Parchment is a writing material made from specially prepared untanned
skins of animals—primarily sheep, calves, and goats. It has been
used as a writing medium for over two millennia.
Vellum is a finer
quality parchment made from the skins of young animals such as lambs
and young calves.
It may be called animal membrane by libraries and museums that wish to
avoid distinguishing between "parchment" and the more restricted term
"vellum" (see below).
Parchment and vellum
3.1 Flaying, soaking, and dehairing
5 Jewish parchment
6 Additional uses of the term
6.1 Plant-based parchment
8 See also
10 Further reading
11 External links
Parchment and vellum
Today the term "parchment" is often used in non-technical contexts to
refer to any animal skin, particularly goat, sheep or cow, that has
been scraped or dried under tension. The term originally referred only
to the skin of sheep and, occasionally, goats. The equivalent material
made from calfskin, which was of finer quality, was known as vellum
Old French velin or vellin, and ultimately from the Latin
vitulus, meaning a calf); while the finest of all was "uterine
vellum", taken from a calf foetus or stillborn calf.
Some authorities have sought to observe these distinctions strictly:
for example, lexicographer
Samuel Johnson in 1755, and master
Edward Johnston in 1906. However, when old books and
documents are encountered it may be difficult, without scientific
analysis, to determine the precise animal origin of a skin either in
terms of its species, or in terms of the animal's age. In practice,
therefore, there has long been considerable blurring of the boundaries
between the different terms. In 1519,
William Horman wrote in his
Vulgaria: "That stouffe that we wrytte upon, and is made of beestis
skynnes, is somtyme called parchement, somtyme velem, somtyme
abortyve, somtyme membraan." In Shakespeare's
c.1599–1602) the following exchange occurs:
Hamlet. Is not parchment made of sheepskins?
Horatio. Ay, my lord, and of calves' skins too.
Lee Ustick, writing in 1936, commented that:
To-day the distinction, among collectors of manuscripts, is that
vellum is a highly refined form of skin, parchment a cruder form,
usually thick, harsh, less highly polished than vellum, but with no
distinction between skin of calf, or sheep, or of goat.
It is for these reasons that many modern conservators, librarians and
archivists prefer to use either the broader term "parchment", or the
neutral term "animal membrane".
German parchmenter, 1568
The word parchment evolved (via the
Latin pergamenum and the French
parchemin) from the name of the city of
Pergamon which was a thriving
center of parchment production during the Hellenistic period. The
city so dominated the trade that a legend later arose which said that
parchment had been invented in
Pergamon to replace the use of papyrus
which had become monopolized by the rival city of Alexandria. This
account, originating in the writings of
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder (Natural
History, Book XII, 69–70), is dubious because parchment had been in
use in Anatolia and elsewhere long before the rise of Pergamon.
Herodotus mentions writing on skins as common in his time, the 5th
century BC; and in his Histories (v.58) he states that the Ionians of
Asia Minor had been accustomed to give the name of skins (diphtherai)
to books; this word was adapted by Hellenized
Jews to describe
scrolls. In the 2nd century BC, a great library was set up in
Pergamon that rivaled the famous Library of Alexandria. As prices rose
for papyrus and the reed used for making it was over-harvested towards
local extinction in the two nomes of the
Nile delta that produced it,
Pergamon adapted by increasing use of parchment.
Writing on prepared animal skins had a long history, however. David
Diringer noted that "the first mention of Egyptian documents written
on leather goes back to the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2550–2450 BC), but
the earliest of such documents extant are: a fragmentary roll of
leather of the Sixth Dynasty (c. 24th century BC), unrolled by Dr. H.
Ibscher, and preserved in the Cairo Museum; a roll of the Twelfth
Dynasty (c. 1990–1777 BC) now in Berlin; the mathematical text now
British Museum (MS. 10250); and a document of the reign of
Ramses II (early thirteenth century BC)." Though the Assyrians and
Babylonians impressed their cuneiform on clay tablets, they also
wrote on parchment from the 6th century BC onward. Rabbinic literature
traditionally maintains that the institution of employing parchment
made of animal hides for the writing of ritual objects such as the
Torah, mezuzah, and tefillin is Sinaitic in origin, with special
designations for different types of parchment such as gevil and
Early Islamic texts are also found on parchment.
In the later Middle Ages, especially the 15th century, parchment was
largely replaced by paper for most uses except luxury manuscripts,
some of which were also on paper. New techniques in paper milling
allowed it to be much cheaper than parchment; it was still made of
textile rags and of very high quality. With the advent of printing in
the later fifteenth century, the demands of printers far exceeded the
supply of animal skins for parchment.
