Parchment: Wikis


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Central European (Northern) type of finished parchment made of goatskin stretched on a wooden frame
German parchmenter, 1568

Parchment is a thin material made from calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin, often split. Its most common use was as a material for writing on, for documents, notes, or the pages of a book, codex or manuscript. It is distinct from leather in that parchment is limed but not tanned, therefore it is very reactive with changes in relative humidity and is not waterproof. The finer qualities of parchment are called vellum.



According to the Roman Varro, Pliny's Natural History records (xiii.21) that parchment was invented under the patronage of Eumenes of Pergamum,[1] 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 skinsdiphtherai — to books; this word was adapted by Hellenized Jews to describe scrolls[1]. 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 parchment.

Writing on prepared animal skins had a long history, however. Some Egyptian Fourth Dynasty texts were written on parchment. Though the Assyrians and the Babylonians impressed their cuneiform on clay tablets, they also wrote on parchment from the 6th century BC onward. Rabbinic culture equated 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 fine parchment, but more strictly refers to parchment made from calfskin (although goatskin can be as fine in quality). The words "vellum" and "veal" come from Latin vitulus, "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 controversy.

An English deed written on fine parchment or vellum with seal tag dated 1638.

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 parchment. In 1490, Johannes Trithemius preferred the older methods, because "handwriting placed on parchment will be able to endure a thousand years. But how long will printing last, which is dependent on paper? For if lasts for two hundred years that is a long time." [2]

In the later Middle Ages, parchment 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 animal skins for 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 parchment 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. 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. Parchment 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 parchment seems alive and like an active participant in making 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.[3]

The radiocarbon dating techniques that are used on papyrus can be applied to parchment as well. They do not date the age of the writing but the preparation of the parchment 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, and wine.


"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" [4] 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. [5] 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 limewater 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.[5]

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 fibers to become aligned running parallel to the grain.

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) 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 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.

Many techniques for Parchment repair exist, to restore creased, torn, or incomplete parchments.


Main article Palimpsest.

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.

Jewish parchment

A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Hebrew Bible, is a scroll of parchment.

The way in which parchment was processed (from hide to parchment) has undergone a tremendous evolution based on time and location. Parchment and vellum are not the sole methods of preparing animal skins for writing. In the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 14B) Moses writes the first Torah Scroll on the unsplit cow-hide called gevil.

Parchment is still the only medium used by religious Jews for Torah scrolls or Tefilin and Mezuzahs, and is produced by large companies in Israel. For those uses, only hides of kosher animals are permitted. Since there are many requirements for it being fit for the religious use, the liming is usually processed under supervision of a qualified Rabbi.[6]

Additional uses of the term

In some universities, the word parchment is still used to refer to the certificate (scroll) presented at graduation ceremonies, even though the modern document is printed on paper or thin card; although doctoral graduands may be given the option of having their scroll written by a calligrapher on vellum. The University of Notre Dame still uses animal parchment for its diplomas. Similarly, University of Glasgow uses goat parchment paper for its degrees.

Plant-based parchment

Vegetable (paper) parchment is made by passing a waterleaf made of pulp fibers into sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid hydrolyses and solubilises the main natural organic polymer, cellulose, present in the pulp wood fibers. The paper web is then washed in water, which stops the hydrolysis of the cellulose and causes a kind of cellulose coating to form on the waterleaf. The final paper is dried. This coating is a natural non-porous cement, that gives to the vegetable parchment paper its resistance to grease and its semi-translucency.

Other processes can be used to obtain grease-resistant paper, such as by highly beating the fibers giving an even more translucent paper with the same grease resistance. Silicone and other coatings may also be applied to the parchment. One can obtain grease resistance by waxing the paper or by using fluorine-based chemicals. A silicone-coating treatment produces a cross-linked material with high density, stability and heat resistance and low surface tension which imparts good anti-stick or release properties. Chromium salts can also be used to impart moderate anti-stick properties.

Parchment craft

Historians believe that parchment craft originated as an art form in Europe during the 15th or 16th century. Parchment craft at that time occurred principally in Catholic communities, where crafts persons created lace-like items such as devotional pictures and communion cards. The craft developed over time, with new techniques and refinements being added.

Although the invention of the printing press led to a reduced interest in hand made cards and items, by the 18th century, people were regaining interest in detailed handwork. Parchment cards became larger in size and crafters began adding wavy borders and perforations.

In the 19th century, influenced by French romanticism, parchment crafters began adding floral themes and cherubs and hand embossing.

