Beasts to Craft

Biocodicology as a new approach to the study of parchment manuscripts

Skins of animals define the frontier between Western European history and prehistory. Turned into parchment they became the primary medium for our knowledge of pre-modern Western European culture. They were the most extensively used and best preserved writing material in Europe before the piecemeal adoption of paper in the late Middle Ages and the early Modern Era. Digitisation campaigns are making more and more of the texts available as high quality digital renders. However the digital revolution, like earlier facsimiles, distances us from these objects.

Beasts to Craft: (B2C) will exploit biomolecular and imaging methods, allied to craft knowledge, to document the first two stages in the story of the manuscript: (i) the livestock; (ii) the craft that turned skins into a writing medium.

With the object in hand, Jiří Vnouček’s craftsman’s eye, supported by new imaging tools, can recognise the skill of the skinner and parchmenier, and can virtually reassemble the hide to estimate the size (age) of the animal. The distribution of hair follicles suggests fleece type and breed, whilst medullation of the fibres or the wounds from parasites can both give clues to the season of slaughter. The biomolecules (DNA and proteins) in skins inform on species, type/breed, and sex of the animals used.

Matthew Collins discusses the Beasts to Craft Program at the Being Human Festival at the National Leather Collection