The Parchmenter Job: A 5000-Year-Old Forgotten Trade
Humanity has used animal hides since at least 400,000 years ago, proving their adaptability to their environment. In fact, it has successfully been argued that hominids without fur would have needed leather clothing to survive during the cold glacial and stadial periods of the Ice Age.
Since ancient times, hides have also been used as dwellings such as tipis, household items, and most importantly of all, as a writing medium, in the form of parchment. Parchment has been used as writing material for thousands of years, and Parchmenters were the skilled craftsmen who produced this valuable commodity.
Origins of Parchment
A common misconception regarding the origins of parchments is that it was invented by it was the King of Pergamum (from Latin pergamenum and the French parchemin), modern-day Turkey, at around 197-159 B.C.
This is not accurate as the use of parchment can be traced to Ancient Egypt nearly 3000 BC. The first mention of documents written on skins occurs at the time of the Egyptian 4th Dynasty (about 2700 B.C.), and the oldest surviving skin document is a roll of the Egyptian 6th Dynasty (about 2000 B.C.) kept in the Cairo Museum (Egypt)
Pergamum became a thriving centre of parchment production during the Hellenistic period, as prices rose for papyrus because the reed used for making it was over-harvested towards local extinction. Later, as the city became dominated by the parchment trade, a legend arose which said that parchment had been invented in Pergamum to replace the use of monopolized papyrus by the rival city of Alexandria.
Parchment, sometimes known as vellum (from Latin vitellus, vitulus and the French veau), has been used for writing since ancient times, with evidence of its use dating back to at least 2700 BC in ancient Egypt. The word vellum literally translates for calf, strictly meaning the writing material made from cow skin.
The earliest parchments were made from the skins of domesticated animals such as goats, sheep, and cows. Parchment was prized for its durability, as it could be folded and rolled without cracking or tearing. It was also smoother and easier to write on than papyrus, which was the primary writing material of the ancient world.
Parchment Vs Vellum
The modern-day meaning of “parchment” is often used casually to describe any animal skin that has been dried, scraped, and stretched, typically from cows, goats, or sheep. However, originally the term was exclusively used for sheepskin and sometimes goatskin. Vellum, a material produced from calfskin, was considered of a higher-quality alternative to parchment.
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 goatLee Ustick, 1936
The Parchmenter Job in Medieval Times
Parchmenters were highly skilled craftsmen who produced parchment from animal skins. They were in high demand throughout the medieval period. Their work was essential for producing books, legal documents, and other important writings. In addition to producing parchment, many parchmenters were also skilled calligraphers and illuminators, able to decorate and enhance the written word with beautiful illustrations and designs.
Prior to 1200, the task of creating parchment was traditionally carried out by individuals working in monasteries, who were the primary producers of books. However, with the rise of manuscript production among non-monastic groups, parchment makers began to form trade groups, often setting up shops in the same part of a town close to a water source required for their craft. By establishing themselves in close proximity, they were able to collaborate and share resources more effectively, leading to increased efficiency in the production of parchment.
The process of making parchment was complex and time-consuming, requiring specialized tools and knowledge. The first step was to remove the hair from the skin using a sharp knife or scraper. Next, the skin was soaked in a solution of water and lime or a similar alkaline substance. This loosened the fibres of the skin and made it easier to remove any remaining flesh and fat.
After the skin was cleaned and stretched, it was scraped with a curved knife called a lunarium (o lunellum). This removed any remaining flesh and fat and thinned the skin to the desired thickness. The parchment was then polished with pumice or similar abrasive material to make it smooth and even. Finally, the parchment was cut into sheets of various sizes and shapes for use as writing material.
The parchmenter job was an essential part of the medieval economy, producing a valuable commodity that was in high demand throughout Europe and beyond. Parchmenters were skilled craftsmen who combined knowledge of animal husbandry, chemistry, and calligraphy to produce a writing material that was prized for its durability, beauty, and smoothness.
The parchmenter trade was highly specialized, and many parchmenters belonged to guilds or other professional organizations. These groups provided training and support to apprentices and journeymen, ensuring that the craft was passed down from generation to generation. In some cases, parchmenters were able to establish themselves as independent entrepreneurs, running their own shops and producing parchment for sale to local scribes and scholars.
The Decline of Parchment
The use of parchment as a writing material declined with the invention of paper in China in the 2nd century AD. Paper was easier and cheaper to produce than parchment, and it quickly became the preferred writing material throughout much of the world. However, parchment remained in use for many centuries, particularly for important documents such as legal charters and religious texts.
Today, parchment is still produced for use in calligraphy and other forms of traditional art. It is also used in the conservation of historic documents and artifacts, as its durability and resistance to ageing make it an ideal material for long-term preservation.
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