Pliny the Elder remarks on a conflict that arose between King Eumenes of Pergamum and Ptolemy V, the Egyptian pharaoh, around 191 BCE. The naturalist notes the regal rivalry in his section on writing materials from the ancient world (NH 13.21). During an epic battle to build each other’s libraries bigger and faster (would that this were the nature of building competitions today!), Ptolemy prohibited the export of papyrus. As trade embargoes can do (e.g. the embargo placed on Tyrian purple after the sack of Constantinople), it sparked invention in what is today Western Turkey. By necessity, parchment was developed as an alternative to Egyptian papyrus–or so the legend goes. Here Pliny uses the Latin word membrana (‘skin’, Gr.μεμβράνα) to describe the use of animal skins as a writing surface. Later, the Latin word pergamenum developed in order to describe the material, and then the French parchemin. Today we just call it parchment.
In all likelihood, the use of animals skins as a writing material far predated the great papyrus tussle of the early second century BCE. However, the continued refining of the process used to produce hides thin enough to preserve writing may indeed have been a specialty of the Eastern city–so the name stuck. The apostle Paul likely used parchment notebooks, and we have surviving parchment pieces from Egypt and Dura Europos where the dry climate has preserved the perishable material for later inspection. The rather thick parchment piece (really almost leather) to the left is of an unknown provenance and is dated to 256-260 CE, during the reign of the emperors Valerian and Gallienus.
The Price Edict of Diocletian (301 CE) lists a parchment maker as making 40 denarii for 1 foot (called a quaternion) of white or yellow parchment (Lauffer 1971, 120, l.38). Based off of the Edict, Robert Marichal has estimated that a copy of Virgil’s Aeneid would have been 3,400 denarii, whereas one of lesser quality would have been 2,600 denarii (1963: 215). To put this into perspective: unskilled workers made just 25 denarii a day and were probably not saving up for their own copy of Virgil. Rosamond McKitterick puts it this way: “a teacher would have to have taken 52 students for a month, or a farmer would have had to sell 185 pounds of pork, or 160 litres of wine” in order to buy a parchment Virgil (1989: 137).
Biblical texts could also command a high price tag. For example, take the Hexapla (the Ἑξαπλᾶ was Origen’s copy of the Old Testament), which is 7,623 pages and 40 lines per page (Fun fact for your next cocktail party: the Hebrew Bible alone has 304,901 words in it, according to the medieval scribes). The Hexapla has been priced at about 150,000-155,000 denarii (Grafton 2008: 106; Hale Williams 2006: 175). Grafton calculates that the cost of the book would have been the same as the subsistence level for 38 laborers (ibid. 324) for a year. That means about 20 denarii–a little less than a daily laborer’s wage–per 40-lined parchment page.
The oldest extant complete copy of the New Testament was made of parchment, the so-called Codex Sinaiticus. The manuscript dates to the 4th c. CE and is now held at the British Museum, however, an interactive online version is now available here. As the Price Edict indicates, large parchment codices were a luxury rather than a common household item.
The fourth century was a big time for the use of parchment. In his De viris illustribus, Jerome writes to Marcella, and notes that Euzoius, a Caesarean cleric (a bishop from 369 to 380), took deteriorated manuscripts and had them recopied onto parchment from their original papyrus. I should here note that many arguments over the differences between parchment and another writing material, vellum, still persist among academics (Avrin 1991: 212). Many say parchment is made from adult animals like cows and sheep, while vellum is made from baby animals like calves and lambs. I subscribe to the idea that parchment was simply defined as thicker and coarser, whereas vellum was thinner and softer. Adding dyes to codex pages and using expensive inks–as was done to the vellum Codex Argenteus, which used expensive purple dye and silver and gold inks–could really jack the price up. Regardless of such additional bells and whistles, scholars estimate: 200-225 hides of goat or sheep = 1 parchment Bible; 120 hides of goat or sheep or 60 cattle skins = 1 codex consisting of 240 folios (40 x 30 cm page size)
In the middle ages, monasteries became producers of parchment as well as consumers, and in turn needed to source a large number of animals: lambs, sheep, goats, calves, cows, and even donkeys. Notably, the brothers who made parchment were called fratres pergamentarii, but both monks and nuns travelled to the city in order to buy parchment and vellum at the market. These hides were not produced exclusively for parchment. Tanners, parchment makers, and butchers all used these animal parts. The hides at hand for a scriptorium could often be determined by the meat popular in the area. Goats were, for instance, popular in Bologna. As a result, lots of goat parchment was produced in that area of Italy. It also appears more difficult to obtain parchment during the non-meat-eating season of Lent.
I have been writing a lot on the leather and fur trade lately, so stay tuned for more. I’ll close with some estimates on hides and prices for surviving codices. The biggest codex to survive the middle ages, the Codex Gigas, is a 13th c., 165 lb vellum codex that allegedly used 160 donkeys. The St. Albans Psalter of the 13th c. used 27-54 Calfskins, with 2-4 bifolia produced per skin. Finally, the Gutenberg Bible of 1455 was a 42 line Bible with 1,286 pages and 643 folio leaves. About 170 calfskins were needed. Multiply this by the 35 vellum copies produced = 5, 950 calves. About 300 sheep were used per parchment edition of the Gutenberg Bible, which means that 9,000 sheep died to make the 30 copies produced. It has been priced as equivalent to $1,650 per copy in today’s dollar.
The introduction of paper from China, first to the Byzantine East (1050-1350) and then on to Western Europe meant a decrease in the consumption of parchment over the next 200 years. The economic relationship between meat consumption and parchment began to fade. The advent of paper and the increased use of a new textile called cotton undercut the demand for parchment and wool. Consequently, mutton appears to have become a less prominent part of the early modern diet. Studying the rise and fall of parchment tells us a lot about the history of book prices, livestock uses, monastic economies, and meat consumption from Roman antiquity to the Middle Ages. These histories remind us that an incredible amount of labor and resources were bound up in the book trades of the premodern world. They are also a reminder that a whole lot of animals died for our reading pleasure.
Megan Hale Williams, The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006)
Siegfried Lauffer, Diokletians Preisedikt. (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 1971 rep.2013).
Robert Marichal, ‘L’écriture latine et la civilization occidentale du Ier au XVIe siècle ‘ in L’Ecriture et la psychologie des peuples; XXIIe semaine de synthesis. (Paris: A. Colin 1963): 199-247.