Medieval Writing Surfaces

The two principal writing surfaces used in the Middle Ages were parchment and vellum. These surfaces were and are created by stretching and dampening animal skins until they become paper-thin and nearly transparent. These long sheets of material are then sheared to a desired size and bound together into a manuscript, scroll or other document.

The labor and time required in creating these surfaces often made them prohibitively expensive, and judging from the surviving documents from that period, only information of great worth or importance was written down--usually documents pertaining to religious, legal or economic matters. An arguable exception is the parchment sketchbook left by Gothic engineer Villard de Honnecourt.¹ Very few of these plans survive, as parchment was often scraped to remove the previous text to make room for other information--a testament to the surface's value.2

According to the Britannica Online Encyclopedia, the word parchment "derives from the ancient Greek city of Pergamum (modern Bergama, Turkey), where parchment is said to have been invented in the 2nd century B.C." 3 The word vellum comes from the same root word from which we derive the word "veal"--the Middle English word "velum," or the Middle French "velim." 4

1  Joseph and Frances Gies. Life in a Medieval City.
    New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1981. Page 137.
2  Gies, Page 239.
3  "Parchment (writing material)." Britannica Online Encyclopedia.
4  "Vellum."