The year is 2099. A group of people is preparing to celebrate New Year’s Eve aboard the brand spaceship, Pearseus. Instead, they end up castaways on a remote planet. Three hundred years later, most of the original technology has disappeared. People have regressed to a technological level closer to the Middle Ages, or even ancient times.
This is the premise of my homonymous fantasy series. And, as we all know, the devil lies in the details: what sort of writing devices would these people use? And how would they decorate their houses?
To answer the second question, you will have to wait until the next post. But the first one can be answered with the help of Erik Kwakkel of Leiden University. In a fascinating post on his excellent blog, Medieval Books, Erik has described the details of medieval parchment.
Writing on animal skin
Around the 5th century AD, animal skin replaced papyrus and became the writing medium of choice until the later medieval period. Parchment was resilient, however, and was even used by early printers, including Gutenberg himself – showing the use of animal skin did not die with the medieval manuscript.
And parchment was not of a single quality, as Erik explains. The best parchment quality feels just like velvet. It usually has an even, off-white color, and makes no sound when you turn the page. Bad skin, by contrast, crackles. It is of uneven thickness and shows staining and a variety of colors. Unlike what you may have thought, however, looking at imperfect skin is far more interesting than studying its perfect counterpart.
So, what kind of damage might one expect on a parchment, especially after a few centuries?
Damage introduced during the production phase
As my wife, Electra (an economist by training), is fond of saying, it’s all about economics. As if to prove Electra right, parchments were sold in four different grades. Animal skin was not cheap, and preparing a perfect parchment was delicate work; hence expensive. In order to clear the skin of flesh and hair, it was attached to a wooden frame, tight like a drum. If the round knife of the parchment maker (the lunellum) cut too deep during this scraping process, elongated rips or holes would appear.
But the parchment would still be used. Which is how we encounter holes frequently in medieval books, which suggests that readers were accustomed to them. Scribes must have agreed, as they usually simply wrote around a hole. Some placed a little line around them as if to prevent the reader from falling in.
A stitch in time
When scribes were bothered by holes, they would stitch them. You can see below a sewed-up rip by a scribe who tried to hide the damage using a surgeon’s precision.
However, other scribes preferred to highlight the hole instead, using it in a decorative manner.
Some even used holes to creative effect, as in the case of the bearded man below.
In the long centuries since the production of parchments, even the best of them was likely to suffer. One culprit was storage in damp places, as mold has eaten away many a book. Similarly, if a book was stored without the proper pressure produced by a closed binding, for example, because the clasp was missing, the parchment would buckle and produce enduring “waves” on the page as seen below.
Furthermore, a manuscript could be scarred by the hand of men taking a knife to it either because the reading was wrong or because they disagreed with it. All those shiny letters on the medieval page below were too much for a reader, who used his knife to remove some of them. Appropriately, it concerns a copy of Seneca’s Tragedies.
You can get a better feel for parchment on a brief YouTube video Erik has produced with the Khan Academy, which shows what good and bad parchment looks like – and sounds:
You can find out more about medieval books on Erik Kwakkel’s Medieval Books. Erik Kwakkel is a book historian and lecturer at Leiden University. His blog brings the world of medieval manuscripts to life in a wonderful way.
This post is part of a multi-part series of posts on ancient and Medieval wonders, to celebrate my 99c Pearseus: Rise of the Prince promo. As Pearseus has been described as “Ancient Greece in space,” it seemed strangely appropriate.