I remember riding in the family car to my college graduation. To pass the time, my brother and I played “Twenty Questions.” He stumped me with “parchment” and in particular, my diploma. When I balked, saying “No fair, that’s too specific,” he justified his choice by our excursion that day. But what exactly is parchment and why is it used?
Parchment is a specially prepared skin used to write or paint on. The term originally referred to material made from the skin of goats or sheep whereas vellum referred to material made from calfskin. Today the term refers to any of those skins. Smoother than leather or papyrus, parchment is strong, flexible, and withstands the challenges of time. Although its two surfaces are different, the hair side and the flesh side, both are smooth for writing on.
To produce parchment or vellum, the skins are defleshed in a bath of lime, stretched on a frame, and scraped while damp. Then they’re treated with pumice, whitened with a substance like chalk, and cut to size. On one occasion when Miriam visits her favorite bookstore, she notes that the owner carries commodities found nowhere else in the city:
He must have heard me because with a cry of delight and then a “Miriam-what-a- surprise!” he burst through a scrim and sailed down the center aisle toward me, maneuvering his paunch with the skill of a sea captain as he looped around the swarms of shoppers chirping, droning, and buzzing about the counters, tables, and shelves laden with manuscripts and stationery supplies. He stocks the usual commodities as well as items found nowhere else in the city, like the wooden dowels to make a papyrus scroll and the powders and pastes to smooth and remove the grease from a piece of parchment.
Parchment, more expensive than papyrus, was used in Miriam’s time for official documents. And today, I can attest to the fact that despite some neglect, my diploma is as good as new.