Kathryn James

But you must know your father lost a father,

That father lost, lost his.

(Hamlet, I.2.89-90)[1]


The preparation of parchment is by no means a pleasant or cleanly operation. Our readers may, probably, have seen carts loaded with sheep-skins proceeding from large markets, or in the vicinity of slaughter-houses.  These skins are bought of the butcher by the parchment-maker, in order to prepare, from them, the material in which he deals.[2]


They say parchment wants to return to the animal.[3]  This is just another way of saying that parchment was once a skin, that each skin had a body.  Each folio in a manuscript volume was once an animal’s exterior boundary, its outer surface as it moved through the world.   To be remade as parchment, each skin was stretched and dried under pressure, then scraped; this process changed the alignment of the molecules, rendering the parchment stiff and opaque, changing it from skin to writing surface, to a substratum.  With moisture, with the slightest relaxation of this pressure, parchment is released to its first state, to the memory of skin.  To return to the animal is to return to the body.  Even when parchment is held in stasis, locked into its form, it is always still the relic of a body.  It is simply that, when we look at parchment as the substratum of a text, we no longer allow ourselves to understand it as an animal, a creature once alive and sentient, like us.

Substratum is another term for the material on which text is written, for the writing surface or support.  The term derives from Latin: sub, under; stratum, something that has been laid down.  It could be translated as the layer beneath, that which is beneath something else.  It is used in this way to define many types of hierarchical relationship, in which one thing is made subordinate to another.  The substratum is the foundation of: the house; the seat of government; the imagined church.  It supports an overarching principle; it is the substance in which qualities are contained; it is the layer of rock beneath the soil; it is the surface to which plants or biological life adhere.[4]  It is used to refer to that which is below, to that which supports something above: class structure, religion, philosophy.  Substratum is used in all these senses to describe the writing surface, that which supports text, the material layer on which text is written.  It is the object, the matter, the base to text in any binary relationship of the text-object.          

            This essay is about the substratum.  It asks what is beneath the text, what supports it, what it means to be unseen yet visible beneath the seen. In asking what it means to think of parchment as skin, this essay asks what the substratum has to say to us about evidence and memory and our relationship with the past.  


The skins are first stripped of their wool, which is sold to the wool merchant, who prepares it for the making of cloth, &c. They are then smeared over with quick-lime on the fleshy side, folded once in the direction of their length, laid in heaps, and so left to ferment for ten or fifteen days.[5]


In the hospital, I sit on a hard sofa by the window, looking out on downtown Seattle.  All that week I curl up on this bench, built like a ship’s bed into the wall, shackled to the window and its view.  Each night, a nurse gives me a blanket, sheets, and pillow; each morning, these are taken away.  I sit in the window and work, answer email, look out over the city. Sometimes at night I leave the room and go down the hall, past the reception desk and elevator bank, the bathrooms and water fountains, down to the waiting room, with its empty table and chairs.  I stand in the window looking out over the other hospital buildings, the streetlamps, cars, the people still awake at any hour of the night, picking their way through the ice, in or out, towards or away.  The hospital is the only thing anywhere that is open. At 5am, the air still blue-black, the Starbucks in the lobby opens its doors.

            Sometimes when I come back my father is awake.  I enter to find his eyes bright open, direct into mine, his hands restless against the hospital bed, trying to lift himself, wanting to get up, asking me to help him get out of bed and move across the floor to the bathroom, to the hall, to anywhere, to leave.  Sometimes he is awake but dreaming.  When this happens, he believes his dreams are real; he explains them to me; he asks patiently for me to help him; he is terrified.  He believes that I have just returned after abandoning him; he believes the nurses have taken him into the basement and left him there, or threatened him, and frightened him.  ‘How could you do this?’, he asks me; ‘I will never forgive you’, he says.  He says this with the half laugh I know in my skin, the laugh for things that are and aren’t funny.  I stay through the night to be there when he wakes up.  We watch the hospital television channel together, scenes of golf courses or waterfalls or beaches, each scene named and identified on the screen, each rotating after its seven seconds into the next.  

