What is parchment writing paper?

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Parchment is a material for writing from raw untanned animal skin(before the invention of paper), usually calves, sheep, andgoats. It was used as a writing medium for more than twocenturies. Vellum is a parchment writing paper of a betterquality made of the skins of young animals like calves and lambs.Also, ancient manuscripts are written on such material.


Parchment is named after the city of Pergamon in Asia Minor,where in the II century BC, it was widely used. In theprofessional environment of historians, the word parchment ismainly used, from Latin – pergamen.

History of parchment

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According to the testimony of the Greek historian of the 5thcentury BC. Ctesias, the skin at that time had long been used asa material for writing from the Persians. From there it, underthe name of diphthera, passed early to Greece, where processedsheep and goat skins were used for writing.

According to Pliny the Elder, in the II century. BC, the kings ofEgypt, wishing to maintain the book wealth of the AlexandriaLibrary, found its rival in the Pergamon library, in Asia Minor,forbade the export of parchment from Egypt. Then in Pergamon,attention was paid to the dressing of the skin. The ancientdiphthera was perfected and put into circulation under the namederma and later, at the place of the main production – pergamena.The legendary inventor of parchment is the king of PergamumEumenes II.

The Hebrews know parchment as gevil, as the canonical materialfor the recording of the Torah scrolls (Sefer Torah). On a morewidespread form of parchment, vellum, fragments from the Torahfor tefillin and mezuzah are also written. Another type ofparchment, duchsustus, made from the lower layers of the skin,was used only for mezuzah. However, with the development of theslaughterhouse industry, when skins became more accessible, thiskind of parchment stopped being used because of its poor quality.For the writing of Jewish sacred scrolls, only the skins ofkosher animal species could be used.

In the period of the origin of the printed matter, there was ashort period when parchment and paper were used interchangeably.Most of the Gutenberg Bible is printed on paper, but parchmentversions are also preserved.

The rapid growth of book printing in the Middle Ages led to areduction in the use of parchment, as its price and complexity ofproduction, as well as the volume of production no longer met theneeds of publishers. Since then, and to this day, parchment hasbeen used mainly by artists, for book publishing, and only inexceptional cases.


In the monastic book of the Middle Ages, the parchment codesgradually supplanted the papyrus scrolls. Since the 4th century,it was already common practice to write liturgical books onparchment, and in the Middle Ages for this purpose papyrus wasalmost not used.

In the Middle Ages, there were two main varieties of parchment:

  • The proper parchment. For the manufacture of parchment, skinsof sheep, calves, pigs, and other animals were used.
  • Vellum. Vellum was used from the skins of newborns andespecially stillborn lambs and calves.

In the south of Europe in the Middle Ages, goats and sheepskinswere used, while in Germany and France, they used mostly vealskins. Of the donkey skin parchment was not made.

The parchment was thicker and coarser than the vellum, but theearly Middle Ages knew little of the vellum – it was widely usedin the production of books only from the end of the 12th century.

Regardless of which skins were used, masters of parchment beganwith the washing of the skin and removal of the coarsest andhardest hair. After this, the skins were subjected to curing,i.e., prolonged soaking in a calcareous solution. In lime, skinswere kept from three to ten days, depending on the temperature ofthe surrounding air, and then washed in water. This facilitatedhair removal.

After the hair fall out, the skins were pulled on wooden frames,that is, the lower layer of the skin – subcutaneous tissue - wasseparated from the dermis. This operation was carried out withthe help of semicircular knives. Then the skins were smoothedwith pumice stone.

During the last step, a chalk powder was absorbed into theparchment, absorbing the fats that were not removed duringprevious treatments. In addition, the chalk powder made theparchment lighter and more uniform in color, as well as preventedthe spreading of the carcass. To bleach the parchment, flour,protein, or milk was rubbed into it.

In the Russian National Library, there is a manuscript of St.Augustine, written on a fine, soft and thin, almost whiteparchment, the preparation of which represents a kind ofperfection.

Scribes and artists received parchment in the cut form and, as arule, collected in a notebook. The advantage of parchment overpapyrus is that you can write on parchment on both sides of thesheet.

The parchment was not cheaper than papyrus, because theproduction of large books (and sacred books were often made inlarge format) left a lot of skins. For example, each double pagein the Lorsch Gospel (about 810 Rome, Vatican Library) requiredone calfskin skin; for the production of the Book of the Celts(circa 800, Dublin, Trinity College Library), it was required touse a herd of about 150 animals, and to create the WinchesterBible (1160–1175, Winchester, Library), a herd of 250 calves wasrequired. For the production of the monumental format of thecomplete Bible, skins of about 500 animals were required.


In the period from the 7th to the 9th centuries, many parchmentmanuscripts were scraped and washed away to reuse them, althoughthe original text can still be read. Recycled parchments werecalled palimpsest. With the development of the processing and theemergence of more advanced scrapping technologies, the originaltext disappeared.

