A writing surface made from the skin of sheep or goats. Lexicographically, the term is distinct from vellum, which, by convention, denotes pages made from the skin of calves or kids. In the manufacture of both vellum and parchment, the skins were soaked for several days in a lime solution, cleansed of flesh and hair, limed, dried, stretched, polished with pumice, and dusted with sifting chalk. Like papyrus, individual sheets of parchment were bound together at the sides to form rolls, or folded and stitched into codices (see BOOKBINDING).
Pliny the Elder (Natural History xiii.11), quoting the Latin scholar Varro, maintained that parchment was invented in Pergamum (modern Bergama, in western Turkey) by a certain Eumenes of the Attalid dynasty (presumably Eumenes II, 197-159 B.C.) when an embargo was placed on the export of papyrus by the king of Egypt. Although this tradition appears to gain credence from the fact that the word “parchment” comes from a Greek adjectival form of Pergamum (pergamene or pergamenon), there is no attestation of this adjective applied to the writing material until A.D. 301. Consequently, many believe its application to parchment argues only for the widespread acceptance of the account preserved in Pliny, not for the actual invention of parchment in Pergamum. The earlier Greek word for parchment is diphthera. The earlier Latin term is membrana.
The oldest extant parchments are from Dura-Europos and date to the second century B.C. About A.D. 300 parchment began to supplant papyrus as the preferred writing material of the ancient world, though papyrus continued to be used for centuries thereafter.
- Santifaller, Leo. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Beschreibstoffe im Mittelalter, pp. 77-87. Graz, 1953.
- Turner, E. G. Greek Papyri, pp. 7-16. Princeton, N. J., 1968.