            Parchment has a hair side and a flesh side.  That is: it has a side that faced out into the world, and a side that has always faced into the body.  The flesh side is slightly smoother; the hair side still has the remains of the hair follicles and pores of the exterior of the animal.  The hair side holds the bites of insects or other animals; it holds the marks of how the world has intersected with the body: the bites, the scars, the imperfections.  


The skins are then washed, drained, and half-dried.  A man, called the skinner, stretches the skin upon a wooden frame.[6]


‘Is not parchment made of sheepskins?’ Hamlet asks Horatio. They stand in a churchyard, watching a gravedigger at work and wondering whose grave he digs. ‘Ay, my lord’, Horatio replies, ‘and of calf-skins too’.[7]  

            By the late sixteenth century, when this play was written, parchment was used primarily for legal documents.  The material of it, its matter, was associated with the act of bearing evidence.  When parchment appeared, it was to bear witness.  Hamlet toys with the idea that the grave might belong to a lawyer, someone whose life was measured in legal documents—the statutes, recognizances, fines, recoveries that would have been formally written and witnessed on parchment.  It is these skins, those of legal documents, that Hamlet imagines occupying the coffin, leaving no room for the body.  ‘Must th’inheritor himself have no more, ha?’ Hamlet asks. ‘Not a jot more, my lord’, Horatio agrees.[8]

            It is this body that inhabits the skin of parchment: the documentary self, the self that owns and inherits, the self in the eyes of the state.  ‘Is not parchment made of sheepskins?’, Hamlet asks.  And, further: ‘They are sheep and calves which seek out assurance in that’.[9]  Even as he watches the grave being dug, he sees the skin of its occupant, witnessed and engrossed like a legal contract on parchment.   


The skin is perforated with holes at the sides, and through every two holes a skewer is drawn; to this skewer a piece of string is tied, as also to the pins, which being turned equally, the skin is stretched tight over the frame.[10]


I take my class to visit Jesse.  I write it into the syllabus; I rent a minivan.  We are driving to Montgomery, New York, for a day-long workshop in parchment making.  Jesse is the founder of Pergamena, a parchment-making business, based in the tannery his father founded in 1972 and that has been a family speciality since the 1550s.[11]  Jesse is the descendant of some four hundred and seventy years of work in the leather tanning trade.  I think about this on the drive, there at the wheel of the minivan.  We leave New Haven early, the seven of us in the van with a 50-count box of munchkins from Dunkin’ Donuts.  The students are mainly graduate students early in their careers, earnest, luminously sincere students in the humanities.  They have taken my class because they want to study English paleography, to learn to read the handwriting in old manuscripts.  As we drive, one student leads a discussion of that week’s reading.

            All the way there I wonder what it is I’m looking for.  I drive west, through the New England landscape with its roads written by the movement of glaciers, rocks standing alongside as if paused mid-flight, the stone walls built of tiny pebbles left behind.  The very structure of this place was built by motion, away and through.  We drive through a landscape I have read in books, the rural-industrial New England of Herman Melville’s ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’, of paper mills and small penniless farms, towards Montgomery and the tannery.[12]


The flesh is now pared off with a sharp iron tool, which being done, the skin is moistened and powdered with fine chalk: then, with a piece of flat pumice-stone, the remainder of the flesh is scoured off.  The iron tool is again passed over it, and it is again scoured with chalk and pumice-stone.[13]


‘Mark me’, says the ghost to Hamlet.  ‘I will’, Hamlet replies.  As a child, I knew the story of who my father was. I pieced together the scraps and sections of what was told to me: the little boy my father had been, the town in Oklahoma where he grew up.  Here he was an only child, his mother’s darling, a sociable child and model student, working in his parents’ grocery store. When he was older, he was the lead in both the junior and the senior year play at his high school.  He played football; he had a car; he drove with friends across the state to the hills or the river or the best hamburger place.  He stacked cans in his parents’ store: collard greens and black-eyed peas and ham near new year’s, a southern speciality for good luck.  He went off to the state university where he thrived and was student body president; this is how he met my mother.  He graduated and studied law and went on from there to the life where at a certain moment I appeared, the last child.  

This both is and isn’t how this happened.  There were things that were never mentioned, people who were never spoken of.  No one ever went back to Oklahoma.  No one ever met the parents or saw the store.  There were half-heard conversations in car trips to the airport.  We never spoke of any of this.  Such was the power of childhood that it never occurred to me to ask what it meant that my father seemed to come from nowhere, with nobody, skinless and unformed into the world.


The scraping with the iron tool is called draining; and the oftener this is done, the whiter becomes the skin.[14]


Hair side, flesh side.  We park the minivan in the side road up to Jesse’s tannery, underneath a horse chestnut tree with unripe chestnuts dropping to the grass. Chestnut casings can be used as tannin, just like the oak galls that were the main component of ink in early modern English recipes.  The oak gall is formed by a wasp bite; it is the response of an oak tree to an invading parasite.  It is dried and ground up to use for ink, with iron sulfate and gum Arabic, added to smooth the texture.  It is called iron gall ink after these components.  It works by staining, by dyeing the parchment or paper, the writing surface, with the tannins of the ink.  The ink dyes the substratum with the shapes of text.  Sometimes later, if oxygen interacts with the ink over its lifetime, over decades into centuries, the iron in the ink corrodes, burning the text from the writing surface, leaving only the shapes and outlines of the letterforms.[15]   

            Hamlet organizes a performance of a play to try to trick Claudius into revealing his murder and treason.  ‘The play’s the thing’, we hear.  Hamlet has asked the troupe of traveling players to add a ‘speech of some dozen or sixteen lines’.  The players agree; Hamlet ‘sets down’ his text to insert into the performance, which the players hold in living memory.[16]

            I have brought my students to Montgomery, New York, for something similar.  Jesse will rehearse the performance of something that we no longer hold as living practice: the production of parchment, a material which my students and I have seen only as the writing surface for text in the library’s collections.  We are enacting a past, in the stage of Jesse’s tannery, that the author of The Saturday Magazine piece on parchment presumed his working-class readers to have at the edges of their experience, to have seen the ‘carts loaded with sheep-skins proceeding from large markets’ with which the narrative structure of parchment-making as practice is framed.[17] For my students, for me, for Jesse, that process is excavated from lost practice.[18]  The ‘cunning of the scene’, like Hamlet’s play, breathes life into the past, it strikes ‘to the soul’.[19]

My students are politely interested as I discuss the components of ink in some detail.  We have a snack, sitting under the trees, chatting with Jesse on the loading dock, then make our way inside the tannery.  


The wool or hair side of the skin is served in a similar manner; and the last operation of the skinner is to rub fine chalk over both sides of the skin with a piece of lambskin that has the wool on: this makes the skin smoother, and gives it a white down or knap.[20]


My computer screen is filled with my family tree.  After my father leaves the hospital, I fall into trying to find the traces of his family.  I have joined the free membership of every genealogy site, and found myself on the shadier side of the genealogical market, where criminal records are checked: sites with comments, howsoever genuine, like: ‘this site is frigging awesome, it helped me prove my girlfriend was cheating on me’, or ‘this site helped me learn that my new girlfriend is a registered sex offender’. My email inbox is filled with promises of full reports on criminal records and prison sentences, state and federal.  

            I’ve done most of this actually in my parents’ living room, alongside my father, as we sit together watching ‘Miss Marple’ episodes and dredging the last of the See’s chocolate box, in the last days of the Christmas season.  I wake up at night trying to untangle the feeling of it, a mixture of worry and guilt, and still I continue.  I ask my husband and children, in generic terms, whether it is okay to publish something about somebody else without their knowing.  No, is the immediate and universal answer.  They want to know the circumstances.  They want to know who it would be about.  I wonder whether it counts if you publish something somewhere where someone will almost certainly never read it.  I wonder whether I should rewrite this essay even before I’ve finished it.  I wonder if I could include a ‘redacted’ section.  I wonder why I still can’t bring myself to ask my father about his past, written on both our skins.