Types of parchment

Parchment writing paper, college, writing, subject, sources, paper, words, write, help, reading

Meliora di Curci wrote in the work “History and technology ofmaking parchment” that parchment is not always white. Cennini, amaster of the 15th century, gave recipes for the coloring ofparchment in various colors, including purple, indigo, green,red, and peach.

In the early Middle Ages, imitating the Byzantine manuscripts,such as the Rossano Gospels and Sinope Gospels or Vienna Genesis,for the particularly luxurious manuscripts of the master, exceptfor the white, they used colored, mostly purple parchment, onwhich they wrote with silver and gold. Yellow or black parchmentwas less commonly used.

These include, for example, the Silver Code, a manuscript of thetranslation of the Bible into Gothic, made by Ulfilas. It iswritten on colored parchment with silver and is stored in Sweden,in Uppsala. In the Russian National Library, there is the Greekfour-gospel, written in gold on violet parchment – according tolegend, by the hand of Byzantine empress Theodora.

Vellum and paper

Vellum is a material for writing or printing from the skins ofmammals. The name comes from French vélin, which means calfskin.The process of producing the vellum completely coincides with theproduction of parchment. The main difference between vellum andparchment is the materials used in production and the quality ofthe fabrication.

It is often difficult to distinguish the terms vellum andparchment. In Europe since Roman times, the term refers tohigh-quality skin vellum, regardless of what animal it was madeof. French sources tend to refer to only vélin calf, althoughBritish sources consider parchment a skin divided into layerswhile vellum is not divided skin of various mammals. Therefore,although the modern term derives from the French word vélin,calfskin, it is rightly to attribute this term to other animalskins.

The most high-quality vellum is made of the skins of newborn orunborn animals. Sometimes this term is also used for the skins ofyoung animals of very high quality.

The British and Irish parliaments were issuing their acts on thevellum until April 2016. Refusal of the order, according to therepresentative of the House of Lords, will save £80,000 annually.

A real vellum is used for the publication of the Torah,collectible and memorable books, as well as calligraphicdocuments. Vellum is used for musical instruments, such as banjo.

Due to the low demand and complexity of the technologicalprocess, today’s vellum is expensive and difficult to find. Thesubstitute is made on the basis of cotton and is called velinpaper. It sis much cheaper and more affordable than a realvellum. Manufacturers often use the term vellum only in the senseof high-quality, although the product may not be made of vellum.

Paper is a material in the form of thin sheets, manufactured byprocessing rags, straw, wood, and other organic raw materialswith a fibrous structure, used for writing, making printedproducts, packaging, etc.

Thin sheet material can be considered real paper only if it ismade from a mass consisting of individual fibers, which isobtained by maceration of cellulosic raw materials. This mass isstirred in water and then scooped out by a frame with a stretchedmesh. The fibers taken out of the water settle in an even layer,while excess water leaves, seeping through numerous small holesin the mesh bottom. A thin layer of randomly entangled pieces offibers on a grid, drying out, turns into a paper sheet. This isthe method that Tsai Lun used to make the first sheet of paper in105 AD. The same method underlies the principle of the operationof the largest and most productive paper machines of our day. Inthe past 2,000 years, there were no radical changes in theformation of paper from plant fibers.

How to make parchment paper suitable for writing

So, you need a paper that looks like parchment. Maybe you want todecorate a school assignment or just make parchment for pleasure.Whatever the reason, follow these steps to make parchment writingpaper:

  • Brew a cup of strong coffee, almost black, depending on howdark the paper should be.
  • Take a piece of paper and crumble it.
  • Carefully spread it.
  • Dip the cotton swab into a cup of warm coffee and evenlyspread over the entire paper.
  • Dry with a fan.
  • Light a candle and gently cauterize the edges, making surethat the paper does not catch fire, otherwise much of it candeteriorate. Do not forget that this should be done away fromflammable objects.
  • Put the paper in a frying pan and turn it on medium heat, usea spoon or a stick and gently squeeze the paper for 30 seconds.On the paper, there will be small brown spots.
  • Now you have a parchment paper, which was used in the early15th century. For writing, use the pen to make the parchment lookold. You can use it to make unusual birthday invitations. Tie thepaper with a leather cord or an old brown rope so that it reallylooks like an ancient manuscript.

Additional advice

Follow these tips when creating parchment:

  • To quickly achieve the result, you wet the paper with a teabag. If you squeeze a tea bag, the water will flow out, saturatedwith tea leaves.
  • As an easier way, you can use tea or orange juice.
  • To cover the paper, you can use a paint brush and brown inkor soy sauce.
  • It is not necessary to make brown stains on the parchment.
  • Try not to set fire to the paper, otherwise the fire willdestroy most of it.

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