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September 26, 2010

You take this sheep, see…
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:55 PM * 42 comments

From my book-arts mailing list, a wonderful blog post on the origin of standard book sizes. I adore the illustrations, am charmed by the prose style, and find myself tempted to go look at our Google referrals for either some penance of my own or a good parlor game. My only question, reading it, is what about the fact that some vellum* was made from cows?

The rest of the blog is also worth browsing through, from the article about Last Supper portion sizes to its intermittent reproductions of illuminated marginalia.

This is the kind of thing that makes me regret sticking to the Classical period during university.

(The title of my post here is from an overheard comment on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. The speaker continued, “…and after you’ve eaten everything edible, you take the rest…” and then drifted out of earshot. Martin and I turned to each other and said, in unison, “Fancy haggis for tea tonight?”)

* The terms vellum and parchment are hopelessly muddled in the history of bookbinding. I have heard it firmly asserted that vellum is from cattle and parchment from sheep, and I have heard that laughed out of the pub. But I have been consistently informed that, whatever you call it, the material of the Book of Kells comes from bovine sources.

Comments on You take this sheep, see...:
#1 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 03:52 PM:

I can scarcely believe that I can utter that dread word...


But more to the point, this topic sent me straight to my library, and I found this:

"...the parchment for just one bible required the butchering of several hundred sheep...Charlemagne donated a forest with all the deer within it to the abbey of St-Denis, so that the skins could be used for binding the books in the monastic library." ("Charlemagne - Father of a Continent", Alessandro Barbero p. 237)

The blood of the lamb.

#2 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 04:01 PM:

I dunno about haggis for tea, but there was haggis in my lunch ...

#3 ::: Carol Witt ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 04:09 PM:

In my studies,* vellum is calfskin and parchment is sheepskin or goatskin, though it is stated that the terms are frequently misused. The author at Got Medieval did use the term parchment for sheepskin and goatskin, although it is odd that he neglected to mention vellum/calfskin. Anyway, I'm content to stick with that until I run into a professor who will mark me wrong for saying otherwise.

* Mediaeval and Celtic Studies at the University of Toronto. The only reason why I don't qualify for Book and Media Studies is because I'm not interested in taking the mandatory generic media studies course; apart from that, I have enough courses on books to do so.

#4 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 04:17 PM:

Carol, 3: Mine too. (French lit with a concentration in medieval studies.) I can't tell vellum from parchment, but I can tell the hair side from the skin side!

#5 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 04:30 PM:

Since I am a knitter, I have a somewhat different ending for "You take this sheep, see...." This got me wondering about the age at which a sheep is slaughtered to make parchment/vellum -- depending on the breed, it would seem to make sense to get a few years' worth of wool from the sheep first.

A Google search led me to an excerpt from what sounds like an overall fascinating book*, which claims that "vellum, a delicate variety of parchment, came from the skins of newly-born or stillborn lambs, calves or kids; today** five-pound calf skins are used."

So perhaps both lambs and older sheep were used? The sizes of the folios made from a lamb vs. an adult sheep would be quite different, I'd think.

* Living Crafts by George B. Hughes, Lutterworth Press, 1953.
** in the 1950's

#6 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 05:09 PM:

Well, the OED derives "vellum" from "veal," so at least originally vellum was calfskin. I don't think the distinction between "vellum" and "parchment" matters that much any more, though. These days what is sold as "vellum" is plant-derived.

#7 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 05:27 PM:

You take this sheep your lawfully wedded ovine?

#8 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 05:32 PM:

Serge @#7

You are a Baaaaaa -d man

#9 ::: Nicholas Waller ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 06:47 PM:

Stephen Baxter (mediaeval historian, not sf writer) recently did a BBC docco called Domesday on the purpose of the Domesday book, which was made using 200 sheep and calf skins, apparently. During the progamme he visited a vellum maker (or maybe the only vellum maker) and went through the labour-intensive process of producing a writeable surface from a damp pile of calf skins.

#10 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 06:49 PM:

Serge #7: Only after the reading of the Baanns.

#11 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 07:03 PM:

Cadbury Moose:

Baaaaaa(1) BSD General Commands Manual Baaaaaa(1)

Baaaaaa -- express derogation

Baaaaaa [-duv] [noun ... ]


-- more --

#12 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 07:47 PM:

There is a company in the US making vellum and parchment (working from cow, lamb and goat).

There was a segment of, "Dirty Jobs" on it a couple of years ago.

The writing materials were actually a sideline (might still be) from the making of leather for drumheads.

#13 ::: meredith ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 07:56 PM:

I still can't figure out the vegetarian haggis served in some Edinburgh pubs. a.) what is it made out of, and b.) what is it made in?? I'm guessing some kind of soy, but what do they make it in ... a recyclable plastic bag?!

#14 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 08:27 PM:

Debbie @5 said: Since I am a knitter, I have a somewhat different ending for "You take this sheep, see...." This got me wondering about the age at which a sheep is slaughtered to make parchment/vellum -- depending on the breed, it would seem to make sense to get a few years' worth of wool from the sheep first.