It is left to dry, and is removed from the frame by cutting it all round.[21]


Parchment begins when the skin has been removed from the body.  It is first cleaned; the hair must be removed. At Jesse’s tannery, these processes are accomplished on a shop floor, with commercial vats soaking the skins and spinning them, the whole process damp and visceral.  I wear thick rubber boots, boots I bought before my first trip out to see Jesse.  I try not to touch anything I haven’t looked at beforehand.  Jesse has a batch of skins prepared and we scrape away at these to remove the hair.  The whorls of black or brown or grey can be seen in the skin beneath; the shadow of these still brown or purple after the hair has gone.  Once the skins have been stripped of hair, and hang limp and shapeless on a sawhorse, we bring them upstairs to dry upon a rack.  

            Parchment and leather start at the same point, with the animal.  Both begin to come into being at the moment that the skin is stripped from the body, then cleaned and prepared for processing.  Parchment and leather diverge at the point where the skin has been cleaned and prepped.  While skins for leather are treated with tannins, skins for parchment are stretched to dry.  

            Parchment is made from skin dried under pressure.  As the skin dries, its moisture evaporates; the skin shrinks.  Over time, as the skin dries, it stretches on the rack.  As it dries, still gelatinous, the skin stretches, its molecular structures realigning.  Once dried, the parchment must be finished: scraped thin, rubbed, and polished.  This process realigns the molecular structure of the parchment.  The gelatinous skin becomes opaque.  Once an animal, the skin is transformed into a writing surface. It might hold the marks of the knife that stripped it from its body.  It might hold the shadows of the neck, the vertebrae, the points at which the elbows and knees, the exoskeleton, the bones and legs of its body have rubbed against the skin from the inside, have pressed and stretched it, have made their mark.  The outside and inside, the world and the self: these all leave their traces on the skin.


The parchment-maker now takes the skin thus to be prepared by the skinner.[22]


Here are the terms by which we understand the animal:

Hair, whiskers, eyes, ears, tail, hooves, field, grazing, sun, moon, day, night, weather, inside, outside, tame, wild, baby, mother, milk

Here are the terms by which we understand the skin:

The epidermis, or upper layer, our outer layer to the world

The dermis, or first interior layer, containing hair follicles, sweat glands, and connective tissue

The hypodermis, or second interior layer, containing fat, connective tissue, and blood vessels.[23]

To think about the substratum is to be forced to recognize the material structure of parchment as having once had subjectivity, as having once lived, like us, within the world.  The sheep, or cow, or goat was a herbivore; it had a herd or flock; it inhabited a pasture or field or mountainside; it moved among other lambs or calves or kids. Like them, it suckled and grazed; it moved with the curious bony nimbleness of the herbivore.  Parchment once capered; it bit and kicked and bleated; it had a skin.

            How does parchment change as a documentary record when we remember this subjectivity?  What does it mean to think that each parchment membrane was once a living animal, its skin intact upon its body, that skin enveloping a head and nose and mouth, two brown eyes, two ears, velvety and hairy, twitching? The skin covered its neck and shoulders and legs to its hooves, to the ground, on the ground, below a tail, swishing at intervals.  

            In his record of the professions in mid-sixteenth-century Germany, Hans Sachs shows us the parchment-maker alongside society’s other occupations: the apothecary, the type designer, the prince, the Cooper.[24]  It is a view of parchment as already object: stretched on the rack, the skin scraped by its creator.  It is already a material, already not an animal, recognisable as the unfinished substratum of an as yet unwritten text.    

            In another imagining, the process of making parchment begins elsewhere.  It begins in an earlier moment, as someone like me, a subjective being fixed in time and place, selects and lays hands upon another subjective being.  That creature will be our parchment subject.  First she is killed, her throat cut to preserve the integrity of the skin.  Her blood is drained.  She is flayed: her skin is removed from her body by a sharp-bladed knife.  At this point, she becomes two things: the body and the skin.  The head, hooves, and tail are removed; they leave our field of vision.  The skin is removed from the body; the body leaves our field of vision.  No more elbows, no more knees, no more shoulder bones or hip bones; no bony vertebra beneath the hair of the neck, warmed in the sun, bristling under the hand scratching behind an ear.  


