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Parchment

Writing on skin predates the writing on paper derived from papyrus by at least two centuries—but only provided that we accept Pliny’s claim that paper production began with the founding of Alexandria by Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). But, to the contrary, we have papyrus documents going back to the First Dynasty in Egypt, which ended in 2890 BC. History, you might say, is created by those who write it, hence Alexander gets the nod—much as Al Gore embraced the Internet. Papyrus was thus used as a writing surface in Egypt long, long before Alexander was born—but right alongside animal skins. Documents on skin exist from the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt (ended 2467 BC). Herodotus (484-425 BC) mentions that Greeks used the word skins (diphtheria) for books. But the later name for this kind of writing surface, parchment or pergamum, arose quite late in the history of writing. We have Pliny’s word for that.

During the reign of Eumenes II of Pergamum (197-158 BC), papyrus suddenly became unavailable. The product came almost exclusively from Alexandria in Egypt. One of the Ptolemy’s ruling Egypt then stopped exports to reserve papers for his famed Library of Alexandria. This challenge caused Eumenes, a member of the Attalid Dynasty, to  launch an effort, on behalf of his library in Pergamum, to replace one “medium” with another and much more expensive one—animal skins. But what is expense, you might ask, when it comes to furnishing your library. All readers will understand.

Where is Pergamum? It is on the western edge of today’s Turkey and now called Bergama, thus on the side that fronts on the Aegean Sea. A look at any atlas will show the relationships involved. Eumenes used to get his papyrus by ship from Alexandria almost directly to the south on the northern coast of Egypt—and the ships were coming in empty. Thus was born the most expensive and finest writing medium ever produced by humanity, parchment. Our word vellum, used today for very high quality paper with a textured surface, comes from the highest grade of parchment prepared in ancient times from the skins of young calves. The word derives from the Latin vitulus for calf.

Yes. Books were once a real luxury product. As one source tells us (here): “The base material of those magnificent illuminated medieval manuscripts we cherish came at great cost: one particularly splendid gospel required 1,500 calfskins to make the vellum.” Food for the body, food for thought. When the ancients reverently turned the pages of their books, they were handling something that, once, had actually lived. — But, come to think of it, as we now swiftly page through a paperback, the same thing is true. The life we touch, however, came from lower down on evolution’s ladder.
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Picture credit: Wikipedia here.

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