Depends. There are wool breeds and meat breeds, and sometimes the wool on the meat breeds is nigh-useless (for anything but, say, stuffing or felt -- which isn't really useless at all, in period). Also, overwhelmingly most meat-breed sheep don't live to give a second crop of wool, and certainly not a third, unless they're breeding stock.

I don't doubt that the hides of even old wool-breed sheep (or milk cows, etc) got used for SOMEthing; waste not, want not, y'know, as the zookeeper said to Albert☂.


☂ In Les Barker's lovely sequel poem, not the differently lovely Marriot Edgar original, which is a favorite of my father-in-law☮. I need to take our Les Barker chapbooks and glean out the very most recitable-to-children ones★ to make an easy-access flip-throughable printed thing.

★ Like "I can't find my camouflage net," and "I have an occasional table," neither of which will get us into trouble if she spontaneously recites them at preschool ... UNlike his equally lovely but sort of NSFK(indergarten) "Dachshunds with erections can't climb stairs."

☮ I think my father-in-law's version is much superior to the video I linked, but that's because my (British) father-in-law does an absolutely marvelous Northern accent while doing so, which makes it clear (via the rhymes, assonance, etc) that that's precisely how Edgar intended it to be recited. Also, my father-in-law✿ camps up lines like, "Eeee, I AM vexed!" in ways that only add to the hilarity. Of course, he spent far too many childhood family vacations stuck in train carriages with families very like Albert's, so he has life observation to draw upon.

✿ Who has also memorized and can recite end-to-end 'La Cage Aux Folles' and used to do the birthday schtick, complete with feather-boa, at all family birthdays. Have I mentioned how much I adore my father-in-law? AND he gives heavy thick nonfiction for Christmas when it's on my wishlist➼! My own blood relatives tend to look at things like that and decide they'd rather give me yet another Bed Bath and Beyond or Old Navy gift certificate. :-/

➼ I can't be the only Fluorospherian with hefty nonfiction brick-tomes on their wishlist. I do hope this set of nested digressions doesn't count as a thread-hijack, though! :->

#15 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 08:56 PM:

meredith, I tried the haggis at the breakfast buffet at our hotel in York, and thought it was okay. Next day I went to have another serving and saw that there was regular haggis and vegetarian haggis, and I couldn't tell which one was which, or which one I'd had the day before.

I should have had some of each at that point, but I was demoralized and gave up on it, so I guess I've had Schrödinger's Haggis now.

ps: I can't comment on the next two posts. And for once, I had something to say.

#16 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 09:02 PM:

And Kip W is not the only one who cannot post on the next two threads (King Tut tissue box and Google search strings), which I find odd because I'd already commented on the tissue box one.

#17 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 09:06 PM:

And pertinent to this post, I'm afraid that while I inferred a difference between vellum and parchment, or else why were there two words?, I was never sure of the distinction. Apparently, I'm not alone, if even experts interchange the terms.

Having read about haggis, I am not inspired to try it, but may all who enjoy it continue to do so for long years to come! (Somehow, I doubt that's going to become a standard blessing any time soon...)

#18 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 09:46 PM:

somehow i thought vellum was a variant of the word film

#19 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 09:48 PM:

Billy Collins wrote a poem about using sheepskins to make the Gutenberg bible, and speculating about whether the sheep would understand the part about 'the lord is my shepherd'

#20 ::: JM ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 11:24 PM:

Kip and Sid: As generally a lurker, I probably wasn't going to comment on the next two posts anyway, but it would be nice to have the opportunity...

#21 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 01:35 AM:

Would vellum made from cattle raised on pre-Civil War Southern plantations be called Antebellum vellum?

#22 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 01:38 AM:

Kip, Syd,

You can comment on the Open Thread. Those two posts are wandering Particles that got stuck to the front page like cat hairs.

#23 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 03:39 AM:

abi @22: Hmmm. How odd (Bensonmum). Not that I had anything particularly earth-shattering to say about either topic, it just seemed unusual. Thank you for the explanation. (And the apt comparison. I carry a lint-removal roller in the car for meat-space cat hair...I wonder what the electronic version would be?)

#24 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 02:11 PM:

Cow is common in Ireland for mss. There are now several mss. DNA projects, one in Ireland that began with LU, the Book of the Dun Cow, and then Michael Drout's sheepskin DNA project ( and another guy who is doing a similar one to Drout's.

I was taught by Michelle Brown to think of parchment as made from split skin, and vellum from young skin (with the veal cognate as a reminder).

#25 ::: Dan Hoey ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 03:09 PM:

Elliott Mason @14 — You can find the Les Barker Waste Not Want Not at . Thank goodness for Google, or I'd never have gotten the end of the punch line.

Plus much more Albert, much more Les Barer, and much, much more.

