A Stitch in Time Saves Nine: The Crafty Story of Embroidery in Medieval Manuscripts

A Stitch in Time Saves Nine: The Crafty Story of Embroidery in Medieval Manuscripts


Even though paper would eventually come to be more popular, parchment was the preferred material for book making, and eventually printing, throughout the middle ages. Parchment, used before the rise of paper between the 5th and 13th centuries, is made from the thin membranes of the flesh of an animal, typically a cow or sheep. It is quite difficult to produce; thus, it is expensive. Only the very wealthy could afford good parchment - leaving the torn or imperfect parchment to lower classes. However, bad skin used in the parchment making process can tell historians something about who owned, read, and stored a text.

Four Grades of Parchment

Typically, more expensive manuscripts would have had more lavish illustrations, and they could be quite large. In fact, purchasing or commissioning very large manuscripts was seen as a display of wealth. It meant that one could afford large, undamaged pieces of parchment that would become the pages of the book. Studies suggest that parchment would be sold in four different grades, which implies that the sheets with and without visible imperfections may have been sold at different rates. In which case, the abundance of holes in some books suggests that the specific book was more economical to produce and therefore cheaper to purchase. This meant that the books could reach a wider audience, rather than just acting as a status symbol.

Detail of parchment that had to be mended twice on the same page. Fribourg/Freiburg, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire/Kantons- und Universitätsbibliothek, Ms. L 34, f. 246v – Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea.

Detail of parchment that had to be mended twice on the same page. Fribourg/Freiburg, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire/Kantons- und Universitätsbibliothek, Ms. L 34, f. 246v – Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea. (CC BY NC) This is a page from a 14th century copy of James of Voragine’s ‘Golden Legend’, one of the most copied texts of the Middle Ages.

You can tell a lot about a book from the skin that the pages are made out of and through careful analysis, book historians can diagnose and learn from the parchment. The best quality parchment should feel like velvet. It usually has an off-white, yellow tinged color, and it should make no sound when one turns the page.

hree examples of decorative Medieval manuscripts made on higher quality parchment (left-right): Saint Louis Psalter 30 verso (1190-1200) (Public Domain), Inhabited initial ‘Q’ (1153) (Public Domain), and Leaf from Book of Hours (mid-15th century). (Public Domain)

Three examples of decorative Medieval manuscripts made on higher quality parchment (left-right): Saint Louis Psalter 30 verso (1190-1200) (Public Domain), Inhabited initial ‘Q’ (1153) (Public Domain), and Leaf from Book of Hours (mid-15th century). (Public Domain)

Conversely, bad skin crackles when turned, it is typically uneven in thickness, and shows staining and a variety of colors. However, because of these imperfections, historians can tell much about a poor-quality piece of parchment and shed light on the use, storage, and post-production history of the text. The study of the holes specifically, from either pre or post-production, can tell historians how and where a book was stored and whether it was in proper conditions. Typically, books can be preserved in modern times, but sometimes the books are found to have post-production mending in them already.

​Parchment holes in this manuscript were repaired using embroidery circa 1417. It is currently in University Library, Uppsala, Sweden.

Parchment holes in this manuscript were repaired using embroidery circa 1417. It is currently in University Library, Uppsala, Sweden. (Uppsala University Library)

 

Preparing Parchment

Preparing parchment is a delicate process. In order to clear the skin of the flesh and hair, it was attached to a wooden frame and kept tight like skin across a drum. A lunellum, or round knife used by the parchment makers, was used in the scraping process. However, if this tool pressed too hard against the surface it could cause cuts and tears.

Holes of this type are common in medieval manuscripts, which suggests that readers were not particularly bothered by their presence and accepted them as part of the book and book making process. Many scribes and illustrators would simply work around the holes, or it would be worked into what was happening on the page.  The same goes for the presence of other imperfections such as visible hair follicles. These imperfections, just like the holes, were often written over and ignored, or incorporated into the page.

Two examples of holes being incorporated into the work: Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Nat.1 (9th century) (Staatsbibliothek Bamberg) and Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Patr.41, fol. 69r.

Two examples of holes being incorporated into the work: Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Nat.1 (9th century) (Staatsbibliothek Bamberg) and Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Patr.41, fol. 69r. (Staatsbibliothek Bamberg)

Other Causes of Parchment Holes

Medieval manuscripts face many dangers due to their age, fragility of the materials used, and poor storage conditions. Holes in the manuscripts could be made by insects, fire damage, mold, damage during parchment making, writing, illustrating, or the binding of the book. Since the parchment was so expensive to produce, it could not be wasted due to imperfections or accidents in the book making process. Therefore, scribes and bookmakers needed to be inventive in their solutions to such damage.

Historian Erik Kwakkel specializes in the study of medieval manuscripts, more specifically he looks at the history of doodles, color theory, and rare forms of book binding. Recently he has been investigating how bookmakers found creative solutions to damaged parchment, such as embroidery with brightly colored silk thread.

For example, one manuscript in Uppsala, Sweden shows the ingenuity of book makers and menders. While the Uppsala University Library once had detailed information on this manuscript it is no longer available online. However, it is known to have come from the monastic library at Vadstena Convent after its purchase in Konstanz in 1417. 

A parchment hole in a manuscript which was repaired using embroidery. Circa 1417. It is currently in University Library, Uppsala, Sweden.

A parchment hole in a manuscript which was repaired using embroidery. Circa 1417. It is currently in University Library, Uppsala, Sweden. (Uppsala University Library)

The pages were made from parchment and show typical damage that has been patched and mended with the use of silk thread and embroidery. Using embroidery to repair the hole added color and texture to the page as well as maintained the integrity of the book. The embroidery that is found on this manuscript was a fairly common practice in some monastic communities, thus turning the possibly of mundane text into art.

A decorative parchment page that has also been mended with colorful embroidery. Fribourg/Freiburg, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire/Kantons- und Universitätsbibliothek, Ms. L 34, f. 31v – Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea.

A decorative parchment page that has also been mended with colorful embroidery. Fribourg/Freiburg, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire/Kantons- und Universitätsbibliothek, Ms. L 34, f. 31v – Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea. (CC BY NC)

Top Image: Detail of a parchment hole in a manuscript repaired using embroidery circa 1417, currently in University Library, Uppsala, Sweden. Source: Uppsala University Library

By Veronica Parkes

References:

Jobson, C. (2014) ‘The Ingenuity and Beauty of Creative Parchment Repair in Medieval Books.’  http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2014/11/the-ingenuity-and-beauty-of-creative-parchment-repair-in-medieval-books/

Kwakkel, E. (2014) ‘The Skinny on Bad Parchment.’ https://medievalbooks.nl/2014/10/24/feeling-good-about-bad-skin/

Museum of Artifacts (n.d.) ‘Parchment Holes in Manuscript Repaired Using Embroidery.’ https://museum-of-artifacts.blogspot.ca/2017/01/parchment-holes-in-manuscript-repaired.html

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