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The work​ of making parchment is unglamorous, and sometimes it smells like the inside of a boxing glove: like cheese and sweat and hard work. There is only one firm of parchment makers left in the UK. There are places elsewhere in the world where parchment is produced, but the process is partly mechanised. At William Cowley’s – located somewhat improbably near Milton Keynes – everything is still done by hand. What happens there is probably not much different from what was done in the Hellenistic city of Pergamon during the reign of Eumenes II (197-159 BCE). Eumenes was an avid bibliophile and built a library to rival that of Alexandria; at its peak it contained 200,000 volumes. According to Pliny, Ptolemy of Egypt was so enraged by his neighbour’s acquisitive habits that he banned the sale of papyrus. Eumenes instructed his subjects to find an alternative writing material, and parchment was born. Where plant-based papyrus was fibrous, brittle and liable to break, parchment was flexible, durable and milky smooth. The material gave its name to the city: pergamenum is the Latin word for parchment.

In making parchment, the first stage involves working with whole goat or calf hides (the word ‘vellum’ is often used to distinguish calf hide from other kinds of hide), which come fresh from the abattoir, covered in hair. They still bear the traces of a lopped-off head and the beginnings of a tail. I saw one that had the remnants of the animal’s castrated testicles tied up in a rubber band. In a storeroom at Cowley’s was a huge pile of these hides, folded up, like furry pillowcases waiting to be laundered. The hides are soaked for two weeks in a vat of lime (not the citrus variety). At the end of this, they come out sodden on the hair side and slippery on the flesh side. The lime breaks down the follicles and loosens the hair. I watched as a hide was fished out and thrown over a wooden stump with a wet thwack. It lay hair-side up, liquid dripping from its curled brown ends. The stump is a smooth-topped wooden block, which comes to just below chest height. Once there, the hair (known as the nap) is removed with a long, curved knife (called a scudder) which has wooden handles at both ends. I had a go at this and the hair came away like the skin from a potato – the sensation was satisfying, if disconcerting. What is exposed is unmistakably flesh: faintly translucent, with the suggestion of veins beneath. There is something glaring about such a large piece of disembodied skin; I was reminded of The Silence of the Lambs and of those statues of Saint Bartholomew, his flayed skin slung over his shoulder like a shawl.

That I was struck by the skin-ness of the hide in front of me isn’t just a reflection of my modern sensibility. Several texts from the Middle Ages show a keen awareness of the materials on which they are written. The Middle English poem The Long Charter of Christ purports to be a legal document in which Christ grants salvation to mankind. In one version of the work on parchment manuscript in the British Library, Christ describes the events of the Passion:

To a pilour y was py3t
I tugged and towed al a ny3t
And washen on myn owne blode
And strey3t y steyned on þe rode
Streyned to drye on a tre
As parchemyne ou3t for to be
Hyreþ now & 3e schul wyten [know]
How þis chartre was wryten
Upon my face was mad þe ynke
[ … ]
þe penne þat þe lettres was with wryten
Of scorges þat I was with smyten

Imagine the sensation for the devotional reader on encountering a text written on parchment, with the words of John 1:14 – ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ – thrumming in their ears.

After the hair is removed, the skins are dried and stretched across a frame, known as a herse. The word comes from the French herse, meaning a harrow, and ultimately from the Latin hirpex. It is a cousin of ‘hearse’, which originally meant a frame for carrying lighted tapers over a coffin. The funereal connotation seems appropriate. Parchment skins cannot be nailed to a frame because they would rip during the drying process. Instead, the edge of the material is gathered in bunches around balls of newspaper (in the medieval period, this would have been done with pebbles known as pippins) and tied with string to pegs along the length of the frame. Treated in this way, the skin and frame take on the appearance of a rustic trampoline.

As the skin is stretched by twisting the pegs, hot water is applied and any remaining fat, especially from the meat side, is removed using a knife shaped like a crescent moon, called a lunellum or sometimes a lunellarium (at Cowley’s they simply call it a luna). The process of stretching and scraping is repeated several times before the frame is put into the oven, which is really a large drying room. I made the mistake of venturing into the oven, which was hot and milky-smelling in a heady way. My curiosity died there.

‘Pellis de carne, de pelle caro removetur: tu de carne tua carnea vota trahe,’ Conrad de Mure (c.1210-81) wrote. ‘Skin from the flesh, flesh from the skin is pulled: you pull from the flesh your fleshly desires.’ The meaning is a little obscure, as ‘vota’ is ambiguous, but de Mure’s point seems to be that the labour of preparing parchment makes one purer and closer to God. (A similar idea occurs in Piers Plowman, which compares the cleaning of parchment to the shedding of pride: ‘Of pompe and of pride þe parchemyn decourreþ [peels away]’.) I didn’t feel my fleshly desires leaving me altogether, despite the unsexiness of the process, but I did see how this was a labour of love – the kind of labour that lends itself to religious significance, with its rituals of purification and fastidious repetitions.

After the oven, the skins are ready for the final stage of their preparation. The last layer is shaved off, removing any dark patches or traces of hair, this time with a slightly larger luna. Picking up the knife, I was sure I was about to scrape too hard and break the skin. Parchment holes are a common feature of medieval manuscripts. But the skin is remarkably strong; I could have hacked at it without breaking it. One of the main uses for parchment today is drumskins. If you get the correct angle – a neat 45 degrees – the blade makes a high-pitched trill. Do it right and the blade will sing, I was told. There is something early medieval about the idea of a blade with a voice. It reminded me of several of the Anglo-Saxon riddles from the Exeter Book (one of the four manuscripts which contain the majority of surviving Old English verse). There, disgruntled tools are given voice. The opening of Riddle Five reads:

Ic eom anhaga   iserne wund,
bille gebennad,   beadoweorca sæd,
ecgum werig.

I am a lonely one, wounded by iron,
beaten by sword, burned out by battle-work,
weary of blades.

The usual solution to this is a shield, but a chopping block is also sometimes proposed. The voice of the grumpy chopping block is characteristic of an Anglo-Saxon tendency to animate objects. One of the runic inscriptions on the Franks Casket alludes to its own creation from hronæsban (whale bone) and the Alfred Jewel announces ‘AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN’ (‘Alfred caused me to be made’). It’s a feature of a world-view that sees objects as things of value, not to be readily disposed of. In some senses the Anglo-Saxons were more materialistic than we are.

Parchment itself is an emblem of a pre-disposable culture: it is built to last. You need only look at the almost pristine pages of the Codex Sinaiticus, made sometime in the fourth century CE, to recognise this. Cheap 20th-century books with glued spines and paper that withers like an autumn leaf present a greater challenge to library conservation departments than parchment manuscripts. Unlike many of the materials we use today, parchment was often recycled. It was cut up to make new bindings, fill holes or repair damage. Sometimes it was scraped clean of its writing and used again, leaving ghostly palimpsests for scholars to uncover. Cowley’s is a place that plies an ancient trade, but also a place that prizes what is durable and recyclable. You get the sense that little there is thrown away unnecessarily. Everything shows the marks of use and reuse: the knives glossy and smooth from years of handling, the wooden blocks worked on again and again. What riddling complaints might these tools make?

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