Vellum & Parchment

Parchment as a writing material antedates paper by possibly 1500 years, although the name is derived from Pergamum, an ancient city in Asia Minor where its discovery is usually credited to King Eumenes II, in the second century BC.

Parchment is made from the split skin of the sheep. The grain, or wool, side of the skin is made into skiver, a strong leather; the flesh, or lining, side of the skin is converted into parchment, provided the skin is suited to this exacting purpose. If not, the lining side is usually made into the less expensive chamois or suede.

Vellum is usually calfskin prepared by a lengthy exposure in lime, scraped with a rounded knife and finally rubbed smooth with pumice stone. As a rule, vellum is made from the entire skin, not split as is parchment made from sheepskin. Vellum is also made from goat, lamb, and deerskin, and can usually be distinguished from parchment by the grain and hair marks producing a somewhat irregular surface.

In many European manuscript books executed by monks upon parchment and vellum a difference between the hair side and the flesh side of the pages is noticeable, the latter being somewhat whiter in appearance. The difference is more pronounced in earlier books as later parchmenters used more chalk and pumice on the hair side than was the custom earlier. In order to make these differences less obvious to the reader, scribes would organize the sheets, prior to writing, so that one spread consisted of hair sides, and the next spread of flesh sides, alternating throughout the manuscript.

The use of parchment for book printing in Europe continued even after the advent of printing from wood-blocks and moveable type, but did not survive to any extent beyond the year 1500, although for the purpose of calligraphy and for printing documents and diplomas, this durable material is in demand to the present day. It was paper, however, that gave printing its real impetus, for had the expensive parchment been the only material available the craft of printing could never have developed.

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