Claudius says, ‘But you must know, your father lost a father.  That father lost, lost his’.[25]


That father lost a father.  In 2009, Timothy Stinson, a researcher at North Carolina State University, published a paper on the use of parchment in animal DNA sequencing. He was interested in identifying the species cultivated for parchment in the medieval and early modern period.[26]  

In 2014, Matthew Teasdale and Daniel Bradley applied the practice of ‘next-generation’ or ‘massive parallel’ sequencing of DNA to parchment.[27]  Next-generation sequencing, according to Wikipedia, begins with a ‘DNA sequencing library, […] generated by clonal amplification by PCR in vitro’.[28]  The DNA components are first replicated and then examined in parallel.  They are ‘read’, through fluorescent light or the release of hydrogen protons, in a comparison of the similarities and differences that are part of the essence of each strand.

Using these analytical techniques, researchers at the University of York began a large-scale project to collect and analyze DNA from parchment held in rare book and archival collections in Britain, the U.S., and around the world.  Their goal was to identify the species in use, and to track the use and spread or different species over time and location.  They wanted to know where and when a particular genetically recognisable breed of animal had come into use, and to gather what information might be available from the skin, whether the skin came from a male or female animal.[29]  

The research allows study of the changes in livestock breeding over the course of decades and centuries; it is essentially a genetic fossil record of animal DNA from the past.  The information might also allow the study of how the markets and economy for animals functioned in earlier centuries; for instance, how far skins travelled from their animals, and how the animal markets related to those of textual production. This and other points of social and economic history are supported by DNA sampling research from parchment.  

Mitochondrial DNA is passed down through the mother. DNA analysis of parchment tracks the genetic lineage from mother to daughter, over the life of a genetic variant, until the daughter differs sufficiently from the mother or grand- or great-grandmother to be genetically distinct, possessed of a sequence of difference that reflects fluorescent light in a distinct manner, or releases hydrogen protons in an distinct manner, defining the differences of one variant from the other, one mother from her mother or grandmother, and those mothers from the daughters who follow.  Parchment is the DNA marker of each animal, situating each skin like the photograph in a family album, there in school clothes, plaits braided, looking back at the person behind the camera.   Alongside text is the animal, and the record of its life, its genetic history, captured in its skin.  Skin wants to return to the body.  That father had a father.  That mother had a mother.


The skin is fixed to the summer; and the parchment-maker then works with the sharp tool from the top to the bottom of the skin, and takes away about one half of its thickness. The skin being thus equally pared on both sides, it is well rubbed with pumice-stone.[30]


Parchment is rendered neutral, made white, yet it still retains the imprint of the skin.  Some traces of the animal remain: the flecks and grains, pores, the shadows of its pigmentation. The skin is still visible in the writing surface. 

My father’s family tree varies online, between the various genealogical sites.  Sometimes his father had a first marriage.  Sometimes his father wasn’t married to the woman who is my grandmother.  Sometimes he had two children, neither of whom is my father.  Sometimes his middle name is different.  Sometimes my father doesn’t exist.  I check myself, to use as a control, to see whether I exist online, and with what degree of accuracy.  I do, and correctly.  My birthdate, my parentage, all are meticulously recorded.  

            The documents for my father’s father include: Document #1: the United States census record for 1940. 

Here he is listed as living in Ward 3, Altus, Altus City, Jackson County, Oklahoma.  He is: head of household; male; white; ‘race (original)’, also white; 46 years old; born in Texas around 1894; last place of residence: Ponca City, Kay, Oklahoma.  He has a wife: Bessie M, female, 34.  He has a son: Billie Clinton, male, 18.  The census is taken in the year of my father’s birth; it is the last glimpse of an administratively documented world without my father in it.  The site allows you to view a scan of the original census sheet: the James family constitute items 15-17.   Head, Wife, Son. 

Document #2:  the school census records for the district of Choctaw county, Oklahoma. 

Name of pupil:  Smith James, M.  Born Feb 13 1895, age 16.  Signed, W. C. James, Parent or Guardian.  W.C. James.  That father had a father.

Document #3: the 1917 draft registration record.  

