Parchment vs. Paper

When you see some sheep outside in the fields you do not automatically think about reading a book, nor do you instantly think about sheep when you look at a bookshelf. But in the Middle Ages the relations between book and sheep (calf, goat, or other animals) was much closer than nowadays. Not only were their hides turned into leather for the covers, but also into parchment for the leaves.

Parchment was first used in Asia Minor in the second century BC, deriving its name from the ancient Greek town of Pergamon (now in Turkey). In the following centuries it replaced papyrus as the main writing support. The physical qualities of parchment made it possible to be put to use differently than papyrus. Since the former did not break when folded, it could be used to make gatherings (?) and as a result for codices.

Parchment was a valuable material. Leaves from worn out manuscripts could be recycled as supports in bookbindings, or could be used as glue. But also leftovers after cutting sheets from animal skins (since animals are not square) could still be put to use as is shown in this video. In the Middle Ages people did not throw away things as easy as we do.

Paper may have been invented about the same time as parchment, approximately at the other side of the world: in China. Slowly the knowledge of paper making spread over the world. Via trade routes connecting the Chinese, Arabic and European worlds paper first appeared in Europe in the eleventh century. Spain, still under Muslim rule, was the first European country where a paper mill was opened. The first Italian paper mill was established about 1270 in Fabriano (where they are still making paper!). For a long time Europe north of the Alps, imported paper, but after the fourteenth century in France, Germany, the Low Countries and England more and more paper mills appeared.

Paper was cheaper than parchment, and in a continent that seemed to have become addicted to writing, this enabled more and more people to read, write, and buy books. From the late fourteenth century onwards paper became the most used writing support for ‘literary’ texts, and in the administration.

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