eqyptian, Greek and Israelite, etc.) the scroll format for writing of appreciable length was preferred to a collection of single sheets. Papyrus and parchment scrolls were constructed in similar manners, but where papyrus was glued together, the parchment sheets were stitched and had a far stronger join and thus more durable. During the first two centuries CE the scroll format gradually was replaced in favor of the codex in the Roman world. Two major influences brought about this change, the first being the widespread Roman use of the (Latin) tabula for keeping notes and records until they could be permanently written down. Use of the wax tablets gave rise to an early version of shorthand. The tabula was a wood backed and framed shallow box filled with beeswax which was carved into with a metal stylus that had both a pointed end for writing and a flattened end to erase the writing in the wax. The modern expression "a clean slate" is derived from the Latin "tabula rasa", a clean tablet. Tabula could be from 1 to 3 or 4 pages in size with a foldable 2 page being the most popular form. Wax tablets had been used from the beginning of the first millennium BCE in Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine for note taking and record keeping along with sending messages. Homer writes in the Illiad of Bellerphon being sent to deliver a sealed folded tablet with the message of "Kill the bearer of this message". Another fatal example of the tabula was the example of Julius Caesar, many experts feel that since weapons were forbidden near the Roman senate building, Caesar was not killed by daggers, but by the stylii of tabula wielding assassins.
Photo: A modern replica of a mid-1st century CE Roman tabula and stylus in my collection.
Whether because of the foldable wax tablet or a simultaneous discovery, it was only a short step to discover that a rectangular sheet of parchment could be folded in half to produce an inner 2 protected pages for writing. This is known as a folio. And, to further discover that similar folios can be placed inside of each other then stitched down the seam to produce a compact packet of multiple pages. Four sheets of folio, known as a quarto (which became a standard due to the thickness of parchment), provides 16 pages of uniform sized writing surface. A further discover was that the stitched packets could be sewn together at their seams to produce a compact collection of pages: this is the codex form. This also contributed to the replacement of papyrus by parchment since papyrus is too brittle for folding.
A second reason for the scroll being replaced by the codex, was the rise of the new religion: Christianity. Once the new sect was barred from the synagogues and the Jewish sacred writings, it is believed the Christians adopted the codex format to distinguish them from the sacred writings used by the pagan religions and Judaism which used the scroll format. But then again, perhaps it is simply with the ever increasing popularity of Christianity amongst the Roman Empire that the Christians used the more culturally popular codex format.
Specialized Parchment Types
As parchment gained every more popularity and a wide range of tasks it was used for, several specialized types of parchment were developed.
The finest grade of parchment, vellum, was in demand by the elite (such as Kings and high nobility) for letter writing, proclamations and certificates. Although made similar to parchment, it was primarily made from skins of young animals and had extensive sanding and polishing of the writing surface to a translucent thinness.
Ultra thin parchment even beyond vellum. It found a use in art studios and scriptoria for artists and scribes to use as "tracing paper" for designing and transferring designs to the object being decorated (much the same way you can write or draw on paper in pencil, then turn it over and rub the back to transfer it). Transparent parchment also has been used in spectacles, magnifying glasses, lamp shades, and was used by many American colonists and settlers as a window material.
Some parchment in the middle ages was made from the skins of newly born or unborn animals since it is thin, strong and has minimal hair to be removed. Highly regarded, this parchment was used only for the highest purpose such as royal wedding vows, papal decrees.
This was made from the caecum of cattle intestine: it is thin, touch, resilient and can stretch without breaking and was used by goldsmiths to separate sheets of gold when hammering into gold leaf for gilding objects.
