This fascinating blog post about the history of vellum and parchment is written by Richard Norman, an experienced British bookbinder now living in France, where he runs Eden Wookshops with his wife and fellow bookbinder, Margaret, specializing in Family Bibles and liturgical books. The article originally appeared on www.edenworkshops.com, and is reprinted below with the author's permission.
According to the Roman Varro and Pliny's Natural History, 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 controversy.
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 skins.
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.
[Germany], 1338. 9" x 2.5". "Manuscript, single vellum leaf, 9” x 2.5”, [Germany], 1338, vertical folds, docketed on verso, light staining, vellum ribbon lacking the original wax seal that was attached, otherwise good.
Manuscript in a Gothic cursive documentary hand stating that Conradus “famulus dictus” has made the land sale with the approval of his daughters, Elizabeth and Petronille, and his male heirs, and that he affirms the document with the application of his seal in the presence of his heirs. There is a reference to something that must be fulfilled annually at Michael’s feast. Interestingly, this document may refer to lands once owned bythe Canons Regular of Premontre, a Roman Catholic order still in existence, founded by St. Norbert in the 12th century. The order, better known as the Premonstratensians, had a monastery at Clarholt (now Klarholz) dating from 1133 to 1806. According to the order’s website, some buildings survive as part of a castle, and some others as a parish residence. Docketed on verso is a note by one Switer Dinch in a late renaissance or early modern hand identifying and numbering the document." (Offered by University Archives)
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, and wine.
Illuminated Vellum Manuscript Leaf with a Miniature of All Saints from a Book of Hours in Latin. France, ca, 1470. n. 127 x 89 mm (5 x 3 1/2"). Single column, 14 lines in a very fine bâtarde book hand. Rubrics in red, three decorative initials (one-, two-, and three-line) in colors and gold, the verso with an "L"-shaped baguette composed of lozenges of blue, pink, gold and white, this below and to the left of the text, the same side of the leaf WITH A FULL BORDER featuring much vegetation in many colors and inhabited by a maroon bishop reading a book, the border ENCLOSING A FINE MINIATURE (measuring approximately 66 x 44 mm.) DEPICTING "ALL SAINTS," featuring Saint John the Baptist at the center flanked by Saint Peter on the left and by Saint Martin of Tours on the right. This is an attractive example of an uncommonly seen image for use in what clearly was a manuscript characterized by textual complexity. (Offered by Phillip J. Pirages Fine Books & Manuscripts)
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.
Stuttgart: Verlag für Vaterländische Kunst Gesellschaft, 1916. First edition. Hardcover. Elephant folio (16 3/4 x 11"). Elaborate gold-and brown stamped full vellum with metal clasps. Front cover with gold-embossed illustration of a dagger within double-brown border. Outer margins of front board with continuous lettering inside brown border: "Das eiserne Buch. Wir wollen sein ein einzig Volk von Brüdern in keiner Not uns trennen Gefahr" (The iron book. We want to be a people of brothers who never leave each other in times of need and danger). Four metal studs on rear board, top of studs decorated with outline of Iron Cross. Top edge gilt. Deckled fore edge. Unpaginated. Jugendstil front and rear endpapers, 1 blank leaf in front and rear with watermark of a crown followed by 158 blank leaves with decorative head- and tailpieces on high quality JW Zanders paper, all watermarked with image of a dagger. Also contains printed half-title, 2 illustrated section pages as well as printed text leaf in rear. Blank leaves divided into three sections with two titled pages (no titled leaf in first section).
First section leaf: "Ehren / Reihe. Unseren gefallenen Helden" (Honor Row. Our fallen heroes). Top margin of page shows decorative border with some gold overprinting of an Iron Cross with small crown and "W 1914" within. Third section with black printed half-title "Gemeinde Kriegschronik," followed by section leaf "Gemeinde Kriegschronik. Gemeinde Verhältnisse während der Kriegsjahre" (Community War chronicle. Life and events in the community during the war years). Center of that page illustrated with golden dagger surrounded by green leafs within border in gold, black and green. Page in rear with printed text: "Gesamt-Gestaltung des Werkes nach Entwürfen von Professor J. V. Cissarz, Stuttgart. Verlegt vom Verlag für Vaterländische Kunst Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung, Stuttgart. Gestzlich geschützt. Gedruckt bei Decker & Hardt mit Farben von Kast & Ehinger, beide in Stuttgart." Overall layout after designs by Professor J. V. Cissarz. Printed by Decker & Hardt with colors by Kast & Ehinger (Stuttgart). Exquisitely designed binding by Cissarz with fully functioning metal clasps and unused interior leaves. Boards bowed. Minor staining on vellum. Very slight rusting on metal. Binding in very good, interior in fine condition. Scarce.
Johannes Joseph Vincenz Cissarz was a German typographer, designer, illustrator, architect and teacher. After studying under Leon Pohle and Georg Hermann Freye at the Kunstakademie Dresden in the late 20th century, Cissarz worked as Ferdinand Pauwels' master student. After his 'apprenticeship' he became well-known for his typography, working with Eugen Diederichs publisher and the Deutschen Werkstätten Hellerau. From 1903-1906 he was a member of the Darmstädter Künstlerkolonie. Eventually he became head of book design and professor at the Verein Würtembergischer Kunstfreunde in Stuttgart. His 'Cissarz Latin' typeface established him as one of the premiere book designers in Germany. (Offered by Eric Chaim Klien Bookseller)
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 cover.
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 library materials.
-- Richard Norman, Eden Workshops
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)
Henk De Groot. Holland