The draft card is completed in a Palmer cursive.  Name in full: Smith James.  Age, in yrs: 22.  Date of birth: Feb 13, 1895.  ‘Are you (1) a natural-born citizen, (2) a naturalized citizen, (3) an alien, (4) or have you declared your intention (specify which)?’ He was ‘Natural Born’, in Gober, Texas.  His present trade: ‘Livery man’, self-employed, in Bennington, OK.  He has a wife, Caucasian.  He has no previous military experience.  His height and build are medium.  His eyes: grey; his hair, light brown; he is not bald.  He has not lost an ‘arm, leg, hand, foot, or both eyes’, nor is he otherwise disabled.  He signs his name, in an unconfident hand, to ‘affirm that I have verified above answers and that they are true’.  The document is witnessed in Bryan, Oklahoma, on June 5, 1917, my father’s birthday, some 23 years later.  ‘A True Copy’.

Document #4: Smith James is registering for the draft again, this time on April 26, 1942,

at the county court house in Altus, Oklahoma.  He is still white. Now he is 5 foot 8

inches and 145 pounds.  He has brown hair, blue eyes, and a light brown

complexion.   He has a telephone, and a telephone number: 354.  He is still self

employed, now at the ‘Warehouse Gro. & Market’.  He has added a middle initial

to his signature: Smith M. James.

Document #5: the United States Social Security Death Index.  

Age: 78.  Last place of residence: Altus, Jackson, Oklahoma.  Event date: Feb 1973.

Document #6: ‘Find a Grave Index’: Smith M, James,   

Event Type:  Burial.  Event Date: 1973.  Death Date: February 14, 1973.  Cemetery: Altus Cemetery.[31]


This operation is performed upon a kind of form, or bench, covered with a sack stuffed with flocks; and this process leaves the parchment fit for writing on.[32]


‘Is not parchment made of sheepskins?’ Hamlet asks Horatio.  ‘Ay, my lord’, Horatio replies, ‘and of calf-skins too’.  Watching the gravedigger, they fill the grave with an imagined textual corpus, the parchment skins of legal documents.  These statutes and recognizances, fines and recoveries would have been compiled and recorded by a scrivener, or legal clerk.  He would have engrossed, or copied, it in pairs, one to be retained by each legal party to a transaction. The documentary body that Hamlet and Horatio imagine was always twinned.  It was always extant in the world as only one of two copies recorded by an instrument of the English law.[33]

            Head of household; male; white; 46 years old; married.  These are the categories by which my father’s father was recorded by the state.  The 1940 U.S. Census record was compiled by a census enumerator, one of 140,000 to gather data from households over a single month, for the census date of record of April 1.  A training video for the census enumerators gives some idea of how this interview was envisioned.  In the video, the enumerator perches on a sofa in a parlor or living room.  He is white, middle-class, educated; he speaks in full, carefully articulated sentences as he leans over a coffee table to complete the census form by hand.  The census participant is a white, middle-aged woman, a mother, her hair pinned in a bun, a bow at her neck, a wealth of empirical information at her disposal.  Is your house owned or rented, she is asked; what is its value; what are the names, sex, race, age, and employment status of each occupant of the household?  In the training video, the woman is conversational, at ease, unabashed by the intimacy of the situation.  ‘Thank you very much, Mrs. McGee’, the enumerator says, ‘that’s all the information I’ll need’.[34]  

            The federal census was required; the census enumerators were sworn to confidence.  Once completed, the forms were sent by registered mail to the Census Bureau in Washington, D.C., where the data was stripped from the census forms, ‘transformed into a series of holes punched in coded cards’.[35] The census forms themselves were closed to the public until April 2, 2012.  On the entry of this form for my father’s father, the enumerator has circled an X, to mark the name of the person supplying the household’s information.  ‘F, W, 34, M’; female, white, 34 years old, married; my father’s father’s wife, my father’s mother; my grandmother.


The parings and clippings of the skin in the preparation of parchment are used in making glue and size.[36]


Sometimes I go with my younger child, my daughter, out into the woods to look for antlers. The deer shed them each spring: sometimes, in the leaves and sticks, between the rocks and lichen, there they’ll be, like any other thing, at one moment unknown and unseen, and next, right there before you.  We pick them up and bring them home.  I wash them in the sink with dish soap, to strip something from them, to ease their entry into our home.  I give them to the dogs, who sink down where they are to chew them, dragging them back to their beds or a private corner to gnaw on them, hoarding.  Over the weeks and months the antlers become things like other household things, there and not there, known and not known. 