The Parchment Making Process
At the end of this discussion I will do a walk thorough with photos of the process of making parchment, for now I will simply discuss the basics. But first some historical accounts. Historical Accounts of Parchment Making A Sumerian account of about 800 BCE: "This skin, you will take it, Then you will drench it in pure pulverised Nisaba flour, in water, beer and first quality wine, With the best fat of pure ox, the alum of the land of the Hittites, and oak galls, you will press it and you will cover the bronze kettle-drum with it." And a Carchemish text of about 600 BCE reads: "You will steep the skin of a young goat with the milk of a yellow goat and with flour, you will anoint it with pure oil, ordinary oil and fat of a pure cow, You will soak the alum in grape juice and then cover the skin with gall nuts". The first known text on parchment making is the Lucca Manuscript of the 8th century CE from a Northern Italian monastery: "How parchment is to be prepared: place [the skin] in lime water and leave it there for a few days. Then extend it on a frame and scrape it on both sides with a sharp knife and leave it to dry". A more detailed set of instructions comes from Theophilius in the 12th century: "Take goat skins and stand them in water for a day and a night. Take them and wash them until the water runs clear. Take an entirely new bath and place therein old lime and water mixing well to form a thick cloudy liquor. Place the skins in this, folding them on the flesh side. Move them with a pole two or three times each day, leaving them for eight days (and twice as long in winter). Next you must withdraw the skins and unhair them. Pour off the contents of the bath and repeat the process using the same quantities, placing the skins in the lime liquor and moving them once each day over eight days as before. Then take them out and wash well until the water runs quite clean. Place them in another bath with clean water and leave them there for two days. Then take them out, attach cords and tie them to the circular frame. Dry, then shave them with a sharp knife after which leave them for two days out of the sun. Moisten with water and rub the flesh side with powdered pumice. After two days wet it again by sprinkling with a little water and fully clean the flesh side with pumice so as to make it quite wet again. Then tighten up the cords, equalise the tension so that the sheet will become permanent. Once the sheets are dry, nothing further remains to be done." A standard 15th century recipe for making transparent parchment in the monasteries was: "To make parchment as though it were glass take a thin parchment preferably from a kid slain which is already reasonably transparent. If you can find such a parchment scrape it with a knife as thinly as possible. Then soak the scraped parchment in the whites of eggs which have been allowed to go rotten, or in a watery solution of gum Arabic in a fish glue which has been diluted with water or in a glue made by filtering through a cloth or a glue made from the shavings of this or any other parchment. Then, when the parchment has been softened in one of the above ways, stretch it on a frame as you stretch parchments normally after taking the pelt from the lime bath. When the parchment is dry it is ready. But when it seems after drying that it had insufficient of the liquor, take a sponge moistened with the latter and smear the parchment on both sides until you think it is all right. And then if you place the parchment over any picture the latter is clearly visible through it and you can draw upon the parchment a true likeness of the picture you wish to copy. If you want it more transparent, take some clear and fine linseed oil; and smear it with some of this oil on a piece of cotton. Let it dry thoroughly, for the space of several days".
Early Tanning Methods
Since parchment making was derived from the tanning process used to make leather, I will discuss it first. A very simple bath was first used in antiquity, generally beginning with soaking skins in a warm water solution of vegetable matter consisting of twigs, stalks, leaves, nuts of soft green plants. Later it was found that wood bark and galls of shrubs and trees contained a concentration of a substance, appropriately given the tannin, that worked extremely well in changing the hide into durable, non decaying leather. All of this plant matter would ferment naturally and the enzymes produced would break down the plant carbohydrates into lactic or acetic acids. This bath served three purposes: 1) De-hairing: the enzymes in the bath loosened the base of the hair follicles and allowed the hair to easily be removed by mechanical means such as scraping; 2) Loosening: the enzymes also loosened and dissolved other substances like cartiledge and allowed individual skin tissues to absorb the organic acids from the bath loosening the skin itself; 3) Cleaning: fermentation of the vegetable matter produces carbon dioxide gas within the skin fiber network of the pelt which further helped clean it.
After soaking, the hair was scraped off with a knife and the flesh side was scraped clean and smooth. The tannin in the bath caused chemical links in the larger fibers of collagen in the dermal network which turned the soft skin into a sturdy tanned leather.
