Saturday, March 5, 2011

Middleton (1892) on Vellum Production & Cost

Some interesting background on vellum for manuscripts is given in Middleton's volume: 
Here is an exerpt:

Illuminated Manuscripts in Classical
and Mediaeval Times: And Their Art and ...
By J. Henry Middleton
Originally published in 1892 (reprinted. Cambridge 2010)

Chapter XIV. (p. 224-225)
The Materials and Technical Processes of the Illuminator.

Vellum for scribes 1 The most remarkable skill is shown by the perfection to which the art of preparing vellum 2 for the scribe was brought. The exquisitely thin uterine vellum, which was specially used for the minutely written Anglo-Norman Vulgates of the 13th century, has been already described (see p. 113). For ivory-likebeauty of colour and texture nothing could surpass the best Italian vellum of the 15th century.
One occasional use of the very thin uterine vellum should be noted.
For example in a German 12th century copy of the Vulgate, now in the corpus library in Cambridge, some fo the miniature pictures have been painted on separate pieces of uterine vellum, and then pasted into their place on the thicker vellum pages of the manuscript. This, however, is an exceptional thing.
The vellum used for illuminated manuscripts appears to have been costly, partly on account of the skill and labour that were required for its production, and, in the case of uterine vellum on account of the great number of animals' skins that were required to provide enough material for the writing of a single manuscript such as a copy of the Vulgate.
Even the commoner kind of parchment used for official documents was a rather costly thing. The roll with the Visitation expenses of Bishop Swinfield, Bishop of Hereford from 1282 to 1317, shows that 150 sheets of parchment cost 3s. 4d., about 4 lb in modern value 3.
The vellum used for manuscripts has a different texture on its two sides. One side, that on which the hair grew, has a matt, unglossy surface; the other (interior) side of the skin is perfectly smooth and, in the case of the finest vellum, has a beautifully glossy texture like that of polished ivory.
In writing a manuscript the scribe was careful to arrange his pages so that two glossy and two dull pages came opposite each other. 4
The are of preparing vellum of the finest kind is now lost; the vellum made in England is usually spoilt first by rubbing down the surface to make it unnaturally even, and then by loading it with a sort of priming of plaster and white lead, very much like the paper of a cheap memorandum book.
The best vellum is still made in Italy, especially in Rome. Good, stout, undoctored vellum of a fine, pure colour can be procured in Rome, though in limited quantities, and at a high price, 5 but nothing is now made which resembles either the finest ivory-textured vellum of 15th century Italian manuscripts, or the exquisitely thin uterine vellum of the Anglo-Norman Bibles.

1. See Peignot, Essai sur l'histoire du parchemin et du vellin, Paris, 1812.
2. Strictly speaking, the word vellum should denote parchment made from calf-skin,
but the word is commonly used for any of the finer qualities of parchment which were
used for manuscripts.
3. Quoted by Hook, Lives of Archbishops of Canterbury, Vol. III, p.353; the Rev. Canon G.F.  Browne kindly called my attention to this passage. Other examples of the cost of vellum are given in the preceeding chapter.
4. The same arrangement is to be seen in books printed on vellum.
5. For example, the mere vellum required to print a small thick folio, such as Caxton's Golden Legend, would now cost about 40 lbs.

On note 3, the cost of vellum:

  One Pound Sterling (GBP) in 1892 had the purchasing power of about £72.41  today.  'Times four' that would give about £290, or  $472.41 American for 150 sheets of ordinary parchment, = $3.00 per sheet in 1892, with quantities limited.  

This seems quite low, and the real value should be measured instead against what an ordinary laborer could afford, or against the available resources for other community projects:

£4 (150 sheets of ordinary parchment) in 1892 converts to the following in modern money:

   £322.00 using the retail price index   A Commodity. If your are asking about the "present worth" of buying a loaf of bread, or the amount of money spent today on such things? If so, use the price index
   £430.00 using the GDP deflator
If the question is how much it cost compared to the present cost of materials or labor, you would use the the GDP deflator value.
£1,930.00 using the average earnings
how "affordable" this would be to the average person, the compensation of a production worker is given by the average earnings figure,
£2,450.00 using the per capita GDP
another estimate of how "affordable" this would be to the average person, is the GDP per capita. 
£3,970.00 using the share of GDP
In the past there were less materials and labor available for all projects. So to measure how important this project was to the community (vs. other projects) use the share of GDP indicator.

These numbers now give a more realistic range of values based on real conditions 100 years ago, such as expected earnings and availability of resources.

You can get estimates for purchasing power 100 years ago and today here:
Measuring Worth

You can convert to American dollars here:
Currency Conversion


No comments: