On parchment Animals, archives, and the making of culture from Herodotus to the digital age

Bruce W. Holsinger

Book - 2022

A sweeping exploration of the shaping role of animal skins in written culture and human imagination over three millennia "Richly detailed and illustrated. . . . An engaging exploration of book history."-Kirkus Reviews For centuries, premodern societies recorded and preserved much of their written cultures on parchment: the rendered skins of sheep, cows, goats, camels, deer, gazelles, and other creatures. These remains make up a significant portion of the era's surviving historical record. In a study spanning three millennia and twenty languages, Bruce Holsinger explores this animal archive as it shaped the inheritance of the Euro-Mediterranean world, from the leather rolls of ancient Egypt to the Acts of Parliament in the Uni...ted Kingdom. Holsinger discusses the making of parchment past and present, the nature of the medium as a biomolecular record of faunal life and environmental history, the knotty question of "uterine vellum," and the imaginative role of parchment in the works of St. Augustine, William Shakespeare, and a range of Jewish rabbinic writers of the medieval era. Closely informed by the handicraft of contemporary makers, painters, and sculptors, the book draws on a vast array of sources-codices and scrolls, documents and ephemera, works of craft and art-that speak to the vitality of parchment across epochs and continents. At the center of On Parchment is the vexed relationship of human beings to the myriad slaughtered beasts whose remains make up this vast record: a relationship of dominion and compassion, of brutality and empathy.

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Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 002.09/Holsinger Due Apr 26, 2024
New Haven ; London : Yale University Press [2022]
Main Author
Bruce W. Holsinger (author)
Physical Description
ix, 436 pages : illustrations (chiefly color) ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 347-403) and index.
  • Cover
  • Half Title
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • A Note on Texts, Translations, and Terminology
  • Prologue
  • Part I. The Medium and Its Making
  • 1. The Book of the Dun Cow
  • 2. Hair, Flesh, Sense
  • 3. Gristle, Stink, Skin
  • 4. The Flayed Folio
  • 5. Uterine Vellum and the Page Unborn
  • 6. Questions of Quantity: Membrane and Archival Scale
  • Part II. The Medium and Its Messages
  • 7. Parchment Inventions
  • 8. St. Augustine's (A)Theology of Parchment
  • 9. Riddled Flesh
  • 10. The Human Book and the Body of Christ
  • 11. Torah, Talmud, Tefillin
  • 12. Shakespeare's Parchments, in Life and Death
  • Part III. The Medium and Modernity
  • 13. Biocodicology: Book History and the Biomolecular Revolution
  • 14. Ecocodicology: or, Is the Book a Byproduct?
  • 15. Parchment Elegies
  • Epilogue: Digital Vellum
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Acknowledgments
  • Photo Credits
  • Index of Manuscripts
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A richly detailed and illustrated history of parchment. A foundational work of Irish literature is the Táin, which records a war between two contending kingdoms sparked by a cattle-rustling raid. It is perhaps ironic that, in Irish legend, the Táin was first written on the skin of a "miraculous cow" once owned by St. Ciarán, a singular instance of "the identification and celebration of a particular animal whose hide becomes the pages of a specific book." Never mind, writes Holsinger, that the cow was said to have died a natural death in old age while good parchment comes from the skin of younger cattle. (The youngest cattle yield a related material, vellum, whose name is related to veal.) Holsinger examines the long history of the use of animal skins to record literary, historical, and religious moments, citing, for example, the Greek historian Herodotus' descriptions of the parchment scrolls he encountered while exploring Egypt--though Herodotus himself wrote on papyrus, "the predominant medium of elite writing in the ancient world." St. Paul, too, wrote on papyrus, but he collected parchment scrolls that he asked the disciple Timothy to bring to him. By Holsinger's account, St. Augustine of Hippo was being more than metaphorical when he "imagines the heavens as a great membrane book, a firmamentum cloaked by the same pelles (skins) that clothe men after the Fall." Throughout the text, the author enlists a vast array of sources, ranging from the work of the ancient Egyptians to the modern creations by the American artist Kate Nessler, who draws scenes from nature on vellum and parchment. The processes involved may be off-putting to those who care about animal welfare, but Holsinger also examines efforts to source parchment ethically, avoiding what one activist calls "the inhumane treatment of animals upon whose backs we are literally writing and the sacred texts inscribed on these very skins." An engaging exploration of book history. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.