Latin Grant written on fine parchment or vellum with seal dated 1329
There was a short period during the introduction of printing where
parchment and paper were used at the same time, with parchment (in
fact vellum) the more expensive luxury option, preferred by rich and
conservative customers. Although most copies of the Gutenberg Bible
are on paper, some were printed on parchment; 12 of the 48 surviving
copies, with most incomplete. In 1490,
Johannes Trithemius preferred
the older methods, because "handwriting placed on parchment will be
able to endure a thousand years. But how long will printing last,
which is dependent on paper? For if ... it lasts for two hundred years
that is a long time." In fact high quality paper from this period
has survived 500 years or more very well, if kept in reasonable
The heyday of parchment use was during the medieval period, but there
has been a growing revival of its use among artists since the late
20th century. Although parchment never stopped being used (primarily
for governmental documents and diplomas) it had ceased to be a primary
choice for artist's supports by the end of 15th century Renaissance.
This was partly due to its expense and partly due to its unusual
Parchment consists mostly of collagen. When the
water in paint media touches parchment's surface, the collagen melts
slightly, forming a raised bed for the paint, a quality highly prized
by some artists.
A 1385 copy of the Sachsenspiegel, a German legal code, written on
parchment with straps and clasps on the binding
Parchment is also extremely affected by its environment and changes in
humidity, which can cause buckling. Books with parchment pages were
bound with strong wooden boards and clamped tightly shut by metal
(often brass) clasps or leather straps; this acted to keep the
pages pressed flat despite humidity changes. Such metal fittings
continued to be found on books as decorative features even after the
use of paper made them unnecessary.
Some contemporary artists prize the changeability of parchment, noting
that the material seems alive and like an active participant in making
artwork. To support the needs of the revival of use by artists, a
revival in the art of preparing individual skins is also underway.
Hand-prepared skins are usually preferred by artists because they are
more uniform in surface and have fewer oily spots which can cause
long-term cracking of paint than mass-produced parchment, which is
usually made for lamp shades, furniture, or other interior design
The radiocarbon dating techniques that are used on papyrus can be
applied to parchment as well. They do not date the age of the writing
but the preparation of the parchment itself. While it is feasibly
possible also to radio carbon date certain kinds of ink, it is
extremely difficult to do due to the fact that they are generally
present on the text only in trace amounts, and it is hard to get a
carbon sample of them without the carbon in the parchment
Parchment is prepared from pelt – i.e. wet, unhaired, and limed
skin – by drying at ordinary temperatures under tension, most
commonly on a wooden frame known as a stretching frame.
Flaying, soaking, and dehairing
After being flayed, the skin is soaked in water for about a day. This
removes blood and grime from the skin and prepares it for a dehairing
liquor. The dehairing liquor was originally made of rotted, or
fermented, vegetable matter, like beer or other liquors, but by the
Middle Ages an unhairing bath included lime. Today, the lime solution
is occasionally sharpened by the use of sodium sulfide. The liquor
bath would have been in wooden or stone vats and the hides stirred
with a long wooden pole to avoid human contact with the alkaline
solution. Sometimes the skins would stay in the unhairing bath for
eight or more days depending how concentrated and how warm the
solution was kept—unhairing could take up to twice as long in
winter. The vat was stirred two or three times a day to ensure the
solution's deep and uniform penetration. Replacing the lime water bath
also sped the process up. However, if the skins were soaked in the
liquor too long, they would be weakened and not able to stand the
stretching required for parchment.
After soaking in water to make the skins workable, the skins were
placed on a stretching frame. A simple frame with nails would work
well in stretching the pelts. The skins could be attached by wrapping
small, smooth rocks in the skins with rope or leather strips. Both
sides would be left open to the air so they could be scraped with a
sharp, semi-lunar knife to remove the last of the hair and get the
skin to the right thickness. The skins, which were made almost
entirely of collagen, would form a natural glue while drying and once
taken off the frame they would keep their form. The stretching aligned
the fibres to be more nearly parallel to the surface.
See also: Purple parchment
To make the parchment more aesthetically pleasing or more suitable for
the scribes, special treatments were used. According to Reed there
were a variety of these treatments. Rubbing pumice powder into the
flesh side of parchment while it was still wet on the frame was used
to make it smooth and to modify the surface to enable inks to
penetrate more deeply. Powders and pastes of calcium compounds were
also used to help remove grease so the ink would not run. To make the
parchment smooth and white, thin pastes (starchgrain or staunchgrain)
of lime, flour, egg whites and milk were rubbed into the skins.
