Hidebound: the Grisly Invention of Parchment

Fresco of the Last Judgment, with animal skin. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Fresco of the Last Judgment, with animal skin. Via Wikimedia Commons.

While most of the Old World was writing on papyrus, bamboo, and silk, Europe carved its own gruesome path through the history books.

To an ancient Egyptian of the third century BCE, the rolls of papyrus on which the country recorded its history, art, and daily business would have been of all-consuming importance. Scrolls made from papyrus were the medium for hundreds of thousands of books lodged at Alexandria’s wondrous library, and blank papyrus sheets were one of the chief exports to Egypt’s friends, allies, and trading partners across the Mediterranean. But papyrus’s 3,000-year monopoly was about to come under threat. Invented by Egypt’s upstart Hellenic neighbors and made from animal hides at great cost in sweat and blood, parchment was smooth, springy, and resilient where papyrus was rough, brittle, and prone to fraying. Its rise at papyrus’s expense, however, had little to do with the ergonomics of its use or the economics of its manufacture and everything to do with ambitious pharaohs who ignored the cardinal rule of military leadership: never get involved in a land war in Asia.

The invention of parchment is traditionally ascribed to King Eumenes II of Pergamon, ruler from 197 to 159 BCE of a Greek city-state located in what is now northwestern Turkey. Pergamon comprised only the city itself and a few local towns when Eumenes was crowned as king, but at his death thirty-eight years later it had been transformed into a political, martial, and cultural powerhouse. Chief among his achievements was the founding of a great library to rival that of Alexandria, and Eumenes’s institution boasted some 200,000 volumes at its peak. The Pergamenes’ book-collecting mania was so notorious that citizens of the nearby town of Scepsis, having inherited Aristotle’s library from one of the late philosopher’s students, took the extraordinary step of burying its literary treasure to stop it falling into the hands of their acquisitive neighbors. Nor did Eumenes stop at books: in a bid to assemble a staff worthy of his new library he approached Aristophanes, the chief librarian at Alexandria, to offer him a job. The Egyptian king Ptolemy clapped the librarian in irons to ensure his continued loyalty.

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