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Basics: Latin Paleography

Section 6: Writing Supports and the Form of the Book: Parchment and the Codex

Parchment: From late antiquity through the Middle Ages, the normal writing support was parchment, which is animal skin. (We will discuss the transition from papyrus to parchment in Unit 3.) Parchment was normally made from the skin of sheep, or calves for larger books, and, in southern Europe, sometimes goats.

The term vellum derives from the word for calf and is generally but imprecisely used to mean extra-fine or high-grade parchment. In this course, we stick to the word parchment.

Making parchment: To make parchment, the animal skin was soaked in lime and water and then scraped to remove the hair from the outside surface and the flesh from the inside. In finished parchment, it is very often still possible to tell the side that used to have the hair (the hair side) from the side that used to have the flesh (the flesh side), because the latter is smoother and the former slightly shinier, sometimes with visible hair follicles.

Folio and bifolium: A sheet of prepared parchment would be folded in half to make two leaves, or four pages. A leaf of a manuscript is called a folio and a single sheet of parchment that forms two folios is called a bifolium (plural: bifolia). Two folios that are physically joined together at the fold — part of the same sheet of parchment — are said to be conjoint.

Quires or gatherings: A number of bifolia — normally four or five — would be nested together and sewn together through their central folds to make booklets. A parchment booklet is called a gathering or quire. (The terms are interchangeable. We will usually use the term quire.)

Hair side to hair side, flesh side to flesh side: The general, though not universal, practice in the Middle Ages was to assemble quires with the hair sides of the parchment sheets facing each other, and the flesh sides facing each other. That way, any opening of the finished codex — two facing pages in the book — would have matching textures.

Codex: Codex refers to the form of the book that we still use today (when we still use physical books). A codex is a book made up of a number of quires sewn together at their folds — at what becomes the spine of the book. The quires are normally sewn onto bands which are then threaded through boards that form the covers of the book, and the boards and bands are in turn covered in leather. (We will discuss the transition from roll to codex in late antiquity in Unit 3).

Watch two videos from the Getty Museum about how medieval manuscripts are made: This short, animated video illustrates folios, bifolia, and gatherings, and how gatherings (or quires) go together to make a codex.

This video shows all the steps from preparing animal skins through binding the finished codex, and includes information about pens, erasure, and illumination as well.

Recto and verso: As mentioned in the first Getty video, we refer to the front side of a folio — the right-hand page when a book is open — as the recto, meaning right side. The flip side — the left page when a book is open — is called the verso, meaning reverse.

Modern scholars generally refer to the pages of manuscripts by folio number and recto or verso, abbreviated r or v, so you will see pages referred to as fol. (or f.) 1r, fol. 1v, etc., instead of page 1, page 2, etc. Despite this general practice, a few libraries that hold large collections of medieval manuscripts conventionally use page numbers instead of folio numbers to refer to the pages in their manuscripts — notably the Abbey Library of St. Gall, Switzerland. You will see many St. Gall manuscripts in this course. You should get used to seeing both page numbers and folio numbers.

The numbering of folios, which is called foliation, does not generally appear until the very end of the Middle Ages, and pagination — numbering pages — is even later. So any numbering scheme you see in modern catalogs is later than the original creation of the manuscripts we are studying. If you see folio or page numbers written on a medieval manuscript page, they were almost certainly added by a later owner or librarian.