The manuscript as a knowledge transmitter

For centuries manuscripts have been the living memory of mankind. Patiently written or wisely illuminated, books have gone through history, bearing witness to it and reflecting the men attitude about life and about themselves. The monastery walls were the deaf witnesses of the monks’ labour; time didn’t exist for them and they devoted many years to copying and illuminating rich miniatures in unique codex that were worked as jewels. Their lives were devoted to worship and work, to religion and knowledge, to faith and beauty.

Copies made from manuscripts, codex and historical documents spread the bibliographic art, transmitting the sensitive pleasure before these amazing treasures which can move us, and which are able to revive the meticulous work of monks in the scriptorium and the love of those hands sewing the parchment pages. But above all, these manuscripts show us the art and knowledge, the creation and reflection of these documents, born to remain in time as singular beauty and luxury objects, made as delicate works that we now receive. A facsimile (from Latin fac simile, “to make alike”) is a copy or reproduction of an old book, manuscript, map, art print, or other item of historical value that is as true to the original source as possible.

Parchment is a writing material with a long and arduous manufacturing process, as the skin of the lamb from which it’s made – usually lamb, goat, sheep or ram -must be treated specifically to make it a useful and lasting material. Its name comes from Pergamum, a city of Asia Minor, founded by Phileterus in 238 B.C.

According to the Latin writer Pliny, King Attalus I founded the library that reached its apogee with King Eumenes II (197 to 158 B.C.); it held 200.000 volumes in it. This library competed with Alexandria’s in such a way that, according to tradition, the Egyptian king Ptolemeus Philadelphus stopped supplying papyrus to the city of Pergamum. As a result of that the city of Pergamum developed and improved the manufacturing of this writing material to replace the papyrus. Nevertheless, the first evidence of the parchment use is very old: it dates from 2700 – 2500 B. C., during the fourth Egyptian dynasty.

According to Herodotus and Ctesias, it was widely used among the Persians, though the oldest preserved scroll is from the second century B.C., it contains a Greek text and comes from Dura Europos. Among the Greeks it was known as dipthéra and among Latinos membrane, the name that was commonly used during the Middle Ages, as the one of charter membranacea.

The name of parchment comes from the expression membrane pergamenea, that was first used in the edict of Diocletian 301 B.C., known as the Edictum de pretiis rerum venalium; the term pergamenum was used by St. Jerome (330 – 420). The parchment was the favourite writing material in the third and fourth centuries, until the introduction of paper by the Arabs in Europe in the late eighth century. After its spreading, it remained as the preferred material for illuminated manuscripts for a long time.

The method that has been used to obtain the parchment starts with the selection of skins, one by one, when they still have wool and hair. Once the skins have been selected, they will be soaked in a solution of water and quicklime for a long time, stirring them periodically to wet them all. After this stage, and with the skins still moist to facilitate the work, they are scrapped manually, using sickle blades or curved blade knives as tools, and removing all traces of flesh that might remain.

This is a job that requires much experience and skill to avoid damaging the skin while performing. After this operation, the skins are soaked again, without wool, hair or flesh, in clear water for several days to be thoroughly cleaned and free of lime. The drying process is done by tightening the skins one by one on a wooden frame to control its thickness and maintain the parchment’s uniformity characteristics. During this drying period the skin is polished on both sides with a pumice stone to achieve a natural smoothing. After the cleaning and the selection of thickness and colour have been made, a natural resin is applied over the skins to facilitate the fixing of gold and inks.