To Make Paper In The Middle Ages, You Had To Skin An Animal And Soak It In Urine

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.


  • Using Animal Skins To Write On Has Ancient Roots
    Photo: MomLes / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Using Animal Skins To Write On Has Ancient Roots

    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.

  • Parchment And Vellum Are Similar Terms But They Come From Different Animals
    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / flickr / No known copyright restrictions

    Parchment And Vellum Are Similar Terms But They Come From Different Animals

    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.

  • Animals Were Skinned For Meat But The Skins Didn't Go To Waste

    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.

  • Parchmenters Needed To Find Unblemished Skin

    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."

  • Parchment Makers Needed To Wash The Blood And DIrt Off Of The Skin
    Photo: BBC / YouTube

    Parchment Makers Needed To Wash The Blood And DIrt Off Of The Skin

    Just like a leather tanner, a parchmenter would take the skin and wash all of the blood, poop, and dirt that was on the surface. The parchment maker would wash the skin in cold water

    "Take goat skins and stand them in water for a day and a night. Take them and wash them until the water runs clear."

    Once the skin was clean, it could be set out in the sun so it would start to rot. 

  • To Make The Hair Fall Out Faster, The Skin Was Soaked In Lime
    Photo: BBC / YouTube

    To Make The Hair Fall Out Faster, The Skin Was Soaked In Lime

    If the parchment maker wasn't in a particularly hot location, he would need to make the hair fall out of the skin more quickly. Parchmenters used different solutions to speed up the process, many of which included lime. Skins would be dipped into pits full of lime or were put into big vats of a lime solution for three to ten days.

    "Take an entirely new bath and place therein old lime and water mixing well to form a thick cloudy liquor. Place the skins in this, folding them on the flesh side. Move them with a pole two or three times each day, leaving them for eight days (and twice as long in winter)."

    They could also be soaked in a concoction of water, urine, and feces. Whatever was used, parchmenters had to be careful not to leave the skin soaking too long because it could damage it and make it unusable.