            Sometimes here I see a family of deer, perhaps a family, one gathering almost interchangeable with another.  They graze at dusk on the roadside or drink from the ornamental pond of the nearby golf club. They are silent, still even when in motion, turning to examine the headlights of my car, pausing in distinct and complicating ways, each pause a frame of action before flight, the long hesitation leading to a single act of decision, always the same, to move in the same way, to leap at the last moment, to leave, to run away.  At a car’s length, under the headlights, I see the grey-brown of their coats, the strange angularity of their legs and elbows, the light absorbed into their eyes, impossible to read although I comb their faces for expression, for intention, a glimpse of recognition.  They stand watching and then move, each decision the same decision, the younger deer waiting as the others spring away, then pausing to decide, to respond, to do one thing or the other, as my car approaches, as slowly, as slowly as I can, waiting for the moment when indecision breaks and its consequences are made visible, lineated, one thing becoming another as the dark resolves itself into a road in the suburbs, into an evening far from the beginnings, years, generations after things began. 


I order bags of scraps from Pergamena, Jesse’s tannery.  I keep them for students, to use in penmanship practice.  The scraps are the pieces that, for whatever reason, can’t be used; the offcuts.  Some are a velvety white, some have slivers of opacity at the edge, some are yellow, some show the grain or are smooth.  The pieces are calf, goat, a mixture of hides, a mixture of uses.  The bag holds pieces of the shoulder, the flank, of a goat, a calf, a mixed herd.  You can rub your fingers over the pieces, the interior and exterior, inside and out, the hair side and flesh side of the animal.

[1] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Burton Raffel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), I.2.89-90.

[2] ‘On Writing Materials. No. VI. On Parchment’, The Saturday Magazine, 6 October 1838, 134. In 1838, The Saturday Magazine began a series on the ‘History of Writing Materials.’ Supported by the Society for the Promoting of Christian Knowledge, The Saturday Magazine offered self-improvement to its working-class reader, in competition with The Penny Magazine organized by the SPCK’s rival, Jeremy Bentham’s Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.  As the series opening stated: ‘There are few subjects capable of affording more interesting details than the history of the origin, progress, manufacture, and use of those articles or substances with which we are most familiar; and yet it happens that these are precisely the very subjects about which least is known.’   The series was to focus on the history of ‘those familiar and useful articles—Writing Materials,’ and, most importantly, ‘those of the moderns’.  See Amy King, The Divine in the Commonplace: Reverent Natural History and the Novel in Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), p. 98; Max Goldstrom, ‘Popular Political Economy for the British Working Class Reader in the Nineteenth Century’, in Expository Science: Forms and Functions of Popularisation, ed. by T. Shinn and R.D. Whitley (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1985), pp. 259-73 (p. 264).

[3] Jesse Meyer, Class visit to Pergamena and Richard E. Meyer & Sons Tannery (Montgomery, N.Y., October 2018), <www.pergamena.net> [accessed 18 June 2020].

[4] ‘Substratum’, The Oxford English Dictionary [online], <https://www.oed.com/> [accessed 18 June 2020], definitions 1-4d.

[5] The Saturday Magazine, 184.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Shakespeare, Hamlet, V.1.105-106.  

[8] Ibid., V.1.103-4.

[9] Ibid., V.1.105-6.

[10] The Saturday Magazine, 184.

[11] Pergamena, ‘About us’ (n.d.), <https://www.pergamena.net/about-us> [accessed 21 June 2020]. 

[12] Herman Melville, ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 10 (April 1855), 670-78. 

[13] The Saturday Magazine, 184.

[14] Ibid.

[15] ‘To make excellent Ink.  Raine water 3 gallons, of white wine vinegar a quart, gauls two pounds, gum arabeck one pound, pomegranate Pills one quarter of a pound, all these bruised but not beat too small, Copperus two ounces, this will be ready ye sooner, if it stand near ye fire, or in ye sun’.  Notebook of recipes and poems (England, late 17th century), f. 59r.  New Haven, Beinecke Library, Osborn b115.  Cited in ‘Ink’, Kathryn James, English Paleography and Manuscript Culture, 1500-1800 (New Haven: Beinecke Library, 2020), pp. 42-44 (p. 43). On iron gall corrosion, see Marie-France Lemay, ‘Inks and Pigments’, The Traveling Scriptorium (2014) < https://travelingscriptorium.library.yale.edu/inks-and-pigments/> [accessed 21 June 2020].

