My favourite activity is to touch, smell, and listen to the crackling sound of cows and sheep that have been dead for a thousand years. That’s right, I am talking about medieval parchment, the standard material for books made between the fifth and thirteenth centuries. Animal skin replaced papyrus (standard up to the fifth century) and would ultimately be challenged by paper, which competed for dominance during the later medieval period. Parchment was resilient, however, and it was even used by early printers, including Gutenberg himself – showing the use of animal skin did not die with the medieval manuscript.
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 best quality, for example, feels just like velvet. It usually has an even, off-white colour, and it makes no sound when you turn the page. Bad skin, by contrast, crackles. It is of uneven thickness, and shows staining and a variety of colours. 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. Here’s the skinny on bad medieval parchment.
Scribes were usually not the ones to blame for a manuscript’s bad skin. A fair part of that honor goes to 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. As a result the reader is given an unexpected sneak peek onto the next page – where a dragon may just be introduced into the story (Fig. 1). We encounter such holes frequently in medieval books, which suggests that readers were not too bothered by them. Many scribes will have shared this sentiment, because they usually simply wrote around a hole. Some placed a little line around them, as if to prevent the reader from falling in.
The jabs of parchment makers – and the resulting holes – were sometimes stitched together. Fig. 2 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, as seen in Fig. 3, as well as in the image at the top of this post (Engelberg, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 16). In both cases the holes are not made to disappear, as with the stitching in Fig. 2, but they are highlighted by coloured threads. In some monastic communities this must have been common practice, given that they repaired a lot of books with such “embroidery” (some examples in this Tumblr post). 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 (Fig. 4). 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.
Bad skin may also tell us something about the individuals who owned, read and stored manuscripts. The presence of holes and rips may for example indicate the cost of the materials. Studies suggest that parchment was sold in four different grades, which implies that sheets with and without visible deficiencies may have been sold at different rates. If this was indeed the case, an abundance of elongates holes in a manuscript may just point at an attempt to economise on the cost of the writing support. In other words, bad skin may have come at a good price.
Parchment provides other information about readers as well, for example that he or she stored a book in an unsuitable location. Damp places, for one, would leave a mark on the manuscript’s skin, as is clearly seen in a manuscript I sometimes call the “Mouldy Psalter” – for mouldy it is (Fig. 5). On nearly every page the top corner shows a purple rash from the mould that once attacked the skin. It is currently safe and the mould is gone, but the purple stains show just how dangerously close the book came to destruction – some corners have actually been eaten away. Similarly, if a book was stored without the proper pressure produced by a closed binding, for example because the clasp was missing (as explained here), the parchment would buckle and produce endearing “waves” on the page (Fig. 6).
Apart from such attacks by mother nature, a manuscript could also be scarred for life by the hand of men – those evil users of books. Well known are cases where scribes and readers erased text with a knife, either because the reading was wrong or because they disagreed with it. However, in the wrong hands a knife could easily have a more severe impact on the book’s skin. All those shiny letters on the medieval page were too much for some beholders. The individual that gazed at the golden letters in the manuscript shown in Fig. 7 used his knife to remove some of them. Appropriately, it concerns a copy of Seneca’s Tragedies.
While the velvety softness of perfect skin can be quite appealing to handle, getting to know imperfect parchment is ultimately more interesting and rewarding. Damage is telling, as this post shows, and it may shed light on such things as the attitude of scribes (who did not necessarily mind holes on the page), the manner in which a book was stored by its owner (with a missing clasp or in a wet environment), and even the state of mind of those looking at it (“Must cut out golden letters!”). As a book historian it feels good to work with bad skin.
Note – A few days after publishing this post I found a great image in which a scribe used three holes in the page to produce the face of a laughing man – turning the flaws into art. More here. Also, since posting this I made a brief YouTube film with the Khan Academy, which shows what good and bad parchment looks like – and sounds (!). Here is the link.