After giving a lecture on codicology in Stuttgart last month, I got a follow up question sent via the organiser (Dr Anja Thaler) regarding differentiating between the hair-side and flesh side of parchment. Rather than just replying, I thought it would make a good subject for a blog post (especially as the month is almost at an end and I’ve not written one yet). So, without further ado hair and flesh.
Before musing on my own experiences, it may first be useful to outline what I mean by ‘flesh side’ and ‘hair side’. First, though, we need to step back and consider parchment (sometimes called membrane, sometimes vellum if derived from cows or bulls). Parchment is the de-haired skin of an animal (particularly cows, sheep or goats, but hey, go wild), which has been soaked, scraped and most importantly dried under tension. The modern definition that leather is prepared through soaking in tannic acid while parchment is not, do not hold for the medieval period, the defining point is the drying under tension. I digress. Imagine the skin while it is still on the source animal, it has two sides: the side facing out from the animal, which has hairs on it, and the side facing in towards the animal in questions flesh and muscles and bones. Flay that skin in one big piece from the (dead, please!) animal and it still has two sides, the ‘flesh’ side that originally faced inwards and the ‘hair’ side that faced out.
Soaking the skin in water, perhaps with some appropriate plant materials added to make a dilute solution of tannic acid or some quicklime, helps loosen the hairs. Scraping the hair side of the parchment helps remove the loosened hairs. More thorough scraping removes the physical structures of the follicles themselves and helps to thin the parchment. Scraping the other side of the skin is also beneficial, any fat left clinging to the flesh side can be removed. Ideally, after its been stretched and dried (and scraped some more during this process) the skin will end up smooth and thin, without too much distinction between the two sides. The practice of pouncing, that is applying finely powdered chalk to the surface, is not always employed, but when it does it makes for a smoother writing surface and causes the hue of the parchment to become paler and more homogenous. Which can add further complications to the job of identifying which side is which.
This is a manuscript I’ve not yet had the pleasure of looking at in person: Madid, Biblioteca Nacionale MS 413 (I chose it because the images are freely available and hosted by the library on a creative commons license). It’s a tenth- or early eleventh-century century copy of the Lombard laws originally produced in southern Italy, an overview of the manuscript can be found here. The image here shows an opening with the hair side of two facing folios (30v and 31r). The parchment, from the photo at least, seems relatively pale, but look in the right hand margin of the folio on the right, and a clear area of follicle patterning can be seen. Contrast that with the next opening (fols 31v and 32r), and the relative paleness of the flesh side (even in photo) becomes apparent.
When I first began doing my own manuscript research in the second year of my PhD, I remember sometimes struggling with identifying which side of a folio was the hair side, which the flesh. For every folio where it was instantly apparent, there were others which caused me to scratch my head in confusion. It got easier with time and practice, most things do of course. Knowing that, as a general rule the flesh side tends to be paler and whiter in hue helps, especially when the more starkly coloured hair side has not been pounced, is a useful hint.
During my doctoral research I gathered some useful secondary resources on the subject, and can highly recommend both Robin Reed’s Ancient Skins, Parchments and Leathers and Christopher Clarkson’s ‘Rediscovering Parchment’ (full bibliographical details at the bottom of this post). The majority of the information in this post (and in my brain on the subject) has been assimilated from these. It’s worth noting some of the distinctive points:
- Parchment from kid skin tends to be white on the flesh side and grey on the hair side with older goats often having grey-black regions on the hair-side.
- Parchment from lamb skin tends to be yellow on both sides, while sheep skin tends to have a paler flesh side, and
- Parchment/vellum from calf skin tends to be creamier in colour, but again with a darker colour on the hair side for mature animals.
Reed notes that distinguishing between goat and sheep can be almost impossible (even with living animals, and includes a cute photo to prove it), while Clarkson suggests that goats differ and can often be distinguished from sheep or calf on account of having softer and more flexible texture.
Both also note that older animals tend to have more established networks of veins and arteries, the presence of which can sometimes be seen or felt in the texture of the parchment even if remaining iron in the blood has not reacted with tannic acid to leave a dark stain in the shape of the vein. Which apparently can happen, although I have not yet seen it in person. Similarly, older animals are more likely to have suffered injuries and scar tissue or (vastly) stretched holes from tick bites, etc., can frequently be spotted on the surface.
Sometimes the hair side of the folio would have been so well scraped that details such as follicle patterns and bits of skin colouring are not really apparent on the surface. Sometimes later damage, abrasion and the such like to the flesh side can have darkened it so much it looks like hair side. Sometimes the parchment has been laterally split to make two sheets, one of which has a hair side and an ‘inside’, as it were, the other a flesh side and an ‘inside’. I’ve not seen this in any manuscripts I’ve studied myself, as it is a later practice not yet developed or employed in the tenth to twelfth century law-books that my research focuses on. It’s a detail worth remembering though, especially as Reed comments that many extra thin parchments assumed to have been produced from uterine vellum (that is parchment produced from calf foetuses) has probably actually been produced as a split skin instead.
Needless to say, in my early days in the archives (still less than a decade ago) I frequently confused hair and flesh, or spent what felt like hours pondering a folio, flipping back and forth. Sometimes I’d just put a question and come back to it. (Hands in the air honesty, it still happens sometimes). On more than one occasion I’d spend ages pondering my way through quire, finally decide on some tricky instances and step back to look at a quire diagram – that gave the same face of two halves of a single bifolium hair on one part, flesh on the other. It happens in recording, but clearly not in the manuscript. The bifolium though sometimes provides an easy solution, if one half is tricky to the point of frustration and the other has a nice, diagnostic feature such as a patch of follicles then the information can just be transferred across the quire. Tricks of knowing where else you can (should) look become a part of the working repertoire alongside an ever attuning eye and holes in the memory that let you slowly forget the difficulties you once had.
‘Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional 413’, in Biblioteca Legum: A Database on Secular Carolingian Law Texts, ed. by Karl Ubl <http://www.leges.uni-koeln.de/en/mss/ [Accessed 28 July 2016]
Clarkson, Christopher, ‘Rediscovering Parchment: The Nature of the Beast’, in Conservation and Preservation in Small Libraries, ed. by Nicholas Hadgraft and Katherine Swift (Cambridge: Parker Library, 1994), pp. 75-96
Reed, R., Ancient Skins, Parchment and Leathers (London: Academic, 1973)