Meliora di Curci in her paper "The History and Technology of Parchment
Making" notes that parchment was not always white. "Cennini, a 15th
century craftsman provides recipes to tint parchment a variety of
colours including purple, indigo, green, red and peach." The Early
Codex Argenteus and Codex Vercellensis, the Stockholm Codex
Aureus and the
Codex Brixianus give a range of luxuriously produced
manuscripts all on purple vellum, in imitation of Byzantine examples,
like the Rossano Gospels,
Sinope Gospels and the Vienna Genesis, which
at least at one time are believed to have been reserved for Imperial
Many techniques for parchment repair exist, to restore creased, torn,
or incomplete parchments.
Main article: Palimpsest
During the seventh through the ninth centuries, many earlier parchment
manuscripts were scrubbed and scoured to be ready for rewriting, and
often the earlier writing can still be read. These recycled parchments
are called palimpsests. Later, more thorough techniques of scouring
the surface irretrievably lost the earlier text.
A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Hebrew Bible, is a scroll
See also: Gevil, Klaf, and Duchsustus
The way in which parchment was processed (from hide to parchment) has
undergone a tremendous evolution based on time and location. Parchment
and vellum are not the sole methods of preparing animal skins for
writing. In the Babylonian
Bava Batra 14B) Moses writes the
Torah Scroll on the unsplit cow-hide called gevil.
Parchment is still the only medium used by traditional religious Jews
Torah scrolls or tefilin and mezuzahs, and is produced by large
companies in Israel. For those uses, only hides of kosher animals are
permitted. Since there are many requirements for it being fit for the
religious use, the liming is usually processed under supervision of a
Additional uses of the term
In some universities, the word parchment is still used to refer to the
certificate (scroll) presented at graduation ceremonies, even though
the modern document is printed on paper or thin card; although
doctoral graduates may be given the option of having their scroll
written by a calligrapher on vellum. The University of Notre Dame
still uses animal parchment for its diplomas. Similarly, University of
Heriot-Watt University use goat skin parchment for their
Parchment paper (baking)
Vegetable (paper) parchment is made by passing a waterleaf (an unsized
paper like blotters) made of pulp fibers into sulfuric acid. The
sulfuric acid hydrolyses and solubilises the main natural organic
polymer, cellulose, present in the pulp wood fibers. The paper web is
then washed in water, which stops the hydrolysis of the cellulose and
causes a kind of cellulose coating to form on the waterleaf. The final
paper is dried. This coating is a natural non-porous cement, that
gives to the vegetable parchment paper its resistance to grease and
Other processes can be used to obtain grease-resistant paper, such as
waxing the paper or using fluorine-based chemicals. Highly beating the
fibers gives an even more translucent paper with the same grease
Silicone and other coatings may also be applied to the
parchment. A silicone-coating treatment produces a cross-linked
material with high density, stability and heat resistance and low
surface tension which imparts good anti-stick or release properties.
Chromium salts can also be used to impart moderate anti-stick
Historians believe that parchment craft originated as an art form in
Europe during the fifteenth or sixteenth century.
Parchment craft at that time occurred principally in Catholic
communities, where crafts persons created lace-like items such as
devotional pictures and communion cards. The craft developed over
time, with new techniques and refinements being added. Until the
sixteenth century, parchment craft was a European art form. However,
missionaries and other settlers relocated to South America, taking
parchment craft with them. As before, the craft appeared largely among
the Catholic communities. Often, young girls receiving their first
communion received gifts of handmade parchment crafts.
Although the invention of the printing press led to a reduced interest
in hand made cards and items, by the eighteenth century, people were
regaining interest in detailed handwork.
Parchment cards became larger
in size and crafters began adding wavy borders and perforations. In
the nineteenth century, influenced by French romanticism, parchment
crafters began adding floral themes and cherubs and hand embossing.
Parchment craft today involves various techniques, including tracing a
pattern with white or colored ink, embossing to create a raised
effect, stippling, perforating, coloring and cutting.
appears in hand made cards, as scrapbook embellishments, as bookmarks,
lampshades, decorative small boxes, wall hangings and more.
Conservation and restoration of parchment
^ Thomson, Roy (2007). Conservation of Leather and Related Materials
(Repr ed.). Amsterdam: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.
^ Johnston, Edward (1906). Writing & Illuminating, &
Lettering. London: John Hogg.
^ Cains, Anthony (1994). "The surface examination of skin: a binder's
note on the identification of animal species used in the making of
parchment". In O'Mahony, Felicity. The Book of Kells: proceedings of a
conference at Trinity College Dublin, 6–9 September 1992. Aldershot:
Scolar Press. pp. 172–4. ISBN 0-85967-967-5.