#26 ::: Paul Lalonde ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 05:04 PM:

So you take ~1000 pages for a bible, in 16-fold mode, or 32 page sides per skin. That's 32 sheep, not "several hundred". That you were probably going to eat anyhow.
I loathe innumerate writing.

#27 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 09:55 PM:

Paul Lalonde@26: Possibly they were thinking about folio size bibles, which would only get 4 pages per sheep.

#28 ::: Don Fitch ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 11:09 PM:

I've always (well, since taking an interest in the subject, 65+ years ago) defined vellum as "a thin & smooth material for writing or painting on, or binding with, made from the skins of unborn or new-born animals (usually lambs, sometimes kids or calves).

Parchment, on the other hand, is thicker, not as smooth-surfaced or quite as light colored, can be found in larger sheets, and usually comes from mature sheep or goats (cow/kine skin can be used, but apparently often requires shaving or abrading to make it thin enough for practical use).

Note that neither of these is tanned -- the skin is just stretched tightly, scraped to remove all traces of flesh and fat from the inside and hair from the outside, and dried. (I think it may then be smoothed & perhaps reduced in thickness with pumice-stone, and possibly treated with talc, but I'm unsure about this finishing stage. Also note that there appears to be no agreed-upon thickness or other quality that distinguishes precisely between the two... and that standards/terminology varied widely by place and time during the era when it was the commonly-used writing material.)

#29 ::: Paul Lalonde ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2010, 12:30 AM:

Debra Doyle@27: How much larger is the script in a folio-sized bible than in its more compact counterparts? If you still need 1000 pages, folio-sized, I'll grant 250 sheep and retract myself!

Which reminds me to call up the butcher and order a lamb for (Canadian) Thanksgiving.

#30 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2010, 02:04 AM:

TexAnne, #4: So do you put the skin side inside?

#31 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2010, 05:15 AM:

Elliott Mason @ #14:

Around these parts, Stanley Holloway is generally accounted the definitive interpreter of Marriott Edgar monologues. YouTube has Holloway reciting "Albert and the Lion" and also Holloway reciting Edgar's own sequel.

#32 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2010, 07:58 AM:

Paul, 29: Yes, you need much better script. The not-folded-cow size books were for many people to share, so they were held up some distance away. (Pretend it's a Powerpoint.)

Lee, 30: No, it's all folded up anyway. It doesn't make much difference, it's just a neat thing to know.

#33 ::: tykewriter ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2010, 09:06 AM:

Elliot Mason @ 14: This one by Les Barker makes me laugh until I cry.

#34 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2010, 10:08 AM:

Lee 30: TexAnne, #4: So do you put the skin side inside?

Hiawatha he went hunting went to hunt a BUNNY RABBIT!

"Hi, I'm your bunny for the evening, Tommy."

And to make a pair of mittens from the bunny RABBIT'S FURRRRRRRR!

#36 ::: individ-ewe-al ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2010, 10:42 AM:

May I introduce my friend the ritual scribe? She spends much of her professional life writing on parchment. She has some very interesting technical details and pictures and contributes to the discussion of "just how many animals need to die for your manuscript". Also speculation about using giraffe skin for writing sacred texts.

#37 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2010, 12:06 PM:

Paul Lalonde@29: How much larger is the script in a folio-sized bible than in its more compact counterparts?

Would you accept, "it varies"? It wasn't a world in which standardization and interchangeability were ideals, or even really concepts yet. Different scripts in different centuries, different scribes in different scriptoria, different purposes in different places.

Script size would also vary depending upon whether a text was being maximized for beauty and readability (as in the case of illuminated Gospels), or whether the primary concern was getting as much text onto the page as possible (at which point you got small cramped scribal hands and a reliance upon abbreviations which - for latter-day readers -- can make processing the text less a matter of reading it than of decoding it.)

But if you take the Gutenberg Bible as a standard (it was a printed text, but its style and layout were still those of a manuscript produced by hand), 318 sheep-equivalent folio sheets were required to produce 1272 pages.

#38 ::: Paul Lalonde ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2010, 06:49 PM:

Thanks Debra - that's a lot of sheepskin! I stand fully corrected.

#39 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2010, 07:11 PM:

Paul Lalonde #38: I misread that for a moment as "that's a lot of sheepshit". Which would also be the case.

#40 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2010, 09:04 PM:

Happilly returning to this thread during the interval between the feeding and the shrieking (brand new baby.) - The production of the "giant bibles" was a truly epic endeavor. The Giant Bible of Mainz (currently in the Library of Congress) is IMHO the literary equivalent of Köln Cathedral.

#41 ::: Prof. Cuda ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2012, 07:42 PM:

I know I'm joing this party far late; however, I wanted to share two links that help to illuminate this subject vastly--just copy and paste into your browser
(Parchment making in Havant England at turn of century)

(History of Parchment)

#42 ::: jnh ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2012, 08:03 PM:

Cool! Not that I'm going to rush out and skin a sheep anytime soon, mind you.

The parties around here sometimes go on forever with long lulls as we catch our breath or visit other parties for a while. You're not late at all.

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