20 January 2008

What is Vellum and Parchment, And What Makes Them Durable?

7. In the current phase of my research I am being directed to learn what I can about the basic materials that medieval scribes used to produce the works they produced. The current focus is on the "paper" they drew and wrote on.

I say "paper" because, unlike today, the material that our medieval cousins used to write on, or as we'll say in these discourses the substrate, the more upmarket varieties of said substrate were made from animal skin.

The following comes from the common knowledge as I am aware of it, and as a long time user of artistic-grade papers.

Today we can buy parchment and vellum for our work from commercial vendors, and these are manufactured out of plant products, notably cotton. If we want to acquire something that has archival value, we want as high a "cotton rag" content as possible; one of the by-products of wood-pulp-derived paper substrate is that the resulting paper is of an acidic character, which actuallly causes the paper to essentially consume itself over time. Anyone can check this out for themselves; mass-market "paperback" books that are any more than perhaps ten or fifteen years old have 'gone yellow'; this is the paper in the first stages of this breakdown. Particularly fragile are "pulp" magazines and books made with this paper from, say, the 1950s and before. This are immediately obvious from thier nearly-amber color and the extreme fragility of the paper. There is no saving these in thier original form.

By contrast, parchment and vellum substrates are made from components more akin to cloth than wood pulp, and are as near as possible chemically neutral. 100% rag vellums and parchments have, with proper care, a practically indefinite shelf-life, or as near as makes little difference. They can be damaged with improper handling, and inattentive care can cause them to degrade, certainly; but if attention is paid to handling and storage, they can be considered, for any practical purpose, permanent records.

Medieval Substrates

The medieval scribe and heraldic artist also had vellum and parchment available to them. They were, however, not made from plant product; they were made from animal skin.

Local SCA member Lady Tegan of Conwy, in a very informative handout on the subject, has this to say about parchment:

Parchment, by definition, is the skin of an animal, usually sheep or goat, prepared as a surface n which to write or paint. Parchment has been in continuous use for over six thousand years. Pergamum, in Asia Minor, is traditionally regarded as the place where parchment is said to have been invented in the early part of the second century BC. The source of this tradition is Pliny’s Natural History, Book IV.

Exactly why medieval scribes and artists used parchment when papermaking was, while maybe not widespread in Europe possibly not unknown (with the Egyptians and Chinese having made paper of various kinds from plants for centuries) is a bit beyond the ken of this author, at least for the moment. One of the Lady Tegan's sources provides a clue which we can note in our passing:

During medieval times some of the books produced in English monasteries were written on parchment of outstanding quality, especially in respect of whiteness, even appearance, smooth flexible handle (sic) and excellent writing properties. This was due mainly to the use of modified compositions known as stanchgrain - thin pastes made by mixing lime, quicklime, and flour with egg-white and milk.

Parchment was simply the best writing substrate available, and therefore presumably seen as fitting grounds to support scrolls, heraldic art, and the like.

Defining the Terms

At this time, we figure that a more complete definition of terms would be of use. For convenience sake – and for the moment – we will help ourselves to the definitions provided by Wikipedia.

The definition of parchment is:

thin material made from calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin. Its most common use is as the pages of a book, codex or manuscript. It is distinct from leather in that parchment is not tanned, but stretched, scraped, and dried under tension, creating a stiff white, yellowish or translucent animal skin. The finer qualities of parchment are called vellum. It is very reactive with changes in relative humidity and is not waterproof.

We see here that vellum is more or less simply an upmarket type of parchment. The Wikipedia definition of vellum reads:

Vellum (from the Old French Vélin, for "calfskin") is a sort of processed animal hide that is thin, smooth, durable and was used in the pre-printing age to produce written works in the form of a scroll, codex or book.

An important point to note here also is that the chief difference between parchment/vellum and leather – also made from animal skins – is that leather is tanned, whereas parchment and vellum are not.

Perhaps one can say that parchment has many uses, but vellum is specifically for the making of written works and art, and probably those of great value meant as historical records.

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