At the beginning of the Middle Ages papyrus was widespread: the barbarian invasions had not interfered with trade in the Mediterranean. But with the spread of Islam to Egypt and the East in the 7th century, parchment gradually replaced papyrus. The one exception were papal documents, which were written on papyrus until the 10th century.
Parchment introduced two major advances:
- Quills replaced reed pens. The quill’s finer nib made writing easier and more regular.
- The production of codices, an ancient version of today’s book. Sheets of parchment were folded and grouped together into folios. The most common kind was the 16-page quaternio, which consisted of four sheets, each folded into two and bound together.
During the Middle Ages various animal hides were used to produce parchment, the most common being sheep, calf and goat. Preparing the hides was a long and painstaking process, but proper tanning was essential to rid the hides of their smell. They were first soaked in limewash, scudded to remove any trace of hair and flesh, delimed, dried on wattle mats and scraped again. Once they had been tied to a frame and stretched, the parchmenter polished them until they were soft and smooth. The scribe, or the copyist, then completed the operation by removing all remaining stains with a knife or pumice stone. Only then was the parchment soft enough to write on.
One sheep hide was enough for a double folio (50cm x 70cm). Sheep hides could be written on both sides and were the most widely used. But calf hides produced a superior parchment. Vellum, as it was called, was made from very young or stillborn calves.