Last week I briefly mentioned paper and vellum and I thought it might be interesting to look at these in a bit more detail. As a vegetarian I’m not thrilled by the idea of investigating how animal skins were turned into the perfect writing surface, but the maker in me is fascinated by the process and the great skill of those involved in it.
I said that paper was known but little used in fourteenth-century England. It had been invented in China over two thousand years ago, where it was originally used for wrapping. By the ninth century it was used for fans, umbrellas, kites, lanterns, playing cards, toilet paper and paper money. It was probably first used for writing in the third century and this spread eventually to the Muslim world. As most things did, it entered Europe via Muslim Spain, but it still hadn’t made its presence felt in northern Europe by the end of the thirteenth century. Its time would, of course, come with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. For the moment, though, books were handwritten on parchment and vellum. Parchment used sheep and goatskin, while vellum was made of calfskin. The latter was the more expensive of the two. Over the centuries, however, vellum has come to mean a high-quality product, regardless of the type of animal skin used. For both products the process was the same. It was both time-consuming and smelly.
All stages of the process required great skill to avoid damaging the skin. First the animal had to be skinned. This is the bit that makes me most queasy, but I have nothing but admiration for the men who were able to skin an animal without putting a hole in the skin, particularly given the very basic nature of the tools involved. With no electric lighting available, it must have been a task for bright days, no matter how many times you’d done it before. The fewer blemishes the skin had the better. If the animal had received an injury that scarred its skin, it reduced the value of the skin itself, even if the scar had healed.
When the skin came off it would have been covered with hair or wool, bits of muscle, blood and fat, none of which was desirable in the finished product. The skin would be left in running water for a couple of days to get rid of most of the unwanted elements. The next step was to soak it in urine or lie to remove the hair. Essentially the skin started to rot in the urine and the hairs fell out.
Most vellum and parchment was produced in monasteries. The tanning vats above were built in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, when the number of monks at Rievaulx had fallen considerably. They were built in an unused area of the monastic complex, because the smell produced by soaking animal skins in urine was horrendous. By the time that these vats were built abbeys were required to lease their tanneries to laymen, but in the fourteenth century it would have been the monks themselves, or, more likely, their servants, who carried out the tanning process, although there were also professional parchment makers outside the monasteries. The tanning vats were near a stream, as the hides were washed in water as well as soaked in urine.
Once the hairs were removed the skin was stretched on a frame and scraped with a curved knife to create the correct surface for writing. The skin couldn’t be allowed to dry out during this stage. The knife was curved rather than pointed to reduce the risk of nicking the skin. Despite this, small holes could appear in the skin and they would be sewn up, sometimes in a decorative manner and sometimes in a discreet manner. If the hole was too small to be sewn, it was left and some scribes made use of them in tiny illustrations on the page. The pegs holding the skin to the frame would be tightened gradually so that the skin was stretched thinner until it was smooth and shiny and blemish-free, and ready to be written on.
Parchment and vellum are extremely long-lasting and it was only in 2017 that MPs decided to stop writing the UK’s laws on it. The oldest Act of Parliament stored at Westminster dates back to 1497, although there are, of course, much older documents written on parchment. By way of contrast, Siena seems to have made the switch to paper by 1302.
Rievaulx Abbey by Peter Fergusson, Glyn Coppack, Stuart Harrison and Michael Carter
Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford
Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Frances and Joseph Gies
April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.