In some ways the history of the alphabet is a history of art supplies. How you write is influenced by what you have to write with—or on.

For a very long time, scribes wrote on papyrus. The papyrus reed seems to grow only in the Fertile Crescent: the delta of the Nile or between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. If you didn’t live there, papyrus had to be imported which made it pricey. As more and more people bought papyrus, it became scarce. Not only that, papyrus as a writing surface likes to be in a hot, dry environment. Places farther north are too humid for papyrus and it rots.

On the eastern side of the Aegean Sea, just down the coast from Ilium, in a little town called Pergamon, craftspeople were developing a new writing surface that would be more durable than papyrus—and smoother, too. This new stuff was made out of animal hide, kind of like leather, sliced really thin. Its name, ‘parchment,’ is likely derived from its hometown: Pergamon. It’s also known as ‘vellum,’ if made from calfskin.*

*The words ‘vellum’ and ‘veal’ are related.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

6 responses to “Parchment

  1. Interesting origin of ‘parchment’ name! Did you know that the formal training for a ‘sofer’ or Torah scribe must include learning to become a butcher in order to procure and prepare writing parchment? They must then learn to prepare the parchment by removing the outside hairy layer of the skin to render it clean and smooth for writing. The finished parchment is called ‘gewil’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did not know that! My next post will briefly describe the process. Not easy for a big sissy like me. I’m glad to know (I assume) the sofer is a kosher butcher—less suffering for the animals, right? I worry about these things.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, exactly. Using animals for their skin requires learning how to dispatch them without causing pain and suffering. A sofer doesn’t usually, if ever, become a butcher but developing compassion for our fellow creatures is essential.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: All creatures | John Manders' Blog

  3. Pingback: Scrolls are still around | John Manders' Blog

  4. Pingback: Paper or parchment? | John Manders' Blog

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