Vellum, a material made from animal skin, is used for both writing and printing on (Carter 216). It is quite similar to parchment and some bibliographers, such as Greetham, believe that the terms are virtually interchangeable (62). This differs to the position of others, such as Finkelstein and McCleery, who differentiate between the two. They classify parchment as a substance that is generally manufactured from the skin of a sheep or goat and vellum as a “finer-quality version of the same” which is made from calfskin or the skin of a different young animal (139). Whether or not one believes that they denote the same meaning, their significations are quite similar.
Vellum replaced papyrus as a writing surface around the fourth century. Although parchment was more expensive than papyrus, the practical advantages outweighed the differences in cost. Papyrus depended upon Egypt’s reeds whereas vellum could be fabricated wherever there were animals. Vellum is much stronger than papyrus and, when preserved with care, can outlive it by centuries. Parchment also has the unequivocal benefit of permitting obliterations (Howard 4-5). This increased the accuracy of books and manuscripts as mistakes could be removed.
The durability of vellum appealed to the scribes of Christian Churches. Its resistance made the preservation of scriptures much easier. One of the most famous examples of a Christian manuscript written on vellum is the Book of Kells (fig. 1). The Book of Kells contains the four gospels and parts of it are on display in Trinity College, Dublin. It is believed that the book was written around the year 800 in either Iona or Kells, Co. Meath or else partly in each place (Trinity College Dublin). The fact that the book has been preserved to this day illustrates the durability of vellum.
The process for making vellum was quite laborious. The first step was washing the animal skin. It was then steeped in brine or lime and the hairs were removed. After this had been completed, the skin would be strung out on a frame (fig. 2) “to be scraped, rubbed and polished” (Greetham 62).
With the development of the printing press, the use of vellum began to decline. The advances in the printing press meant books were much more readily available. The cost of production was one of the major reasons that vellum became popular but it was also a large contributor to its decline. In the fifteenth century, vellum cost six times more than paper. This is not surprising when one considers that, on average, the hide of a full young calf was used for just one piece of vellum (Howard 10-12). As the demand for books and the number of people reading increased, paper became a much more cost-effective writing material. While paper was growing in popularity, many printers still produced a certain amount of their books on vellum. Gutenberg’s Bible is an example of a book in which some copies were printed on paper and some on vellum. Its first print run is estimated to have contained 140 paper copies and 40 copies on vellum. Of these copies, there are 48 remaining (thirty-six of which are on paper and twelve on vellum) (Howard 31). Many printers produced books on both paper and vellum to ensure they did not lose their upper-class customers. Some members of the elite did not wish to purchase printed books as they felt it suggested mass production and believed that members of the lower classes would be obtaining the same product as them (Eliot 15). Books written on vellum were believed to be of a higher standard. The same sort of theory exists today – vellum is used as a means of indicating “antiquity” and “elegance” (Rota 51). People associate paper books with assembly-line productions while vellum tends to be linked to more traditional methods.
Vellum has played a very important role in the preservation of books. It is quite likely that we would not have records of many manuscripts (and in particular, a high proportion of Christian scriptures) if vellum had not replaced papyrus. Its durability has earned it its place in bibliographical history.
Carter, John. ABC for Book Collectors. New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 1998. Print.
Eliot, Simon, Andrew Nash, and Ian Willison. “Introduction.” Literary Cultures and the Material Book. London: British Library, 2007. 1-29. Print.
Finkelstein, David and Alistair McCleery. An Introduction to Book History. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Greetham, D.C. Textual Scholarship – An Introduction. London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1994. Print.
Howard, Nicole. The Book – The Life Story of a Technology. U.S.A.: Greenwood Press, 2005. Print.
Rota, Anthony. Apart from the text. Great Britain: St. Edmundsbury Press, 1998. Print.
“The Book of Kells”. Trinity College Dublin. 16 Oct. 2012. Web. 22 Feb. 2013.
Lewis, Suzanne. “Sacred Calligraphy: The Chi Rho Page in the Book of Kells”. Tradito 36 (1980). JSTOR. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.
Skordas, Gust. “The Parchment Stretcher at the Maryland Hall of Records”. The American Archivist 9.4 (1946): 330-332. JSTOR. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.
Contributed by Evelyn Whyms.