Another, even more primitive method of tanning still used by aboriginal peoples even today, is to save urine in pots or jars and let it and allow it to ferment into ammonia; to this solution was added the brains of the animal slain, and after several days of further fermentation, the pelt was soaked in the liquid. In this case, it was optional to scrape off the hair of the resulting tanned pelt. A missionary to the Yanamomo tribes living along the Amazon in 1835 reported he was told by a new convert when asked about how they made leather "God gave every animal enough brains to tan it's own hide".
Basic Parchment Methods
The seven basic steps in making true parchment from a skin are 1) washing the skin, 2) the chemical bath, 3) removing the hair, 4) re-soaking and washing, 5) stretching, 6) drying, and 7) pouncing.
1) Washing the Skin First, the recently flayed skin is washed in soapy water. This process removes blood, dung and other organic matter along with wetting all parts of the skin to allow easier absorption of the chemical bath. This washing is carried out as soon as possible after the animal is skinned, finished off with deep rinsing in clean water, preferably running water, to minimize the loss of skin fibers by any bacterial action as decay begins.
2) The Chemical Bath It is not known when lime (made by cooking limestone in fires or kilns) was first used in the preparation of skins but it was stated in the Lucca manuscript of the 8th century that it was already long established as a favorite, although it had not completely replaced baths of fermenting vegetable matter. The purpose of the lime or vegetable bath is to soften and dissolve the epidermal layer that lines the hair follicles making it easier to remove the hair. Urine was also used as an alternative chemical to lime or tannin sources. According to recorded sources, the bath would have been done in wooden or hollowed out stone vats approximately 2 meters long, 1 meter wide and 1 meter deep capable of holding one or two dozen skins at a time. Metal vats were not used due to the potential of metal staining the skins until the modern invention of high grade steel and aluminium. As lime is only slightly soluble in water, the baths were relatively weak but still very efficient and dangerous to human skin, hence wooden poles were used to move the skins around to ensure a uniform reaction in the bath.
3) Removing the Hair The skins then are removed from the bath and rinsed free of the lime solution. While wet they were draped over a wooden or stone beam, then the loosened hair could be scraped off using a stone or metal knife. If the chemical bath was of sufficient length, the hair often can be simply pushed or rubbed off.
4) Re-soaking and Washing A second lime bath is done as the action of lime on the dermal fiber network is slow; if the time devoted to liming is too little, the skin will be uneven in areas, making it impossible to stretch evenly which causes the resulting parchment to have variable color and opacity. However, if the skin is soaked too long, the fiber network becomes too brittle and may develop holes along with not being able to withstand stretching. Modern production of both leather and parchment is too slow with a simple lime solution and is augmented with sodium sulphide in the bath. After the second bath the skin is thoroughly washed in running water to remove any trace of chemicals or the same problems as being too long in the bath will result.
5) Stretching At this point the fiber network of the skin runs in all directions and is very concentrated. If the skin has not been excessively tanned to where it has become leather (and worthless as parchment), the fiber network may be stretched while drying. This leads to a number of fibers being broken under tension and allowing the remaining fibers to become aligned into layers parallel to the grain of the skin. This stretching is done with the aid of pebbles of stone, placing a pebble on the skin then tying an end of a stout cord around the pebble then attaching to a frame. This is repeated around the skin at 4 to 6 inch intervals to stretch the skin from all sides. The frame usually was an open form in order to allow both sides to be worked on simultaneously. Both sides of the skin are scraped with a sharp knife to smooth the surface and produce a skin of uniform thickness. The knife does not cut through the skin, merely skimming the surface pushing and separating the remaining softened fat, flesh and gland tissue from the tougher collagen fiber. If the skin is not stretched sufficiently on the frame or knife work, the result will have areas of rough grains and various transparent or discolored areas in the dried product.
6) Drying During the drying process the collagen layers dries to a firm consistency and sets the fiber layers into the stretched condition so that the fibers cannot revert to their former relaxed state. This results in a highly stressed skin which is smooth, strong, inelastic, light in color yet opaque: a material which properly may be called parchment.
7) Pouncing One last step remains to turn the raw parchment into a suitable writing surface: pouncing. This is the fine sanding of the surface with pumice powder usually using a handheld rounded pumice stone. This produces a smooth, silky nap to which the inks will adhere, and also allows the ink to penetrate deep into the fibers which adds permanence to the writing. This treatment is done when the parchment is still damp on the drying frame.
