AskDefine | Define parchment

Dictionary Definition



1 a superior paper resembling sheepskin
2 skin of a sheep or goat prepared for writing on [syn: sheepskin, lambskin]

User Contributed Dictionary



Named for the city of Pergamon, where it was invented.


  1. A material, made from the skin of a calf, sheep, or goat, used like paper for writing.
  2. A diploma.


Extensive Definition

Parchment is a thin material made from calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin. Its most common use is as the pages of a book, codex or manuscript. It is distinct from leather in that parchment is not tanned, but stretched, scraped, and dried under tension, creating a stiff white, yellowish or translucent animal skin. The finer qualities of parchment are called vellum. It is very reactive with changes in relative humidity and is not waterproof.
Plant-based parchment is used in baking and other applications as a substitute for animal parchment.


According to the Roman Varro, Pliny's Natural History records (xiii.21), parchment was invented under the patronage of Eumenes of Pergamum, as a substitute for papyrus, which was temporarily not being exported from Alexandria, its only source.
Herodotus mentions writing on skins as common in his time, the 5th century BC; and in his Histories (v.58) he states that the Ionians of Asia Minor had been accustomed to give the name of skins — diphtherai — to books; this word was adapted by Hellenized Jews to describe scrolls Parchment (pergamenum in Latin), however, is named after the city where it was perfected. In the 2nd century B.C. a great library was set up in Pergamon that rivaled the famous Library of Alexandria. As prices rose for papyrus and the reed used for making it was overharvested towards local extinction in the two nomes of the Nile delta that produced it, Pergamon adapted by increasing use of parchment.
Writing on prepared animal skins had a long history, however. Some Egyptian Fourth Dynasty texts were written on parchment. Though the Assyrians and the Babylonians impressed their cuneiform on clay tablets, they also wrote on parchment from the 6th century BC onward. Rabbinic culture equated a "book" with a parchment scroll. Early Islamic texts are also found on parchment.
One sort of parchment is vellum, a word that is used loosely to mean parchment, and especially to mean fine parchment, but more strictly refers to parchment made from calf skin (although goat skin can be as fine in quality). The words "vellum" and "veal" come from Latin vitulus, "calf", or its diminutive vitellus. In the Middle Ages calfskin and split sheepskin were the most common materials for making parchment in England and France, while goatskin was more common in Italy. Other skins such as those from large animals such as horse and smaller animals such as squirrel and rabbit were also used. Whether uterine vellum (vellum made from aborted calf fetuses) was ever really used during the medieval period is still a matter of great controversy.
There was a short period during the introduction of printing where parchment and paper were used interchangeably: although most copies of the Gutenberg Bible are on paper, some were printed on parchment. In 1490, Johannes Trithemius preferred the older methods, because "handwriting placed on parchment will be able to endure a thousand years. But how long will printing last, which is dependent on paper? For if lasts for two hundred years that is a long time."
The heyday of parchment use was during the medieval period, but there has been a growing revival of its use among contemporary artists since the late 20th century. Although parchment never stopped being used (primarily for governmental documents and diplomas) it had ceased to be a primary choice for artist’s supports by the end of 15th century Renaissance. This was partly due to its expense and partly due to its unusual working properties. Parchment consists mostly of collagen. When the water in paint media touches parchment’s surface, the collagen melts slightly, forming a raised bed for the paint, a quality highly prized by some artists. Parchment is also extremely affected by its environment and changes in humidity, which can cause buckling. Some contemporary artists also prize this quality, noting that the parchment seems alive and like an active participant in making artwork. To support the needs of the revival of use by artists, a revival in the art of making individual skins is also underway. Handmade skins are usually better prepared for artists and have fewer oily spots which can cause long-term cracking of paint than mass-produced parchment. Mass-produced parchment is usually made for lamp shades, furniture, or other interior design purposes.
The radiocarbon dating techniques that are used on papyrus can be applied to parchment as well. They do not date the age of the writing but the preparation of the parchment itself. However, radiocarbon dating can often be used on the inks that make up the writing, since many of them contain organic compounds such as plant leachings, soot, and wine.


