Above, from left to right: Jean Pucelle (active ca. 1320–1324), Saint Louis Feeding the Sick (detail), From The Book of Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, Paris, France, 1324–28, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.2); Opicinus de Canistris (1296–ca. 1354), Diagram with Zodiac Symbols (detail), Avignon, France, 1335–50, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City, Pal. Lat. 1993.
Often when I view medieval manuscripts I become so focused on the words and pictures adorning the pages that I forget to take note of the materials with which they were created. Yet after traveling through this exhibition, it becomes strikingly evident that the materials themselves—the parchment and ink—are as important as the narratives they contain.
Parchment was the primary support employed by medieval scribes to preserve their written words. Its use extends as far back as the fifth century B.C. According to the great Roman historian Pliny, the material was invented in Pergamum (the Latin word for “parchment” is pergamenum) in the second century B.C., after the exportation of papyrus from Alexandria was halted. Paper—which was invented in China during the second century B.C.—would not become widely used in Europe until the twelfth century A.D.
Like leather, parchment is manufactured from animal hides, but it differs from leather in the way it’s produced and treated. Parchment is stretched, scraped, and dried, while leather is tanned—a process that involves adding vegetable tannins to the skin to chemically alter its physical properties. A quick glance at the exhibition’s earliest manuscripts, like the pages from the ninth-century Corbie Psalter, reveals parchment’s amazingly durable nature.
The two words “parchment” and “vellum” are often used interchangeably. Both materials come from animal hides, but the distinction between them may be made clear through etymology: “vellum” comes from the Latin vitulinum, meaning “veal” or “calf.” Parchment, on the other hand, may be made from the skin of a sheep or a goat. Apart from the linguistic distinctions, a well-trained conservator’s eye is able tell the difference between the two materials due to the hair patterns still evident in the surface of the skins.
One particular manuscript in our exhibition, The Book of Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (see image above, at left), is made from a type of parchment called slunk. The finest form of parchment, slunk was taken from the hides of stillborn calves. The pages of this text are buttery smooth and paper thin, lacking any marring or imperfections. (Hanging on the opposite wall in the exhibition galleries is a small sketch that represents the other extreme; its parchment appears thick, dirty, and worn, as if it had been crumpled and then smoothed into a frame.)
It was not until I saw the folios of Opicinus de Canistris, the eccentric cleric working in the papal court of Avignon, in relation to the other manuscripts of the exhibition that I grasped the enormity of labor and expense that went into the production of a medieval manuscript. Opicinus utilized entire untrimmed sheets of parchment, which still retain the original shape of the goats from which they were made (see image above, right). On average, one animal skin could yield two to three bifolia, which would produce eight to twelve pages for decoration. Of course, the number of pages depended on the size of the book. A text like the Salomon Glossaries, the largest book in the show, most likely required one animal per bifolium. This 229-folio book required 115 bifolia, or roughly 115 individual animal hides. We can see that the resources required to make one medieval manuscript were exorbitant—from the hundreds of animals required to make the pages to the often exotic minerals ground for the scribes’ ink palette. (All parts of the animal were utilized, from the meat to feed the local people to the hooves for glue.)
Unlike painting, which seeks to obscure as much of the substrate as possible, medieval drawings reveal the scribe’s line as a chisel, portioning off areas of raw parchment to hew figures. In many respects, I see parchment as the primary material here, with the inked lines as accessory tools involved in the craft.
—Eric R. Hupe, Exhibition Intern