Friday, July 13, 2007

Vellum and Parchment

I have been reading Hurtado's book The Earliest Christian Artifacts (despite not being an 'ideal' reader as envisaged by the 'implied' author). If I have enough time/energy/desire/will-power I shall attempt some discussion of it based on the question marks I have written in the margin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first issue is based on a point of detail.

In Appendix One, listing the various early Christian manuscripts, Hurtado distinguishes those written on papyrus, those written on vellum, those written on parchment, and those written on leather. The first is obvious, but distinguishing the others is more tricky. In his list of OT texts he notes only those which are parchment and those which are leather. In his NT and Early Christian text list he distinguishes various manuscripts as written on either vellum or parchment. From the list:
  • 0171 is vellum
  • 0162 is parchment
  • 0189 is parchment
  • 0220 is vellum
  • 0232 is parchment
  • 0308 is parchment
  • POxy 1828 (Hermas) is parchment
  • 0212 (Dura Europos Harmony) is parchment
  • PVindob G 39756 (Apoc of Peter?) is parchment

The Encylopedia Britannica (on-line) says re parchment and vellum that 'the terms have been used interchangeably since the Middle Ages'. And I confess that I have not carefully distinguished the two in my thinking and teaching. Nor does Hurtado hint at any distinction when it comes up in the book (e.g. p. 5, 209). So this raises a series of questions:

  1. Granted that LH probably hasn't investigated this by autopsy, I assume he may have copied the term that was used by the editor of the piece. So does this list accurately distinguish between vellum and parchment?
  2. Is it really possible to make this distinction? [E.g. by visible hair marks]
  3. If it is possible does the distinction have any implications in terms of costs, location, etc.?
  4. Has anybody ever attempted something so thoroughly artefactual as this?

I confess to being shamefully ignorant on this matter. I'm sure some of you will know more than me about this. For an attempt to distinguish between parchment and vellum in terms of production, artefact, and textual result, note the following (cited from here; for a similar explanation see here or try wikipedia):

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.


  1. As I understand it, vellum is merely parchment made from cowskins. This generally makes a finer grade of material, but is less common since people keep many fewer cows than sheep. It should certainly be possible for the skilled eye to tell the difference.

    While vellum today is very fine and expensive, most parchment in the middle ages was a by-product of monastic farming, not something bought in. With the renaissance people once again bought the stuff from suppliers -- the letters of Poggio Bracciolini are full of queries about sources of good parchment for texts that he wanted to have copied.

    The process of preparation of parchment/vellum is not tanning but scraping and stretching while wet and soaked with chalky substances. This of course has the side-effect that the process is partially reversable, and wet parchment shrinks and shrivels and generally does awful things.

    Otherwise parchment is pretty much eternal. If you hold a cigarette lighter to it it burns with great reluctance, at least when new.

    I don't claim to be an expert, but did a study weekend on manuscripts, and this is what I remember of it! Verify it all, of course. There are German handbooks on the ancient book trade which should be of use.

  2. PS: the difference between hair and flesh side is evident even to amateurs and in photographs.

  3. If I recall correctly, dictionaries vary in their definitions of these terms; they aren't used consistently. It may be worth reading Stephen Pfann's observations on some Qumran skin writing surfaces. (In Discoveries in the Judaean Desert and online on the old orion list: google: Pfann leather parchment.) He said that most Qumran mss are, strictly speaking, neather leather nor parchment, narrowly defined.
    Stephen Goranson
    Perkins Library
    Duke University

  4. It would be valuable to do more legwork on this, even just to clarify fragment by fragment what materials are involved.

    Even in contemporary bookbinding, only the most snobbish of technicians will distinguish between vellum and parchment in their own work. Vellum, from the French "velin," refers specifically to young unblemished calf skins prepared in a certain way (not as many scratches and cuts from shrubs, fences, other animals, etc... that older skins will have). It is a valuable and thrilling material to work with in comparison to parchment, which is tough to use and doesn't age well. I think it was very early that "vellum" came to be used for the best part of any skin prepared to an exacting standard.

    I have noticed that some of the older codex and papyri catalogs (e.g. British Museum, Pierpont Morgan) go to greater lengths to distinguish between these materials, but such fine distinctions have not really appeared in NT papyrology or codicology. Much of this is due, I think, to the difficulty of personally examining every bit of material one is commenting on. When such autopsy is available, then follicle distribution, color, and thickness of material are clear indications of whether something is calf, goat, or sheep.

    Regardless, it would be fair to call finer material "vellum" and rougher material "parchment" regardless of what critter it comes from.

    I do wonder what a clearer taxonomy of what skins are being used in some of the earlier codices could tell us about provenance, or the binding habits of whoever produced them.