Other treatments of parchments include dying it with dyes, Cennini from the 15th century listed recipes to make purple, indigo, green, red and peach colored parchments.
The Greeks of the Byzantine Era produced a parchment with a smooth glossy surface by extreme pumice polishing and rubbing egg-white and flax-seed oil to achieve the effect.
Another treatment is Stanchgrain, the name given to a variety of thin pastes of variable quantities of lime, quicklime, flour, egg-white and milk rubbed into the parchment with a damp cloth to produce an extremely hard, smooth, bright white appearance.
Properties of Parchment
The chemical bath and mechanical de-hairing and stretching leaves the animal skin consisting almost entirely of collagen fibers composed of long chains of amino acids, mainly glycine, proline and hydroxyproline. The chemical bonds between these chains maintain the fiber structure and renders it insoluble in cold water. Collagen will dissolve in water if heated at about 60 degrees C, causing the amino acid chains to shrink to one third of their length and causing the collagen to become rubbery. If heated in boiling water, the chains separate and form gelatin.
Parchment requires the natural fiber weave of the skin to be changed to a horizontally layered structure by applying tension to the skin. When the wet skin is stretched, it arranged the fibers into a translucent and rigid sheet, when it dries the dry skin becomes flexible and opaque.
The main reason for the permanence of parchment is its ability to absorb or release water vapor to the atmosphere. A sheet of ordinary parchment contains about 10% of its weight in water in a humidity of 50%. If the humidity around parchment becomes over 70%, within two to five days the parchment will absorb the water and increase to about 25% and will cockle and then become soft and limp, reverting to the wet pelt state. A similar result occurs if the parchment is in water for a prolonged amount of time. Prolonged exposure to an environment of under 40% humidity will dry the parchment out; prolonged exposure will cause cracks and the inks and paints will flake off.
Parchment has been made successfully from rabbit, cat, deer, gazelle, antelope skins along with the more traditional pig, sheep, goat, calf and cow hide.
In the history of writing and booking parchment plays an important role and roughly links the writing on clay tablets to the widespread adoption of paper to record many of the greatest thoughts and deepest spiritual concerns of humankind, along with more mundane human events and records. Even after paper replaced parchment as the main form of writing material in the 16th century, parchment still is used for bookbinding, legal documents, archival records, certificates and special occassions, but its total production is now very slight, and apart from copies of historically important texts, literary works are rarely committed to its surface.
That the survival of much of human knowledge depended on parchment is evidenced by the tens of thousands of manuscripts that have survived along the passing of several millenia.
Parchment has been a true gift from God.
For Further Reading
Bykoba, G. Z.: Medieval Painting on Parchment: Preservation and Restoration, Restaurator, 14 pp. 187-197 1993.
Cennini, Cennino d'Andrea: Il Libro dell' Atre (Craftsman's Handbook), Dover Press, NY 1933 reprint of original work of 1437.
Gansser, A. Early History of Tanning, Ciba Review 81, pp. 2938-2962, 1947.
Hunter, Dard: Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, Dover Press, NY 1943.
Kenyon, Frederic G.: Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome, Oxford Clarendon Press, London 1932.
Kireyeva, Vilena: Examination of Parchment in Byzantine Manuscripts, Restaurator, 20 39-47 1999.
Reed, Ronald: The Nature and Making of Parchment, Elmente Press, Leeds, UK 1975.
Reed, Ronald: Ancient Skins, Parchments and Leathers, Seminar Press, Leeds, UK 1972
Rudin, Bo: Making Paper, A Look into the History of an Ancient Craft: Papyrus, Tapa, Amate, Rice Paper and Parchment, Vallingby Press, Sweden 1990.
Wheelock, Mary E.: Paper: It's History and Development, American Library Association, Chicago 1928.
Woods, Chris: Conservation Treatments for Parchment Documents, Journal of the Society of Archivists 16 pp. 221-238 1995
R. K. Primmer 24 April 2013