[16] Shakespeare, Hamlet, II.2.591; 523-25; 525; 434, ‘If it live in your memory, begin at this line.’

[17] The Saturday Magazine, 184.

[18] From the later seventeenth century, European parchment-making practices were documented in trade dictionaries and encyclopedias, as by Jacques Savary des Brûlons in his Dictionnaire universel de commerce (Paris: J. Estienne, 1723-[30]).  See Alexis Hagadorn, ‘Parchment making practices in eighteenth-century France: historical practices and the written record’, Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 35 (2012), 165-188 (p. 166).  How these idealized descriptions corresponded to actual practice, and to practice in different periods and regions, is an open question. As Ronald Reed states, ‘Parchment only too well exemplifies how a wealth of technical knowledge, acquired carefully over many centuries, may easily become neglected and lost’.  Ronald Reed, Ancient Skins, Parchment and Leathers (London: Seminar Press, 1972), p. 119 (cited from Hagadorn, p. 165).

[19] Shakespeare, Hamlet, II.2. 577.

[20] The Saturday Magazine, 184.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Matthew Hoffman, ‘Picture of the Skin’ (2019), <https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/picture-of-the-skin#1>[accessed 18 June 2020].

[24] Hans Sachs, ‘Der Permennter’, Eygentliche Beschreibung aller Stände auff Erden (Frankfurt am Main, 1568), f. 97r.

[25] Shakespeare, Hamlet, I.2.

[26] T.L. Stinson, ‘Knowledge of the Flesh: Using DNA Analysis to Unlock Bibliographical Secrets of Medieval Parchment’, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 103 (2009), 435-453; Sarah Zhang, ‘The Lab Discovering DNA in Old Books’, The Atlantic (19 February 2019), <https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/02/dna-books-artifacts/582814/> [accessed 18 June 2020].

[28] ‘DNA sequencing’, < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DNA_sequencing> [accessed 18 June 2020].

[27] M. D. Teasdale, N. L. van Doorn, S. Fiddyment, C. C. Webb, T. O’Connor, M. Hofreiter, M. J. Collins and D. G. Bradley, ‘Paging through history: parchment as a reservoir of ancient DNA for next generation sequencing’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 370 (19 January 2015), <http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2013.0379>.  Teasdale and Bradley initially examined bones, before moving to parchment: C. Gamba, E. Jones, M. Teasdale, et al. ‘Genome flux and stasis in a five millennium transect of European prehistory’, Nature Communications, 5, 5257 (2014), <https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms6257>.

[29] Zhang, ‘The Lab’; Teasdale, et al, ‘Paging through History’.

[30] The Saturday Magazine, 184.

[31] This information was located using the free resources made available by Ancestry.com, <https://ancestry.com&gt; [accessed 21 June 2020].  Ancestry.com draws on federally compiled records that are held and freely provided by the U.S. National and Archives Record Administration, <https://www.archives.gov/> [accessed 21 June 2020].

[32] The Saturday Magazine, 184.

[33] The bills submitted by scriveners document the process and cost of compiling legal documents.  One document, listing the charges from December-April 1666/7, shows a scrivener charging three pounds sterling for ‘drawing and ingrossing a large pair of Ind[entures] of assignment from Mr. Harrison to Mr. Morris & Clayton, both Ind[entur]es sent[,] 3 large Skins.’ From ‘A Bill of writings made for Col. Thomas Howard,’ England, 1666-67. Beinecke Library, OSB MSS 40, Folder 13.

[34]The 1940 Census of Population (Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce, [1940]), online film recording, National Archives, < https://www.archives.gov/research/census/1940/videos.html#video2> [accessed 21 June 2020].

[35] Know Your U.S.A. (Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce,  [1940]), online film recording, National Archives, < https://www.archives.gov/research/census/1940/videos.html#video2> [accessed 21 June 2020].

[36] Ibid.