Parchment and vellum
Parchment is an animal skin which has been treated to form a smooth surface to write on. It can be difficult to identify exactly which animal was used to make any particular writing surface. Medieval parchment was often made from sheep or goat skin, while vellum tended to be made from the skin of young animals (lambs or kids), but this was not always the case. The biggest difference is that vellum is generally better quality than parchment.
The advantages of parchment as a writing medium in the Middle Ages were that it was very durable, and readily available. It was, however, time-consuming to prepare. A video by the Getty Museum shows the major steps in making a medieval manuscript, beginning with the preparation of parchment sheets.
It was also expensive to use parchment. Even a large animal might not offer enough hide for several sheets, because of faults in the skin. Many manuscripts have holes in the pages resulting from flaws in the parchment.
Detail of flaw in parchment, from a breviary, WLC/LM/1, f. 34v
Vellum and parchment clearly have two sides. The hair side often bears marks of the follicles, and can be quite yellow. The flesh side tends to be smoother and whiter.
Details of hair side (top) and flesh side (bottom), from book of French romances and fabliaux, WLC/LM/6, f. 121r and WLC/LM/6, f. 121v
Although paper was first produced in China in the first century CE, its use in books only became common in the West from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. English paper manuscripts written before 1380 are very rare. The first paper mill in England was set up in 1495, meaning that previous stocks were imported from the Continent. Eventually, paper came to displace parchment for book manufacture, although parchment continued to be used for important documents such as title deeds into the twentieth century.
Fragment of English Life of St Zita, on paper, c.1450-1475, WLC/LM/37
Paper is a manufactured material. Compared to parchment, it is easier to make to a regular size in appropriate quantities. It can also be made consistently smooth across a sheet. Until the eighteenth century most paper was made with textiles, by recycling cloth, rags and similar fibres, which were mashed and soaked down to a pulp. Then the pulp was spread in a mould, a wooden frame with wires up and down it. The watermark shape, also made of wire, would be fixed into the mould. The mould would be squeezed to extract the water from the paper, and in so doing, the chain lines and the watermark would leave an impression on the paper. Experts can use watermark evidence to identify paper manufacturers and estimate the date a particular sheet of paper was produced.
Modern paper is made from wood pulp. Wood pulp paper degrades much faster than rag pulp paper because of the acid chemicals present in wood, and in the bleaching process used to make the paper.
Photograph showing paper-making
There are two basic colours in most medieval writing: black (which has often faded to brown) and red. Red was used for highlighting, known as rubrication (which comes from Latin and literally means ‘reddening’). Rubrication was used for marking chapter divisions, points of interest etc. In this book, rubrication is used to show the lines spoken by 'Confessor' and 'Amans'.
Detail from John Gower, ‘Confessio Amantis’, WLC/LM/8, f. 53v
There are various recipes surviving for making ink, in Latin and in Middle English, as well as other languages, so we can be reasonably certain how it was done. Black ink was either made from carbon (charcoal or lamp-black) or a compound of iron and gall. Gall comes from ‘oak apples’ which are growths on the bark of oak trees caused by gall wasps laying their eggs there.
Both of these methods also needed gum Arabic (the desiccated sap of the acacia tree) to thicken them to make them suitable for the pens. Red ink was made from vermillion (powdered mercuric sulphide) mixed with egg white and gum Arabic, or from brazilwood chips soaked in vinegar and mixed again with gum Arabic.
Other ink colours could be made from organic or inorganic pigments. This poem in the fifteenth-century Rushall Psalter is written in four different colours.
Page from the Rushall Psalter, Me LM 1 f. 20v
Scribes would write using quill pens which they would make themselves. Quill pens were made from goose wing feathers, usually the left wing for a right-handed scribe. These would be hardened, trimmed of their feathers and cut to a more manageable length, and then trimmed to a flat point with a slit up the middle. To keep them sharp, a scribe would have to trim them regularly during a day’s work. You can see a scribe making quill pens in a YouTube video endorsed by English Heritage.
Next page: Forming quires