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A Stitch in Time Saves Nine: The Crafty Story of Embroidery in Medieval Manuscripts

Thursday, March 2, 2017 12:07
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A Stitch in Time Saves Nine: The Crafty Story of Embroidery in Medieval Manuscripts

Even though paper would eventually come to be more popular, parchment was the preferred material for book making, and eventually printing, throughout the middle ages. Parchment, used before the rise of paper between the 5th and 13th centuries, is made from the thin membranes of the flesh of an animal, typically a cow or sheep. It is quite difficult to produce; thus, it is expensive. Only the very wealthy could afford good parchment – leaving the torn or imperfect parchment to lower classes. However, bad skin used in the parchment making process can tell historians something about who owned, read, and stored a text.

Four Grades of Parchment

Typically, more expensive manuscripts would have had more lavish illustrations, and they could be quite large. In fact, purchasing or commissioning very large manuscripts was seen as a display of wealth. It meant that one could afford large, undamaged pieces of parchment that would become the pages of the book. Studies suggest that parchment would be sold in four different grades, which implies that the sheets with and without visible imperfections may have been sold at different rates. In which case, the abundance of holes in some books suggests that the specific book was more economical to produce and therefore cheaper to purchase. This meant that the books could reach a wider audience, rather than just acting as a status symbol.

Detail of parchment that had to be mended twice on the same page. Fribourg/Freiburg, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire/Kantons- und Universitätsbibliothek, Ms. L 34, f. 246v – Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea. – Reconstructing the story of humanity’s past


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