What is parchment?
Welcome to Quatr.us Study Guides!

What is Parchment?


Scribes carved the first writing on wet clay tablets, but soon after that, about 3000 BC, the Egyptians invented papyrus, and by about 500 BC most people in West Asia and the Mediterranean used papyrus for writing. They couldn't make papyrus, though, because papyrus reeds wouldn't grow in their countries, and they had to buy it from the Egyptians. Papyrus was very expensive. For ordinary writing - grocery lists, receipts - people would write on broken pieces of pottery and wood and wax tablets because it was cheaper.

Then about 150 BC the Pharaoh Ptolemy V of Egypt refused to sell any more papyrus to King Eumenes of Pergamon (in West Asia) because Ptolemy was afraid that Eumenes' library was going to get to be as good as his own. So Eumenes began to make his books out of parchment instead.

Parchment is made from animal skins. Usually people used the skins of sheep or cows, because those animals were pretty common in West Asia and Europe. You took the skin and scraped off all the hair from the outside and all the fat from the inside. Then you soaked the skin in water with chalk or flour and salt added to give it a good smooth surface to write on. And finally you soaked the skin in tannin made from oak-gall, to preserve it (like pickling something). Our word parchment comes from Eumenes' kingdom, Pergamom.

These parchment-writers in West Asia found that parchment didn't work well to make scrolls, the way people did with papyrus. With papyrus, you could glue as many sheets together as you wanted, to make one super long sheet, and then roll it up into a scroll. Parchment only came so big - the size of a sheep - and it was hard to glue together to make a long scroll. Also, it was too heavy. So by about 50 AD people started to make books instead. It turned out that books had a lot of advantages, because you could also flip back and forth in a book, or mark your place with a bookmark. Research became a lot easier.

Parchment was even more expensive than papyrus, and so papyrus continued to get a lot of use until the fall of the Western Roman Empire about 400 AD. After the fall of Rome, Europeans didn't trade much with Egypt anymore, and had a very hard time getting papyrus. So more and more they used parchment, or they didn't write at all, because parchment was so expensive.

By about 800 AD, even the Egyptians weren't using papyrus anymore, because they had learned about the Chinese invention of paper, which was much cheaper. All over the Islamic Empire, people were using paper- and writing a lot! But in Europe people were still using parchment, or buying super expensive paper from traders on the Silk Road, and writing as little as possible.

By the 1200s AD, though, Europeans learned how to make their own paper, and Italian manufacturers began to sell cheaper paper all over Europe. Within two hundred years nobody was really using parchment anymore except for special things like diplomas and letters between kings.

Learn by doing: making paper
More about the history of paper

Bibliography and further reading about the history of parchment:

Medieval Literature

LIMITED TIME OFFER FOR TEACHERS: Using this article with your class? Show us your class page where you're using this article, and we'll send you a free subscription so all your students can use Quatr.us Study Guides with no distractions! (Not a teacher? Paid subscriptions are also available for just $16/year!)
Please help other teachers and students find us: link to this page from your class page.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Cite this page
  • Author: K.E. Carr
  • Title:
  • Site Name: Quatr.us Study Guides
  • Publisher: Quatr.us
  • Date Published:
Did you find what you needed? Ask your teacher to link to this page so other people can use it too! Send it in and win a Quatr.us "Great Page!" award!
Sign up for more free articles and special offers in Quatr.us' weekly newsletter:
We will never share your e-mail address unless you allow us to do so. View our privacy policy. Easy unsubscribe links are provided in every email.
Comment on This Article

Does your class page honor diversity, celebrate feminism, and support people of color, LBGTQ people, and people with disabilities? Let us know, and we'll send you a Diversity Banner you can proudly display!
Looking for more?
Quatr.us is loading comments...
(Comments will appear after moderation, if they are kind and helpful. Feel free to ask questions, and we'll try to answer them.)
Cite this page
  • Carr, K.E. . Quatr.us Study Guides, . Web. 23 April, 2017