Medieval Europe + Byzantine
- Listening to the Medieval book
- Parchment (the good, the bad and the ugly)
- Skins and scraps
- An introduction to Medieval scripts
- The work of the scribe
- Words, words, words: medieval handwriting
- A Medieval textbook
- Making books for profit in medieval times
- Decorating the book
- Medieval supermodels
- Binding the book
- Clasps: hugging a medieval book
- Medieval books in leather (and other materials)
- Making manuscripts
By Dr. Erik Kwakkel
For much of the Middle Ages, dead cows were the main ingredient for books. What was frolicking in the meadow one month may have been a page in a Bible the next. The skin of animals (calves, goats, sheep) was turned into parchment, which was subsequently cut into sheets. Parchment was introduced in late antiquity, when the codex (a book made of double leaves), was born and started to replace the papyrus scroll.
There is a lot you can tell from medieval skin. Like a physician today, the book historian can make a diagnosis by observing it carefully. The quality of parchment sheets varied considerably. Like people today, not all medieval creatures had perfect skin. Some cows loved to rub against trees while others were particularly prone to insect bites. We can still see these defects today, which appear as tiny holes, gaps or dark patches as we read Saint Jerome or Chaucer.
The quality of the page also had a lot to do with preparation. A scribe producing a book for his own library may be less attentive than one that worked in a monastic community. The best sheets have a deep-white color, with a hint of yellow. They feel like velvet and make a slight rustling sound when you turn the page—suspenseful whispers that teased the reader. Bad skin, by contrast, crackles. It is of uneven thickness, and shows staining and a variety of colors. Unlike what you may have thought, looking at imperfect skin is far more interesting than studying its perfect counterpart. This is because a defect tells a powerful story, shedding light on the book’s production and providing clues about its use and storage post-production.
Damaged goods: holes and rips
Medieval craftsmen were well aware of the varying quality of animal skins, which they used as the basis for their books. However, calves, sheep, or goats that had given up their livelihood and skin for the sake of medieval readers were not always to blame—and neither were the scribes. The most common imperfections are holes produced by the knife of the parchment maker.
Preparing parchment was a delicate business. In order to clear the skin of flesh and hair, it was attached to a wooden frame, tight like a drum. If the round knife of the parchment maker (the lunellum) cut too deep during this scraping process, elongated rips or holes would appear. A small puncture easily became a gaping hole. The art of preparing animal skin was to apply just the right amount of pressure.
However, readers did not seem to mind the holes too much and scribes usually just wrote around them, or they repaired them. Sometimes the reader is given an unexpected sneak peek onto the next page—where a dragon may just be introduced into the story.
The jabs of parchment makers—and the resulting holes—were sometimes stitched together. A page from a manuscript at the University Library, Leiden shows a former rip (a long one) snaking across the page: the scribe has stitched it up like a patient in post-op.
Repairing holes was sometimes done more eloquently. In a page from a manuscript at the University Library of Uppsala, a hole is not made to disappear, but it is highlighted by colored threads. In some monastic communities this must have been common practice, given that they repaired a lot of books with such “embroidery.” The practice turned defect into art: good-looking bad skin.
Another skin problem encountered by scribes during a book’s production was the animal’s hair follicle—the skin organ that produces hair. These follicles show as pronounced black dots on the white page. Often parchment makers or scribes were able to sand them away, producing the desired smooth and cream-colored surface. However, if the follicles had been too deep in a calf or sheep, no dermatologist could have removed the imperfection, let alone the blunt instruments of the scribe. The only thing to do was to write around the patch. The follicles are helpful because they allow us to determine— from the distance between them—whether the animal was a calf, a sheep or a goat. This, in turn, may shed light on where the manuscript was produced: the use of goat, for example, often points to Italy.
The transition to paper
In the 12th century another material appeared in Europe: paper. Imported from Arabic culture, it was first exclusively used for documentary purposes, such as account books and letters. In a remarkable shift of scribal practices, in the fourteenth century scribes all over Europe started to use paper for manuscripts. Conservative scribes, such as monks, ignored the new material for some time, while others—especially those who wanted to economize—embraced it. Paper and parchment were used for all sorts of manuscripts, from chunky volumes to small portable books.
Essay by Dr. Erik Kwakkel
Want to join the conversation?
- In the second to last paragraph we read "...Another skin problem encountered by scribes during a book’s production was the animal’s hair follicle..."
Were these hair follicles merely visual distractions and thus avoided by the scribes? Or were they more pernicious perhaps in being deep chasms that made the parchment page uneven and impossible to write over in parts?(11 votes)
- Why, Oh why is Dr. Erik Kwakkel touching the parchment with his bare hands, surely the oils from our skin affects the parchment. Would it not be far better to use white cotton gloves to handle such beautiful books(2 votes)
- Research has shown that wearing (cloth) gloves can do serious harm to the page, in particular when it is made from paper. Flipping the page is hindered by the gloves, which causes pieces of paper to break off. If you avoid touching the written part of the medieval page, touching the manuscript with your bare hands is no problem. Check out this post by the British Library, one of the largest repositories of medieval books in the world, which is a proponent of taking off the gloves, so to speak: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2011/08/white-gloves-or-not-white-gloves.html.(19 votes)
- If we are given a "sneak peek" of the dragon, why is it on the page BEFORE it instead of after? (Look at the picture, and then read the paragraph regarding the sneaky peek.)(3 votes)
- Why can't they just write over the hair follicle?(3 votes)
- If you can imagine you are writing with a quill and ink, an even surface is by far the easiest (smoothest) surface to write on. If a quill catches on an imperfection in the surface the ink can be flicked everywhere. I would think trial and error and the necessity to get the work done made them just avoid a surface that was not ideal if they could.(5 votes)
- Paper was invented in China in the 1st century and reached the India and the Near East within a few hundred years and was known in the Arab and Islamic world. Why did it take so long to reach Europe and replace parchment?(2 votes)
- In Europe, writing and reading was reserved to the upper and learned classes. There was enough animal skin to produce parchment necessary for the needs of libraries. The market was saturated with an available product, and an inferior product (paper is not as nice as parchment) would benefit no one in the upper classes, so "why fix what ain't broke?"(4 votes)
- does anyone have an additional resource that talks about identifying species and location based on the distance between hair follicles? i would like to read the study on this if possible.(2 votes)
- found this Medieval Bibles Made From Many Skin Sources here: http://www.archaeology.org/news/3905-151124-tissue-thin-parchment(2 votes)
- Is is me or was there an implied assumption that we use high grade paper for everything in the modern world? The truth of the matter is that much as in older days we suit the quality of materials to the task. Newspapers are printed in newsprint, other material is printed on low acid paper for arching.(3 votes)