Skip to Main Content

Creation and Use of Monastic Books in 15th Century Spain


Parchment was the most common writing surface for books during the medieval period and is made from the skin of calf, goat, or sheep. Vellum refers specifically to a writing surface made of calfskin. Without DNA analysis it is hard to tell what type of animal was used to create these pages, so they will be referred to as parchment throughout the exhibit.

Making parchment starts by slaughtering and skinning an animal. Animals were never slaughtered just for their skins, instead, parchment was one of many by-products of animal husbandry. Once the parchment maker received the skin, they soak it in water and lime, a highly alkaline solution that dissolves the hair on the hide. Next they scrape the hide to finish cleaning it and then stretch the skin in a frame to hold it flat and even while drying.

During the drying process the skin is scraped again to ensure a smooth surface and even thickness. Once dry, the parchment is rubbed with chalk or pumice to create a smooth surface for writing. Finally, the parchment is removed from the frame and cut into appropriately sized sheets. Skins are typically 6-8 square feet so for a book this size, one skin is needed for every four pages.