Until the 16th century, parchment craft was a European art form. However, missionaries and other settlers relocated to South America, taking parchment craft with them. As before, the craft appeared largely among the Catholic communities. Often, young girls receiving their First Communion received gifts of handmade parchment crafts.

Parchment craft today involves various techniques, including tracing a pattern with white or colored ink, embossing to create a raised effect, stippling, perforating, coloring and cutting.

Parchment craft appears in hand made cards, as scrapbook embellishments, as bookmarks, lampshades, decorative small boxes, wall hangings and more.

See also



  1. ^ Either Eumenes I — who ruled 263–241 BC — or Eumenes II — who ruled 197–158).
  2. ^ as quoted in David McKitterick, Print, Manuscript, and the Search for Order Cambridge University Press, 2003
  3. ^ For examples of contemporary artists using parchment see: For an example of a contemporary parchment maker see:
  4. ^ Reed, Ronald Ancient Skins Parchments and Leathers published 1972 by Seminar Press Ltd. Berkeley Square London WIX 6BA
  5. ^ a b Reed, 1975.
  6. ^ Information Leaflet by Vaad Mishmereth Staam.


Further reading

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

PARCHMENT. Skins of certain animals, prepared after particular methods, have supplied writing material on which has been inscribed the literature of centuries. Such a durable substance, in most cases easily obtainable in fair abundance, would naturally suggest itself for the purpose, and we are therefore prepared for evidence of its use, and also for the survival of actual specimens, from very ancient times. The tradition of the employment of skins as writing material by the ancient Egyptians is to be traced back to the period of the Pharaohs of the IVth Dynasty; and in the British Museum and elsewhere there exist skin-rolls which date back to some 1500 years B.C. But the country which not only manufactured but also exported in abundance the writing material made from the papyrus plant (see Papyrus) hardly needed to make use of any other material, and the instances of skin-rolls inscribed in Egypt must at all times have been rare. But in western Asia the practice of using skins as writing material must have been widespread even at a very early period. The Jews made use of them for their sacred books, and it may be presumed for other literature also; and the old tradition has been maintained by this conservative race down to our own day, requiring the synagogue rolls to be inscribed on this time-honoured material. No doubt their neighbours the Phoenicians, so ready to adapt the customs of other nations to their own advantage, would also have followed the same practice. The Persians inscribed their annals on skins; and skins were employed by the Ionian Greeks, as proved by the words of Herodotus (v. 58). There is no evidence forthcoming that the same usage was followed by the western Greeks and by the Italic tribes; but it is difficult to suppose that at a remote period, before the importation of papyrus, such an obviously convenient writing material as skin was not used among the early civilized races of Greece and Italy.

The method of preparation of skins for the service of literature in those distant ages is unknown to us; but it may be assumed that it was more or less imperfect, and that the material was rather of the character of tanned leather than of the thinner and better prepared substance which was to follow at a later time. The improvement of the manufacture to which we refer was to be of a nature so thorough as to endow the material with a new name destined to last down to the present day.

The new manufacture was traditionally attributed to Eumenes II. of Pergamum, 197-158 B.C. The common story, as told by Pliny on the authority of Varro, is that Eumenes, when seeking to enlarge the library of his capital, was opposed by the jealousy of the Ptolemies, who forbade the export of papyrus from Egypt, thus hoping to check the growth of the rival library; and that the Pergamene king was thus compelled to revert to the old custom of using skins as writing material. It is needless to regard this story as literally true, or as other than a popular explanation of a great development of the manufacture of skin material for books in the reign of Eumenes. In former times the prepared skins had been known by the natural titles Sc4BE- pac, jeµf3pavac, the Latin membranae, and these were at first also attached to the new manufacture; but the latter soon received a special name after the place of its origin, and became known as Irep'yaµnvii, charta pergamena, from which descends our English term parchment, through the French parchemin. The title of pergamena actually appears first in the edict De pretiis rerum of Diocletian (A.D. 301), and in a passage in one of St Jerome's Epistles.

The principal improvement in the new manufacture was the dressing of the skins in such a way as to render them capable of receiving writing on both sides, the older methods probably treating only one side for the purpose, a practice which was sufficient in times when the roll was the ordinary form of book and when it was not customary to write on the back as well as on the face of the material. The invention of parchment with its two surfaces, recto and verso, equally available for the scribe, ensured the development of the codex. (See Manuscript.) The animals whose skins were found appropriate for the manufacture of the new parchment were chiefly sheep, goats and calves. But in course of time there has arisen a distinction between the coarser and finer qualities of the material; and, while parchment made from ordinary skins of sheep and goats continued to bear the name, the finer kinds of manufacture produced from the more delicate skins of the calf or kid, or of still-born or newly-born calves or lambs, came to be generally known as vellum (Fr. velin). The skin codices of the early and middle ages being for the most part composed of the finer kinds of material, it has become the custom to describe them as of vellum, although in some instances it would be more correct to call the material parchment.