^ William Horman, Vulgaria (1519), fol. 80v; cited in Ustick 1936, p.
^ Ham 5.1 M
^ Ustick 1936, p. 440.
^ Stokes and Almagno 2001, p. 114.
^ Clemens and Graham 2007, pp. 9–10.
^ "parchment (writing material)". Britannica Online Encyclopedia.
2012. Retrieved 23 May 2012.
^ Green, Peter (1990). Alexander to Actium: the historical evolution
of the Hellenistic age. Berkeley: University of California Press.
p. 168. ISBN 0520056116.
^ Meir Bar-Ilan. "Parchment". Bar-Ilan University – Faculty Members
^ "The History Of
Parchment The New Antiquarian The
Blog of The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America".
www.abaa.org. Archived from the original on 30 August 2017. Retrieved
^ David Diringer, The Book before Printing: Ancient, Medieval and
Oriental, Dover Publications, New York 1982, p. 172.
^ Maimonides, Hilkhoth
^ as quoted in David McKitterick, Print, Manuscript, and the Search
for Order Cambridge University Press, 2003
^ a b "Clasps, Furniture, and Other Closures". Hand Bookindings.
Princeton University Library. 2004. Retrieved 4 January 2012.
^ For examples of current artists using parchment see:
The St. John's Bible,
More Contemporary Illumination.
For example of current parchment makers see:
Kare Parchment[permanent dead link].
^ Santos, F.J.; Gomez-Martinez, I.; Garcia-Leon, M. "Radiocarbon
dating of medieval manuscripts from the University of Seville" (PDF).
^ Stolte, D. (2011). "UA experts determine age of book 'nobody can
^ Reed, Ronald (1972). Ancient Skins Parchments and Leathers. London:
^ a b Reed, 1975.
^ See for example recipes in the Secretum Philosophorum
^ "Information Leaflet by Vaad Mishmereth Staam" (PDF). CC. Archived
from the original (PDF) on 10 April 2008.
Clemens, Raymond; Graham, Timothy (2007). Introduction to Manuscript
Studies. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
di Curci, Meliora. (2003) The History and Technology of Parchment
Eisenlohr, Erika (1996), "Die Kunst, Pergament zu machen", in
Lindgren, Uta, Europäische Technik im Mittelalter. 800 bis 1400.
Tradition und Innovation (4th ed.), Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag,
pp. 429–432, ISBN 3-7861-1748-9
Hasewint, Inden W. (2001) Tor
Parchment Prepared According to
Murray, Fiona, "
Parchment Craft" in Australian
Paper Crafts, No 23
2003, Pride Publishing, Rozelle NSW, pp. 10–13
Reed, Ronald. (1975). The Nature and Making of Parchment. Leeds,
England: Elmete Press
Roberts, Colin H.; Skeat, T. C. (1983), The Birth of the Codex,
London: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-726024-1
Stokes, Roy Bishop, Almagno, Romano Stephen, Esdaile's Manual of
Bibliography, 6th edition, 2001, Scarecrow Press,
ISBN 0810839229, 9780810839229, google books
Ustick, W. Lee (1936). "'Parchment' and 'vellum'". The Library. 4th
ser. 16 (4): 439–43.
Bar-Ilan, Meir (December 4, 1995). "Parchment".
di Curci, Meliora (2003). "The History and Technology of Parchment
Making". Lochac College of Scribes.
Dougherty, Raymond P., 1928. "Writing upon parchment and papyrus among
Babylonians and the Assyrians", in Journal of the American
Oriental Society 48, pp 109–135.
Reed, Ronald. 1972. Ancient Skins, Parchments, and Leathers. Seminar
Press. ISBN 0-12-903550-5
Reed, Ronald. The Making and Nature of Parchment. Leeds: Elmete Press,
Hunter, Dard. Papermaking: the History and Technique of an Ancient
Craft. New York: Dover Publications, 1978, c1947
Ryder, Michael L. (1964). "Parchment: its History, Manufacture and
Composition". Journal of the Society of Archivists. Retrieved November
Outlines of industrial chemistry By Frank Hall Thorp, Warren Kendall
The Natural History of the Raw Materials of Commerce By John Yeats
Parchment. 20. Encyclopædia Britannica. 1911. p. 799.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Parchments.
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
Preservation of 18th Century
Parchment "From the Stacks" at New-York
On-line demonstration of the preparation of vellum (in French),
Bibliothèque nationale de France
Bibliothèque nationale de France – Text in French, but mostly