Medieval paper wasn't really paper - it was parchment or vellum made from the skins of animals and processed to be used for writing or art. Making medieval parchment or vellum wasn't easy and required numerous steps, which accounts for its somewhat limited production.
How vellum was made was definitely a process, to say the least. Skinning an animal was only the first step to getting a quality piece of writing material. Royal chanceries and the Church needed parchment and vellum to keep records so they were big consumers of it, but they made sure someone else did the dirty work.
Read on to learn how to make parchment from animal skins... but don't try this at home... or ever, for that matter.
Tradition holds that parchment was developed as an alternative to papyrus during the 2nd century BCE as part of a book-owning rivalry between Ptolemy IV of Egypt and Eumenes II of Pergamon.
"Subsequently, also according to Varro, when owing to the rivalry between King Ptolemy and King Eumenes about their libraries, Ptolemy suppressed the export of Papyrus, parchment was invented at Pergamum and afterwards the employment of the material on which the immortality of human beings depends, spread indiscriminately."
It had actually been used for centuries but was often used as an alternative to papyrus because it was more expensive to produce.
The term vellum comes from the Latin word vitulinum, meaning veal, while parchment in Latin is pergamenum. Parchment was perfected in Pergamon, hence the name, but usually refers to the hides of a goat or a sheep. There is some evidence that people used horse skin or even rabbit and squirrel skin, depending upon availability and need.
Using every part of an animal was practical in ancient and medieval times so the skin had a variety of functions. In addition to clothes, shoes, tents, and containers of various kinds, animal hides could be used for record-keeping and communication.
Leather and parchment were processed in much the same way but leather was tanned while parchment was dried. Tanning involved adding yellow or brown tannins to add color to the skin, something drying parchment did not do.
Parchment producers kept an eye out for animal skin that was free from flaws, scars, or remnants of disease when they visited the slaughterhouse. Finding a light color skin would be ideal, as would locating a piece with light or little hair, so the finished product would be easier to write on.
Sources indicate that the skins of unborn goats, sheep, and calves were particularly valuable because they were soft, smooth, and clear. They also had very little hair which made preparation easier. Uterine parchment made from unborn calves was called "slunk."