Not one of you’s the same: Parchment types

One of the better caveats about identifying the animal from which parchment comes warns that what might appear as characteristic of support type, may be characteristic of preparation (expressed for example in this book). And even the renowned Neil Ker acknowledged difficulties in determining type on sight. Yet one of the more idealized images of the manuscript expert portrays a specialist who by sight and/or with the touch of his or her hand can pronounce which ungulate gave its skin to the codex.

So given the difficulty in distinguishing characteristics of preparation from characteristics of type, how does one become the idealized expert. Where — once s/he has read that calf is usually creamier if sometimes veiny, that sheep is often yellowish, and that goat can be greasy, blotchy or shiny — does the person going to look at a manuscript (or these days perhaps a high-resolution facsimile) for the first time begin? Creamier or yellowish or blotchy compared to what?

Clearly, the simplest way to familiarize yourself with type is to look at (and ideally handle) parchment whose origin is known. Luckily, there are a few modern producers such as Jesse Meyer of Pergamena who offer various quantities and stock (You can also attend a two-day workshop, available for purchase at the Pergamena shop, but for details it is probably best to e-mail Jesse to be put on a mailing list that receives notices of upcoming workshops; I haven’t been but participants of Extreme Materialist Approaches to Medieval Manuscripts at the University of Iowa were offered a demo).

From scanned parchment purchased from Pergamena, the following are six different thumbnails from the three most common animal skins used for parchment in the Middle Ages (2 images, one flesh-side, one hair-side per animal). Click on images for larger views.

Calf, hair-side

Calf, flesh-side

Goat, hair-side

Goat, flesh-side

Sheep, hair-side

Sheep, flesh-side

So there it is. Six sides…not one of them’s the same.

(And yeah, I’ve been listening to The Head on the Door with that do-do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do-do, tick-tock song that apparently has not been played since the 1985/86 tour (when they played the Warner Theater in D.C. and four high school freshmen went to their first concert)).

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