The Rise and Fall of Parchment

  By Reginmund, 10 January 2007; Revised
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By the time scribes were copying their first works onto parchment in Europe, animal skins had been used as a writing material for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians and Jews all wrote on hides, although at this stage the manufacturing process was most likely still so primitive it was only possible to write on one side of the sheets. Proper parchment as we know it was not invented until about 200 BC, in the city of Pergamon in Asia Minor, from which parchment derives its name. The bright minds of Pergamon achieved this by soaking raw animal hide in limed water, which dissolved fats and made remnants of hair and flesh loosen from the skin. The hide was then suspended on a rack to dry, while being scraped and cleaned further, before being rubbed with finely grained chalk and lastly smoothed over with a pumice stone.[1]

Theological Work, Germany, circa 13th or 14th century Yale, 2002797
Theological Work, Germany, circa 13th or 14th century Yale, 2002797
The advent of parchment did not however have any immediate impact on the written culture, and the material known as papyrus, made from the reeds of the plant by the same name, continued to be the most widely used for centuries still. The transition to parchment in Europe began with the early Christians, who at first seem to have been alone in favouring it over the papyrus.[2] There are several theories on why this was so, none of which really exclude the other.

Parchment was without a doubt a more solid material to work with than the papyrus; one could make corrections by erasing with less risk of destroying the sheet. If prepared properly it presented a smoother surface to write on as well. Taking into account the missionary activities of the early Christians, parchment had the ability to survive even if exposed to harsh travelling conditions and it was more endurable in humid climates, whereas papyrus had a tendency to rot outside the hot and dry climate of Egypt.[3] Perhaps most importantly though; parchment entailed the first binding of written works into books rather than scrolls, the codex form we still use to this day. These were more practical for the early Christians, especially those on mission, who depended on being able to rapidly look up specific parts of the Bible.[4] Starting to realise this, the manufacturers of papyrus attempted to adopt the codex form, but the material proved far less suitable for this than parchment. Despite all these I would say obvious advantages to parchment as a writing material; another theory claims the Christians began using it merely because the Roman state prohibited them from acquiring papyrus sheets.[5]

In any case the Christians carried with them parchment as an integral part of their written culture, and when their faith rose to prominence in the 4th century parchment also began superseding papyrus in many regions of the Roman Empire. Less than two centuries later the Western Empire was dissolved, with it went the state apparatus that had been responsible for the import of papyrus from Egypt. Following the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 7th century import from this region was complicated further, and subsequently papyrus as a writing material more or less seized to exist in Europe. One could say then that the transition to parchment was a major stroke of luck for Europe, as it unlike papyrus could be produced locally in an average European agrarian community.[6]

Parchment and Christianity became inextricably intertwined in the following centuries; the purpose of parchment was primarily preserving the sacred texts. The same period saw a rapid decline in the ability to read and write, literacy increasingly becoming a monopoly of the Church, which emerged as the carrier of Europe’s written culture. Especially the monasteries filled this role, as islands of learning in an illiterate world, where the Bible, the works of the Church Fathers and certain Classical pagan texts were copied by monks from parchment to parchment. This was done painstakingly and meticulously by hand, following the thoughts of St. Benedict of Nursia and Cassiodorus Senator, who both claimed that the deed of transcription was in itself spiritually beneficial.[7]

The parchment, if not in itself holy, could be sanctified through the inscription of sacred texts. It seems to have been a widespread superstition that if a piece of parchment carried any holy words, then it would also be put in connection with God. A manuscript from the 11th century gives the advice that, if one suffers from a fever, it might help to tie a strip of parchment from a sacred manuscript around the throat. This might explain the habit of many crusaders, who put a scroll of parchment with a sacred text underneath their hauberks.[8]

