Damage Control




Engelberg, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 16, twelfth century.

Between the fifth and thirteenth centuries, most books were made of skin—calfskin, sheepskin, or goatskin, typically, that had been soaked, limed, dehaired, and stretched. The resulting parchment was resilient and often astonishingly consistent, but imperfections could creep in. Over at Medieval Books, Erik Kwakkel explores a few of them:

Preparing parchment was a delicate business … If the round knife of the parchment maker (the lunellum) cut too deep during this scraping process, elongated rips or holes would appear … We encounter such holes frequently in medieval books, which suggests that readers were not too bothered by them. Many scribes will have shared this sentiment, because they usually simply wrote around a hole. Some placed a little line around them, as if to prevent the reader from falling in.

Scribes would sometimes stitch up the holes with silk or colored thread. They’d also turn them into adornments: a particularly inventive scribe turned three holes in the page into the face of a laughing man. When the parchment was of especially poor quality, large swaths of hair follicles would be visible; the scribe would have to write around these.

Studies suggest that parchment was sold in four different grades, which implies that sheets with and without visible deficiencies may have been sold at different rates. If this was indeed the case, an abundance of elongates holes in a manuscript may just point at an attempt to economize on the cost of the writing support. In other words, bad skin may have come at a good price.

Read the whole piece (with plenty more images) here.


Uppsala University Library, shelfmark unknown, fourteenth century.


Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc. Patr.41, fol. 69r (detail).