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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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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.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Parchment'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​p/parchment.html. 1910.
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