From The London Review of Books:
The work of making parchment is unglamorous, and sometimes it smells like the inside of a boxing glove: like cheese and sweat and hard work. There is only one firm of parchment makers left in the UK. There are places elsewhere in the world where parchment is produced, but the process is partly mechanised. At William Cowley’s – located somewhat improbably near Milton Keynes – everything is still done by hand. What happens there is probably not much different from what was done in the Hellenistic city of Pergamon during the reign of Eumenes II (197-159 BCE). Eumenes was an avid bibliophile and built a library to rival that of Alexandria; at its peak it contained 200,000 volumes. According to Pliny, Ptolemy of Egypt was so enraged by his neighbour’s acquisitive habits that he banned the sale of papyrus. Eumenes instructed his subjects to find an alternative writing material, and parchment was born. Where plant-based papyrus was fibrous, brittle and liable to break, parchment was flexible, durable and milky smooth. The material gave its name to the city: pergamenum is the Latin word for parchment.
In making parchment, the first stage involves working with whole goat or calf hides (the word ‘vellum’ is often used to distinguish calf hide from other kinds of hide), which come fresh from the abattoir, covered in hair. They still bear the traces of a lopped-off head and the beginnings of a tail.
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In a storeroom at Cowley’s was a huge pile of these hides, folded up, like furry pillowcases waiting to be laundered. The hides are soaked for two weeks in a vat of lime (not the citrus variety). At the end of this, they come out sodden on the hair side and slippery on the flesh side. The lime breaks down the follicles and loosens the hair. I watched as a hide was fished out and thrown over a wooden stump with a wet thwack. It lay hair-side up, liquid dripping from its curled brown ends. The stump is a smooth-topped wooden block, which comes to just below chest height. Once there, the hair (known as the nap) is removed with a long, curved knife (called a scudder) which has wooden handles at both ends. I had a go at this and the hair came away like the skin from a potato – the sensation was satisfying, if disconcerting.
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After the hair is removed, the skins are dried and stretched across a frame, known as a herse. The word comes from the French herse, meaning a harrow, and ultimately from the Latin hirpex. It is a cousin of ‘hearse’, which originally meant a frame for carrying lighted tapers over a coffin. The funereal connotation seems appropriate. Parchment skins cannot be nailed to a frame because they would rip during the drying process.
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As the skin is stretched by twisting the pegs, hot water is applied and any remaining fat, especially from the meat side, is removed using a knife shaped like a crescent moon, called a lunellum or sometimes a lunellarium (at Cowley’s they simply call it a luna). The process of stretching and scraping is repeated several times before the frame is put into the oven, which is really a large drying room.
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After the oven, the skins are ready for the final stage of their preparation. The last layer is shaved off, removing any dark patches or traces of hair, this time with a slightly larger luna. Picking up the knife, I was sure I was about to scrape too hard and break the skin. Parchment holes are a common feature of medieval manuscripts. But the skin is remarkably strong; I could have hacked at it without breaking it. One of the main uses for parchment today is drumskins. If you get the correct angle – a neat 45 degrees – the blade makes a high-pitched trill. Do it right and the blade will sing, I was told. There is something early medieval about the idea of a blade with a voice.
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Parchment itself is an emblem of a pre-disposable culture: it is built to last. You need only look at the almost pristine pages of the Codex Sinaiticus, made sometime in the fourth century CE, to recognise this. Cheap 20th-century books with glued spines and paper that withers like an autumn leaf present a greater challenge to library conservation departments than parchment manuscripts. Unlike many of the materials we use today, parchment was often recycled. It was cut up to make new bindings, fill holes or repair damage. Sometimes it was scraped clean of its writing and used again, leaving ghostly palimpsests for scholars to uncover.
Link to the rest at The London Review of Books