Formatting parchment into records

Formatting the records

A large part of the handwritten documentary legacy that has survived until the present day was written on parchment during the last two thousand years. The texts on parchment were initially formatted as scrolls. The parchment used for the formatting the texts was usually comprised of sheets of specific dimensions cut from skins.  However, if a long text had to be written and the cut sheets were too small, the sheets of parchment were stitched together; later they were also glued. And the completed document was rolled together.

The most sheets of parchment with the most uniform characteristics (ill 1) were obtained from the center sections of skins from young animals (A). The areas along the stomach (B) had uneven characteristics and were significantly less strong. The texture and characteristics of the skin in the area were the limbs were attached (axilla) to the body (C), the neck area (D) and back area (that included the spine and ribs) differed even more from the aforementioned areas (Parchment. The physical and chemical characteristics of parchment and the materials used in its conservation, B. H. Haines, 1999). The pieces with text of the longest scroll discovered to date (Temple Scroll) date back to the 1st century BC and comprise a 24 to 26cm-wide and ca 8.1m-long parchment record, which is comprised of 19 pieces of parchment the edges of which are attached (Temple Scroll, 23.03.2016). The longest digitized parchment scroll in Estonia is located in the National Archives and is 75 cm wide and 232 cm long (1732, RA, EAA.854.1.1008a, ill.2).

Starting in the 2nd century, sheets of parchment with handwritten texts were usually bound into codices. The skills and methods of producing parchment codices were perfected in the Middle Ages. The terminology that developed during this period is still used today (Materials and Techniques of Manuscript, 23.03.2016). In the case of codices, both sides of the parchment were processed in the same way. The underside of the skin, as a rule, the recto was more velvety and softer than the side with the coat, or verso (Recto and verso, 23.03.2016). The parchment sheets were folded so that one grain side faced the other grain side and the flesh side faced the flesh side.. During the binding process, the parchment sheets cut from the skin based on specific rules (ill 3) were folded in half into bi-folios comprised of two or four pages. If the parchments sheets were folded again, four and eight pages (quarto) was created. And if they were fold once more eight and 16 pages (octavo) would be created. The latter was a popular notebook format among the ancient Romans. Estonia’s oldest surviving codices date back to the 13th and 14th centuries (T. Kala, Käsikirjaline raamat Eestis, 2008). Initially, single pages of parchment were only used for text drafts and temporary notes. As statehood developed, the formatting of important documents on single pages became increasingly widespread. The oldest parchment documents, from the year 22 BC, were found in Avroman, Kurdistan (23.03.2016). One of the most important surviving documents related to the development of European statehood is considered to be the Magna Carta from 1215 (‘large paper’ in Latin) (23.03.2016). Estonia’s oldest parchment document dates back to 1237, and it is stored in the Tallinn City Archives (TLA.230.1-I.2) (ill. 4). The recto and verso sides of parchment this is formatted as single-page documents are often processed differently, and easily distinguished visually. In most cased, the documents were stored in folded form. For this reason, historical documents, unlike parchment codices, have been seriously damaged and are characteristically deformed when stretched out (ill 5). The sheets on the inside of the codices required prior preparation. If the sheets had been prepared for writing, i.e. cut out and rubbed with pumice stone and chalk, the sheets were attached to a writing table (frame). Holes were punctured in the edges and corners to secure the sheets. The location of the columns and rows were drawn on the parchment. Thereafter, the written pages were formatted into a codex. An exception was those codices that included empty pages that were later filled with new texts and were intended for long-term use as notebooks. (ill 6,7).



In summary, when identifying damage, it is important to consider the following about the formatting of the parchment

  • The specifics related to the formatting of the parchment play an important role in identifying the characteristic of the parchment and the damage it has suffered.
  • Parchment that has been bound between covers survives better than parchments formatted as single pages.

In order to get a better overview of the damage suffered by bound parchment, the damage must be analyzed by the folded sections of parchment, i.e. bi-folios.