The decline of parchment use

PhD candidate: Carla Soto


To explore the ability of proteomics to assess changes in proteins caused by modern and ancient manufacturing processes

Expected Results

The project will explore the chemical changes that occur when skins are de-haired and processed. It will compare experimental data on the production of parchment using different recipes with data from modern production facilities which prepare commercial collagen. It will establish new rapid methods to determine damage caused by collagen processing. It will use these methods to analyse legal documents spanning the 15th-16th C, to test the hypothesis that the fall in the cost of the competitive medium (paper) resulted in a decline in quality of parchment.

My project

The shortage of parchment in the Late Medieval period was almost endemic in Europe, but in the 12th century a new kind of writing material appeared in Italy, introduced by merchants trading with Arabs: paper. In the first four or five centuries of its manufacturing in Europe, paper was neither cheap nor available in unlimited quantities. The raw material - rags - were a strategic commodity. Italians discovered that if the paper is dipped into a warm dilute gelatin solution, pressed and allowed to dry, it can be written on without fear of the ink bleeding. This gelatin sized paper was both tougher and stronger and therefore more reminiscent of parchment. Some three centuries after the introduction of paper, a second innovation: printing, transformed the Medieval world. Initially paper was neither sufficiently cheap nor abundant to be the only printed medium, and both media were used. During the earliest years printing was done on both vellum and paper. Vernacular texts were more commonly written on paper, whereas religious texts and legal documents were transcribed on the more expensive parchment. As part of this thematic section, two projects (@DEVRO and @UoY) will explore the effect of production methods on parchment and gelatin, and direct evidence for these in early printed books.

We have developed new methods for detecting the quality of parchment, and will use these to explore the transition from parchment to paper. The methods use glutamine deamidation to assess processing history (specifically the use of lime). Carla Soto will be based at DEVRO research laboratories and will examine the chemical markers resulting from skin processing. This will then be used to develop improved methods to detect parchment processing.

In order to address these questions, experimental skin will be tested to establish the extent to which it is possible to assess parchment production methods from proteomics analysis. DEVRO will work closely with the University of York and Fera Science Ltd. (UK) , who are developing method to police commercial gelatin.


Planned secondments:

  1. Secondment period of 6-8 months at the UoY (co-supervision), to work closely with Gopaiah Talari and Matthew Collins.
  2. Secondment period of 2 months at UCAS, who have been developing methods to detect collagen binders in paints (collaboration with USTL).
  3. Secondment period of 3 months with the gelatin authentication team at FERA Science Ltd (Helen Grundy), to compare collagen skin products (e.g. sausage skins, DEVRO) with more highly processed collagen (i.e. gelatin).


Supervisor: Gordon Paul

At: University of York

Academic Supervisor: David Orton