Difference between vellum and parchment—Names of different preparations—The kinds of vellum most prized for illuminated books—The “parcheminerie” of the Abbey of Cluny—Origin of the term “parchment”—Papyrus.

As vellum is constantly spoken of in connection with illumination and illuminated books, it becomes necessary to explain what it is, and why it was used instead of paper.

We often find writers, when referring to ancient documents, making use of the words parchment and vellum as if the terms were synonymous; but this is not strictly correct. It is true that both are prepared from skins, but the skins are different. They are similar, but not the same, nor, indeed, are they interchangeable. In point of fact, the skins of almost all the well-known domestic animals, and even of fishes, have been used for the purpose of making a material for writing upon. Specifically among the skins so prepared were the following: the ordinary lambskin, called “aignellinus”[2]; that prepared from stillborn lambs, called “virgin parchment.”

[2] Strictly agnellinus.

From sheepskins was produced ordinary “parchment,” and also a sort of leather called “basane” or “cordovan.” Vellum was produced from calfskin; that of the stillborn calf being called “uterine vellum,” and considered the finest and thinnest. It is often spoken of in connection with the exquisitely written Bibles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as of the highest value.

Besides these were the prepared skins of oxen, pigs, and asses; but these were chiefly used for bindings, though occasionally for leaves of account and other books liable to rough usage.

Before the tenth century the vellum used for MSS. is highly polished, and very white and fine. Afterwards it becomes thick and rough, especially on the hair side. In the examination of certain MSS. the distinction of hair side and smooth side is of importance in counting the gatherings so as to determine the completeness, or otherwise, of a given volume. Towards the period of the Renaissance, however, the vellum gradually regains its better qualities.

Thus it may be seen that the difference between vellum and parchment is not a mere difference of thickness; for while, in general, vellum is stouter than parchment, there is some vellum which is thinner than some parchment. Not only are they made from different kinds of skin, but the vellum used for illuminated books was, and still is, prepared with greater care than the parchment used for ordinary school or college treatises, or legal documents.

The fabrication of both parchment and vellum in the Middle Ages was quite as important a matter as that of paper at the present time, and certain monastic establishments had a special reputation for the excellence of their manufacture. Thus the “parcheminerie,” as it was called, of the Abbey of Cluny, in France, was quite celebrated in the twelfth century. One reason probably for this celebrity was the fact that Cluny had more than three hundred churches, colleges, and monasteries amongst its dependencies, and therefore had ample opportunities for obtaining the best materials and learning the best methods in use throughout literary Christendom. As to the name “vellum,” it is directly referable to the familiar Latin term for the hide or pelt of the sheep or other animal, but specially applied, as we have said, to that of the calf, the writing material thus prepared being termed charta vitulina—in French vélin, and in monastic Latin and English vellum.

The name “parchment” had quite a different kind of origin. It is an old story, found in Pliny's Natural History (bk. xiii. ch. 70), that the ancient use or revival of the use of parchment was due to the determination of King Eumenes II. of Mysia or Pergamos to form a library which should rival those of Alexandria, but that when he applied to Egypt for papyrus, the writing materials then in use, Ptolemy Epiphanes jealously refused to permit its exportation. In this difficulty Eumenes, we are told, had recourse to the preparation of sheepskins, and that from the place of its invention it was called charta pergamena.

Pliny and his authority, however, were both wrong in point of history. Eumenes, who reigned from about 197 to 158 B.C., was not the inventor, but the restorer of its use (see Herodotus, v. 58). It was called in Greek μεμβράνα (2 Tim. iv. 13).

We may mention, by the way, that neither vellum nor parchment are by any means the oldest materials known. Far older, and more generally used in Italy, Greece, and Egypt, was the material which has given us the name of our commonest writing material of to-day, viz. paper. The name of this older material was papyrus (Gr. πάπυρος and χάρτης). As a writing material it was known in Egypt from remote antiquity. It was plentiful in Rome in the time of the Cæsars, and it continued, both in Grecian and Roman Egypt, to be the ordinary material employed down to the middle of the tenth century of our era. In Europe, too, it continued in common use long after vellum had been adopted for books, though more especially for letters and accounts. St. Jerome mentions vellum as an alternative material in case papyrus should fail (Ep. vii.), and St. Augustine (Ep. xv.) apologises for using vellum instead of papyrus.[3] Papyrus was also used in the early Middle Ages. Examples, made up into book-formi.e. in leaves, with sometimes a few vellum leaves among them for stability—are still extant. Among such are some seven or eight books in various European libraries, the best known being the Homilies of St. Avitus at Paris, the Antiquities of Josephus at Milan, and the Isidore at St. Gall.

[3] Thompson, Greek and Latin Palæography, p. 33.

And in the Papal Chancery papyrus appears to have been used down to a late date in preference to vellum.[4]

[4] Thompson, op. cit., p. 34; Aug. Molinier, Les Manuscrits, Prélim.; Lecoy de la Marche, Les MSS. et la Miniature, p. 24.

In France papyrus was in common use in the sixth and seventh centuries. Merovingian documents dating from 625 to 692 are still preserved in Paris.