The ordinary modern process of preparing the skins is by washing, liming, unhairing, scraping, washing a second time, stretching evenly on a frame, scraping a second time and paring down inequalities, dusting with sifted chalk and rubbing with pumice. Somewhat similar methods, no doubt varying in details, must have been employed from the first.

The comparatively large number of ancient and medieval MSS. that have survived enables us to gather some knowledge of the varieties of the material in different periods and in different countries. We know from references in Roman authors that parchment or vellum was entering into competition with papyrus as a writing material at least as early as the 2nd century of our era (see Manuscript), though at that time it was probably not so skilfully prepared as to be a dangerous rival. But the surviving examples of the 3rd and 4th centuries show that a rapid improvement must almost at once have been effected, for the vellum of that age is generally of a thin and delicate texture, firm and crisp, with a smooth and glossy surface. Here it should be noticed that there was always, and in some periods and in some countries more than in others, a difference in colour between the surface of the skin from which the hair had been removed and the inner surface next to the flesh of the animal, the latter being whiter than the other. This difference is generally more noticeable in the older examples, those of a later period having usually been treated more thoroughly with chalk and pumice. To obviate any unsightly contrast, it was customary, when making up the quires for a volume, to lay hair-side next to hair-side and flesh-side to flesh-side, so that, at whatever place the codex was opened, the tint of the open pages should be uniform.

As a rule, the vellum of early MSS., down to and including the 6th century, is of good quality and well prepared. After this, the demand increasing, a greater amount of inferior material came into the market. The manufacture necessarily varied in different countries. In Ireland and England the vellum of the early MSS. is usually of stouter quality than that of foreign examples. In Italy and Greece and in the European countries generally bordering on the Mediterranean, a highly polished surface came into favour in the middle ages, with the ill effect that the hardness of the material resisted absorption, and that there was always a tendency for ink and paint to flake off. On the other hand, in western Europe a soft pliant vellum was in vogue for the better classes of MSS. from the 12th century onwards. In the period of the Italian Renaissance a material of extreme whiteness and purity was affected.

Examples of uterine vellum, prepared from still-born or newly-born young, are met with in choice volumes. A remarkable instance of a codex composed of this delicate substance is the Additional MS. 23935, of the 13th and 14th centuries, in the British Museum, which is made up of as many as 579 leaves, without being a volume of abnormal bulk.

In conclusion, we must briefly notice the employment of vellum of a sumptuous character to add splendour to specially choice codices of the early middle ages. The art of dyeing the material with a rich purple colour was practised both in Constantinople and in Rome; and, at least as far back as the 3rd century, MSS., generally of the Scriptures, were produced written in silver and gold on the precious stained vellum: a useless luxury, denounced by St Jerome in a well-known passage in his preface to the Book of Job. A certain number of early examples still survive, in a more or less perfect condition: such as the MS. of the Gospels in the Old Latin version at Verona, of the 4th or 5th century; the celebrated codex of Genesis in the Imperial Library at Vienna; the Rossano MS. and the Patmos MS. of the Gospels in Greek; the Gothic Gospels of Ulfilas at Upsala, and others, of the 6th century, besides a few somewhat later specimens. In the revival of learning under Charlemagne a further encouragement was given to the production of such codices; but soon afterwards the art of purple-staining appears to have been lost or abandoned. A last trace of it is found in a few isolated instances of stained vellum leaves inserted for ornament in MSS. of the period of the Renaissance.


- Particulars of the early manufacture and use of parchment and vellum are to be found in most of the handbooks on palaeography and book-development, such as W. Wattenbach, Das Schriftwesen im Mittelalter (3rd ed., 1896); G. Birt, Das antike Buchwesen (1882); Sir E. M. Thompson, Handbook of Greek and Latin Palaeography (3rd ed., 1906). See also La Lande, Art de faire le parchemin (1762); G. Peignot, Essai sur l'histoire du parchemin et du velin (1812); A. Watt, The Art of Leather Manufacture (1885).

(E. M. T.)

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Bible wiki

Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From BibleWiki

A skin prepared for writing on; so called from Pergamos, where this was first done (2 Tim 4:13).

This entry includes text from Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897.

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