It should also be said that if Europe in the high middle ages had long been populated by an overwhelming majority of illiterates, parchment as a writing material can be seen, despite its perks, to have contributed to keeping literacy exclusive. Acquiring the raw materials necessary to produce parchment was an expensive undertaking, usually only manageable by those who could rely on the Church organization or some secular patron for financial support. In an age where the ambitions of the common man were restricted by necessity to merely keeping himself and his family fed, a single book made of parchment would require the amount of somewhere between a hundred and two hundred animal hides.[9]

Even so, by the time we reach the later Middle Ages, literacy had grown far more widespread among laymen than a few centuries past. This led to an increasing demand for cheaper books which the parchment “industry”, if one will, had neither the cost-effectiveness nor the productivity rates to answer. There was now, however, an alternative to parchment; paper, and it was sold at one sixth the price of parchment. It is surprising to see then how paper, just like parchment before it, despite its usefulness underwent a rather slow rise in popularity.[10]

Invented in 105 AD in China, paper was at first kept secret, but the Arabs managed to learn the technique in the 8th century. With them it travelled to the areas of southern Europe under Arab dominion, most notably the southern the half of Iberia, and by the 12th - no later than the 13th century – western Europeans knew how to make paper. France initiated its own paper production in the 14th century, Germany in the 15th with England, the Low Countries and Scandinavia following subsequently. Paper was, in other words, readily available by the late Middle Ages, yet still parchment retained a high status, paper sometimes being regarded with outright disdain.[11]

There were numerous reasons for this attitude towards paper, besides the usual scepticism against anything new impacting society. It was too thin and fragile, critical scribes used to working with parchment would claim. The more religiously minded would point out that paper had reached Europe through Muslims and Jews; it was the writing material of infidels, while parchment had been the choice of the early Christians and the Church Fathers.[12] Parchment also carried with it the aura of social prestige, perhaps especially now that there was a cheaper alternative. Paper on the other hand seems to have been considered entirely improper as a material for documents of some importance; matters of state and correspondence between princes for instance. If a person in the higher strata of society received a letter on paper it might even be taken as an insult, as if the one who sent it did not acknowledge or was ignorant of the recipient’s position. When in 1367 the king of Denmark sent a letter of correspondence to the Hansa Guild on paper, they outright refused to answer it on the grounds that it was not written on a fitting material. Likewise, although paper had been used in the Holy Roman Empire for minor documents of state since the 13t century, Frederick II decreed in 1231 that all important documents were to be written on parchment.[13]

It is reminding of the situation with papyrus and parchment, to see how paper gradually supersedes parchment as the primary writing material from the second half of the 15th century onwards. By the end of the 16th the transition was more or less complete. A major propeller of this development was Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable type printing, producing the first printed Bible in 1455. Paper was the ideal material for use with the printing press, and of the 180 bibles that were printed in 1455 only a few were on parchment. This, combined with an ever increasing demand for more and cheaper books, more or less handed the death sentence to parchment as the main writing material of Europe. Only monks who practiced the art of book illumination continued to work with parchment, its surface being more suited to painting than paper, and readers would in their books of printed paper happen upon the occasional page of painted parchment for some time still.[14]


Deibert, Ronald J.: Parchment, printing, and hypermedia: communication in world order transformation. Columbia University Press, 1997 New York

Holm-Olsen, Ludvig: Med fjærpenn og pergament: vår skriftkultur i middelalderen. Cappelen, 1990 Oslo

Shailor, Barbara A.: The medieval book.University of Toronto Press, 1991 Toronto

References and Notes:
  1. ^ Holm-Olsen 1990: 14
  2. ^ Deibert 1997: 54
  3. ^ Shailor 1991: 8 & Deibert 1997: 54
  4. ^ Deibert 1997: 54
  5. ^ Ibid
  6. ^ Op. Cit. 53-55
  7. ^ Op. Cit 53-54
  8. ^ Op. Cit. 51-52
  9. ^ Shailor 1991: 11
  10. ^ Deibert 1997: 63
  11. ^ Holm-Olsen 1990: 22-23
  12. ^ Deibert 1997: 63
  13. ^ Holm-Olsen 1990: 23
  14. ^ Shailor 1991: 12