The first step in creating parchment was to wet or soak the recently flayed skin in water to remove the blood and dung and to allow easier penetration of the dehairing liquor.
In early days the liquor bath was fermented vegetable matter but by the Middle Ages a lime bath was used to soften the epidermal layer thus allowing the hair to be removed more easily. It is possible that urine was sometimes used as a lime alternative.
The liquor bath would have been in wooden or stone vats and the hides stirred with a long wooden pole to avoid getting the lime on human skin. The skins would stay in the bath for 8 or more days (longer in winter) being stirred two or three times a day.
After being rinsed the skins would be given a second lime bath but care would be taken to not leave the skins in too long or they would be weakened and not able to stand the stretching required for parchment.

Additional uses of the term

In some universities, the word parchment is still used to refer to the certificate (scroll) presented at graduation ceremonies, even though the modern document is printed on paper or thin card; although doctoral graduands may be given the option of having their scroll written by a calligrapher on vellum. The University of Notre Dame still uses animal parchment for its diplomas.

Plant-based parchment

Vegetable (paper) parchment is made by silicone treatment of high density paper. This produces a cross-linked material with high density, stability and heat resistance. Applications include cooking and baking (cooking parchment, baking parchment). To avoid sticking to foods, silicone and other coatings can be applied to parchment.
A common use is to eliminate the need to grease baking sheets and the like, allowing very rapid turn-around of batches of cookies in a commercial bakery. It can also be folded to make moisture-proof packages in which food items are cooked or steamed En papillote.
Standard grease-proof or wax paper does not have the properties of parchment and will burn in most cooking applications.



Further reading

  • Dougherty, Raymond P., 1928." Writing upon parchment and papyrus among the Babylonians and the Assyrians," in Journal of the American Oriental Society 48, pp 109–135.
  • Ryder, Michael L., 1964. Parchment: its history, manufacture and composition.
  • Reed, R. 1972. Ancient Skins, Parchments, and Leathers. Seminar Press. ISBN 0-12-903550-5
parchment in Bulgarian: Пергамент
parchment in Catalan: Pergamí
parchment in Czech: Pergamen
parchment in Danish: Pergament
parchment in German: Pergament
parchment in Modern Greek (1453-): Περγαμηνή
parchment in Spanish: Pergamino
parchment in Esperanto: Pergameno
parchment in French: Parchemin
parchment in Galician: Pergamiño
parchment in Croatian: Pergament
parchment in Icelandic: Bókfell
parchment in Italian: Pergamena
parchment in Hebrew: קלף
parchment in Hungarian: Pergamen
parchment in Dutch: Perkament
parchment in Japanese: 羊皮紙
parchment in Norwegian: Pergament
parchment in Occitan (post 1500): Pergamin
parchment in Polish: Pergamin
parchment in Portuguese: Pergaminho
parchment in Russian: Пергамент
parchment in Sicilian: Pirgamena
parchment in Slovak: Pergamen (koža)
parchment in Slovenian: Pergament
parchment in Finnish: Pergamentti
parchment in Swedish: Pergament
parchment in Ukrainian: Пергамент
parchment in Chinese: 羊皮紙

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

article, autograph, biscuit, blank, bone, brainchild, bubble, china, chirograph, codex, composition, computer printout, copy, cracker, docket, document, dossier, draft, dust, edited version, eggshell, engrossment, essay, fair copy, fiction, file, final draft, finished version, first draft, flimsy, form, glass, glass house, holograph, house of cards, ice, instrument, legal document, legal instrument, legal paper, letter, literae scriptae, literary artefact, literary production, literature, lucubration, manuscript, matchwood, matter, mummy, nonfiction, official document, old paper, opus, original, palimpsest, paper, papers, papyrus, penscript, personal file, piece, piece of writing, piecrust, play, poem, printed matter, printout, production, reading matter, recension, roll, screed, scrip, script, scrive, scroll, second draft, stick, the written word, transcript, transcription, typescript, version, work, writ, writing
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