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Vellum and the making of a book

Vellum and the making of a book
John Gillis is a conservator in the library at Trinity College, specialising in vellum. He’s worked on a number of early Irish manuscripts, including The Faddan More Psalter, giving him a unique insight into how these manuscripts were made. The production of parchment, or vellum, is historically ancient and the use of it as a writing substrate harks back to kind of the development of the codex, or the book form as the Book of Kells is. Basically, it’s produced from an animal pelt, where they would flay the animal. In the case of Kells, it’s calfskin. If we look at what we’ve got here, this is the full pelt of a very young calfskin.
And it’s a natural product, so it has, unlike paper – which you can control, and you can create a uniform end product – with a natural product like a skin, then you don’t have that sort of control. So it retains a lot of its features – anatomical features, if you like – because there is the area where the tail was. There’s the clear feature, the marking of the spine, which of course runs from one end to the skin to the other. And there’s the axilla, where the legs and neck are. And these all create particular features within the skin. We’re rarely this lucky, as to find the evidence that easy.
But there you can clearly see this is a part of a skin. Obviously, it’s not a full skin. This is a goat skin. But you can clearly see the impact of the spine on the skin. And we even see it on one of the illuminated pages, the portrait of Matthew. As I say, it’s that sort of evidence that we look for and it gives us an idea of how they laid out the manuscript, how they designed the manuscript, before they put it together. But the actual physical preparation of the skin then involved obviously folding it into what we call a bifolium. So a fold that you see inside a book – like this.
So these folded sheets are inserted into each other, and create what we call a quire. So again, there can be conventions in how this is done. So a number of folders inserted into each other create a quire. You basically had a series of gatherings. In the Book of Kells, for example, there are 38 of these quires. So you’ve got quires of various folio counts– fours and twelves. And then they’re gathered together– literally assembled together. And they’re sewn together by a sewing support, through a back fold. In the case of Kells, we have no evidence of the original structure – because of damage, because of rebinding over the years.
It’s estimated the Book of Kells has had up to five rebinding over that period of time. So as a result of all this interference, we’ve lost evidence of what was possibly the original structure. But basically what they’re doing is, they’re sowing one quire to the next – either with an additional support on the spine, or possibly without, just using the threads. In effect, it’s a single length of thread running the entire length of the book. You know, quite a feat when you think about it. Obviously, they’re adding on threads as they sew along. But with Kells, the end product was a considerable end product. And you can see it here.
I mean, this is one weighty tome, which can’t have been easy to move about and transport. But I guess– like everything in Kells, its visual impact, even as an object, must have been quite impressive in its size.

During the early medieval period in Western Europe, parchment or young animal skins were the preferred writing surface for manuscripts.

We explore some of the characteristics of the material, and how it was cut down and sewn together to create the book form with which we are so familiar today.

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The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

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