Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Papyrus / Parchment / Vellum / Paper

Surfaces—usually one looks at what’s on the surface rather than the surface itself, especially when it comes to books.  Since we’ve been exploring manuscripts produced in monastic scriptoriums, perhaps knowing more about those writing surfaces might be interesting.

Little did I know when I began looking for writing and painting surfaces related to the early medieval period (~600 AD – 1000 AD) there would be so much information available.  Things I wanted to understand were:  Who was using these surfaces? What was being used?  When it was being used? Where was it being used? And, why use one material over another?

Whoa! That’s way too much to post. 

However, if one is interested in a complete timeline (2,500,000 BCE to 2012 CE) on transcripts of all sorts, there is an extensive one on line and it’s fascinating. There is also a how-to guide on medieval bookbinding.  This site goes into a paragraph or so of history, for example, the word ‘book’ or ‘codex' is from the Latin word caudex, meaning ‘tree trunk’ and so forth. Also fascinating!

Roman-Style Wax Tablet:  

 National Museum of Wales (Cardiff). Part of a wooden writing tablet
from the ancient Roman fortress of Caerleon, Wales. Wikimedia Commons

Made of wood and covered with a layer of wax. Used during the Middle Ages as a portable and reusable writing surface.  Along with other treasures, these tablet books have been unearthed in bogs as far north from Rome as Hadrian’s Wall in England . . . with writing on them. My guess is that the bogs of England are a kin to the La Brea Tar Pits in California!


Papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus) at Kew Gardens, London, England. Wikimedia Commons

Papyrus is manufactured from the paper-like fiber or pith of the papyrus plant. It is a woven material of fine threads. Not only was it first known to be used as a writing surface, but was also used for boats, mattresses, mats, rope, sandals, and baskets in ancient Egypt. It was made into long scrolls for long documents. Unfortunately, it is not pliable and is susceptible to moisture and excessive dryness.

The Heracles Papyrus (Oxford, Sackler Library, Oxyrhynchus Pap. 2331), a fragment of 3rd century Greek manuscript of a poem about the Labors of Heracles. Wikimedia Commons

In dry climates, papyrus is stable and rot resistant when stored properly.  Stored in humid conditions, the material can be destroyed by mold. In Europe, if this writing material lasted more than 200 years it was exceptional.  If it is not perfect quality, the writing surface is irregular and harder to write or paint on.

When books started being made, it was found that it was faster to turn a page than to keep rolling, unrolling, and rolling the scrolls again and again to find something fast.  Thus, parchment came into favor again. It could be made anywhere, not just imported from Alexandria.  


Detail of central European (Northern) type of finished parchment made of goatskin stretched on
a wooden frame Wikimedia Commons

Parchment is a thin material made from calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin. The skins are split. Different from leather, parchment is limed but not tanned. This papyrus substitute was developed around 250 BC when it became unavailable from its only source, Alexandria in Northern Africa.  It was commonly used for writing on, for documents, notes, or the pages of a book, codex or manuscript. Although parchment is also affected by environment causing buckling, unlike papyrus it can initially be folded to make individual pages.

Most parchment books would be bound with wooden boards and clamped with brass clasps or leather straps. These closures became decorative features even after paper made them unnecessary.

Sachsenspiegel manuscript of 1385 (sister manuscript of Harffer Sachsenspiegel),
photographed by Britta Lauer Creative Commons

Modern vegetable (paper) parchment is manufactured today from pulp wood fibers.


 The Marriage, 1350s, miniature on vellum by Niccolò da Bologna, 1350s,
National gallery of Art, Washington DC Creative Commons

Vellum is a finer-quality parchment and was generally made from split skin of a young animal, like calfskin, kidskin or lambskin, although other skins were used.  Vellum is similarly processed as parchment.  It is actually more durable than paper and documents such as diplomas were and are still written it.  Vellum is still used for Jewish scrolls, of the Torah in particular, for luxury book-binding, and various calligraphy documents such as The Constitution of Vermont shown below. Modern “paper vellum” (vegetable vellum [paper]) is not from mammal skin, but of plasticized cotton.

Vermont Constitution vellum copy, 1777. Attribution: Jim Hood a.k.a. GearedBull Creative Commons

Purple Parchment

Folio 7v from the Rossano Gospels, the Good Samaritan. Creative Commons

Known as 'purple parchment,' these manuscripts were actually written on a high quality vellum and dyed purple.  “This was at one point supposedly restricted for the use of Roman or Byzantine Emperors, although in a letter of Saint Jerome of 384 [sic.AD], he “writes scornfully of the wealthy Christian women whose books are written in gold on purple vellum and clothed with gems. . .” (^ Needham, 21). The lettering may be in gold or silver.  Later the practice was revived for some especially grand illuminated manuscripts produced for the Emperors in Carolingian art and Ottonian art, in Anglo-Saxon England and elsewhere.  Some just use purple parchment for sections of the work; the 8th century Anglo-Saxon England Stockholm Codex Aureus alternates dyed and un-dyed pages.”(Wikipedia)


  Well, I'm thinking this is another post ! !

Mary B.