On Christmas Eve 2018, graduate student Jason Stubblefield drove to an acquaintance’s farm and was handed a brown paper bag with a sheep hide inside. The hide—which remains vacuum packed in a freezer—is going to be critical to a research project he’s doing with fellow grad student Karen Norwood.
Stubblefield, who is studying European history, and Norwood, whose work deals with medieval literary studies, languages, and textual criticism, are attempting to create their own writing parchment using a medieval technique. Though they are not the first to make parchment in this way, their goal is less about the end result and more about documenting the process for teaching purposes.
“Parchment is the writing surface for the Middle Ages,” says Stubblefield. “It was the vehicle for transferring knowledge for many centuries, and it is one of the finest writing surfaces ever invented.”
Parchment was key to the creation of books, charters, legal documents, historical chronicles, and writing in general. Yet even with the essential role parchment played in information dissemination, very little visual documentation can be found to show how it was produced.
Stubblefield and Norwood want to fill that hole in the research.
Taking photos throughout the process, the duo plans to soak the sheepskin in multiple lye baths and stretch it on a frame. Using a curved blade called a moon knife, they’ll scrape the skin and allow it to dry under tension. Then they’ll polish the dry skin with white chalk, after which they hope to have a piece of usable parchment. Stubblefield and Norwood will post the entire process on a public blog that can be used by teachers and students.
“So many things can go wrong,” Norwood points out. “But even our mistakes will help us learn about the medieval process. We won’t be the first people making these mistakes while trying to make a manuscript.”
Damaged and imperfect manuscripts were rather common. In the medieval world, parchment making was tedious and expensive, and monks from less affluent monasteries often made their own books with flawed parchment. They weren’t financially able to make a second copy if they made errors. Instead, they wrote around or skipped tears or holes from the creation process.
“Using an animal product, there’s going to be variation,” says Stubblefield. “The standardized perfect quality that we expect nowadays just isn’t there. The variation is weird but interesting. There’s more character to it; every parchment really is unique.”
Often texts are ignored because they are in poor condition and hard to read. Norwood and Stubblefield hope they can use their parchment-making mistakes to learn how to counteract some of the damage in these old texts, possibly providing ideas for ways to make them readable again.
It’s important to Norwood and Stubblefield that scholars to have access to the process since there aren’t many other resources covering the topic. They also want people to see them trying—and potentially failing at times—in an area of research that falls outside their experience and expertise.
“There’s this misconception for people in higher ed that if you’re researching something you’re already an expert in it, but that’s wrong,” says Norwood.
Breaking new ground is exciting and important.
“If you found something no one’s ever done before, that means you should probably do it,” she says.
Raphael Rosalin (865-974-2152, firstname.lastname@example.org)