Uterine Vellum: A Florilegium

I’ve received lots of questions about “the parchment book” in recent weeks so I’m reposting this from about a year ago. The book will be published by the University of Chicago Press in late 2015. Read on, if you dare… 

As some readers of Burnable Books will be aware, I have been at work for a while on a book called Archive of the Animal: Science, Sacrifice, and the Parchment Inheritance. The book examines the parchment record of the premodern world from a number of disciplinary perspectives (environmental and evolutionary history, media studies, literary history, zooarchaeology, theology, the history of the book, and so on). The chapter I’m writing at the moment is called, simply, “Uterine Vellum.” I’m looking at the phenomenon of so-called uterine vellum–parchment rendered from the skin of an aborted or stillborn animal–as fact, fiction, and fantasy, simultaneously an object of bibliographical indifference and the stuff of urban legend. What follows is a small gathering of passages (a florilegium, to use the popular medieval term) that I’ve found particularly useful for thinking about the subject. Uterine vellum is suited equally to the poet’s empathetic imagination and the scholar’s lofty disdain, and these passages (some medieval, some early modern, some modern) come accordingly from drama, book history, fiction, memoirs, dictionaries and encyclopedias, texts of ritual magic, poetry, and others. The advantage of a florilegium (as opposed to a book chapter) is that I can simply post these without comment, allowing the rich juxtapositions between and among them illustrate the complexity of the subject. I’d be grateful to learn of any additional passages on the subject to add to the mix.


But skinning a calf,
a three days dead calf,
is another thing altogether.
It’s like watching a birth,
not a flaying,
seeing the calf being born
a second time,
this headfirst slow emergence
from its skin
as if from the birth canal.
So dainty and delicate
in its glassy, gleaming pinks
and whites, its untried
muscles and tendons,
its organs–lungs, gut, heart–
never used ex utero.
Uterine vellum. Slunk.

-from Catherine Byron, The Getting of Vellum (2000)


Knowe also that Parchment is the only good and best thinge to limme one, but it must be virgine Parchment, such as neuer bore haire, but younge things found in the dames bellye. Some calle it Vellym, some Abertive derived from the word Abhortive, for vntimely birthe. It must be most finly drest, as smothe as any sattine, and pasted with starch well strained one pastbourd well burnished, that it maye be pure without speckes or staynes, very smoothe and white.

-Nicholas Hilliard, A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning (1598-1603)


It is with reluctance that one mentions, albeit briefly, the vexed and unresolved question of uterine vellum. Old-fashioned books about medieval manuscripts assert that the finest medieval parchment was made from the skin of aborted calves…There is some medieval evidence that aborted skin was valuable and desirable, and it is true that parchment made from this rather unappealing material or from the skins of very new-born animals does indeed look and feel like that which antiquarians call uterine vellum… But it is very difficult to believe that thousands of cows miscarried for generations, or were deprived of their foetuses in such numbers to supply the booktrade economically….If the term uterine parchment must be used at all, it should perhaps refer to a quality of skin and not to its origin.

-Christopher de Hamel, Scribes and Illuminators (1992)


3if þou wilte make letters on abortiue or bortiue, lai þi oile also þynne þeron als þou may.

-from a medical miscellany in MS Sloane 2584 (ca. 1500)


Hild, v.    To flay.
That stouffe that we write upon and is made of beastis skynnes is sometyme called parchement, sometyme velem, somtyme abortyve, sometyme membran. Parchement of the cyte, where it was fyrst made. Velem, because it is made of a calvys skynne.  Abortyve because the beeste was scante parfete.  Membraan because it was pulled off by hyldyne fro the beestis lymmes.

-Lean’s Collecteana (1903), citing William Horman, Vulgaria Viri Doctissimi (1519)


To return to our master magician, whom we left, perhaps, writing the names of Angels with the blood of a bat upon virgin parchment taken from the skin of an unborn lamb, with a pen made from the third feather of the right wing of a male gosling.

-Catharine Cook Smith, In Defence of Magic: The Meaning and Use of Symbol and Rite (1931)


It is quite possible that the skins of deer and other game that people ate were made into parchment, too; and it would not be altogether surprising if it turned out, as a result of experiments now in progress, that some of what now masquerades as “uterine vellum” was actually rabbit or squirrel parchment.

-Daniel Varney Thompson, The Materials of Medieval Painting (1936)


Then he displayed a very good imitation of zebra skin made by printing the design on the skin of an unborn calf.

-”A ‘Skin Game’ in West Bend,” Milwaukee Sentinel (1966)


The question of uterine parchment, or skin said to be obtained from aborted foetuses, is a vexed one. Is it true? Would our farmers (who do not, of course, read or write) sacrifice thousands of their animals to the booktrade?

-Gene Washington, The School of Donnina Visconti (2000)


Let it be a Priests Garment, if it can be had, let it be of linen, and clean. Then take this Pentacle made in the day and hour of Mercury, the Moon increasing, written in parchment made of a kids skin. But first let there be said over it the Mass of the Holy Ghost, and let it be sprinkled with water of baptism.

-Anonymous, Heptameron (ca. 1490)


He questioned Brother Ambrose of the matter, and when he heard the Vision, bade him limn the Holy City even as he had seen it; and the Precentor gave him uterine vellum and much fine gold and what colours he asked for the work.

-Margaret Fairless Barber, The Gathering of Brother Hilarius (1901)


A specialty of the later middle ages is the extremely thin ‘virgin’ or ‘uterine’ parchment, which was prepared from the skin of unborn lambs. The quality of the parchment and the care taken in its selection and preparation are a yardstick for the standards of a scriptorium.

-Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages (1979)


The Latin word abortivum occasionally applied to fine parchment in the Middle Ages (though rarely) has given rise to another form of superstition which has become widespread, namely, that the finest medieval parchment, and particularly the very thin, flexible, opaque, small, thirteenth-century French Bible vellum was made from the skins of still-borne calves. There is as nearly as possible no evidence for this belief. It may be true. I have no figures on infant mortality among livestock in the Middle Ages; but I should be inclined to think that animal husbandry must have been in a very precarious condition if enough calves were stillborn in the thirteenth century to provide all the pages which pass for “uterine vellum.”

-Daniel Varney Thompson, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting (1956) 


Uterine vellum (g.) — A vellum made from the very thin skins of still-born or unborn calves.

-William Dana Orcutt, The Author’s Desk Book (1914)


The little book was originally bound in the skin of a lamb, goat, or calf—all kosher animals—and the best vellum was so-called “uterine” vellum made of stillborn or unborn animals. Interestingly, one of the oldest materials with which to make condoms was called lambskin, though made not of the skin of the lamb but of its intestines.

-Jonathan Brent, “Daydreamings on the Book” (2012)


Parchment is the prepared skin of animals, especially of the sheep and calf; the finer quality derived from the calf being properly vellum, and if from the skin of an abortive calf, uterine vellum, the whitest and thinnest kind known, employed chiefly for elaborate miniatures.

–Falconer Madan, Books in Manuscript (1893)


Undaunted, I went to an abattoir in Mainz, and found the head slaughterman wielding his cleaver. Two fingers were missing on his left hand. His apron, streaked with calf-blood, was like a rubricated letter M. Could we talk business? I asked. He said he doubted it–his hides went straight to his brother’s vellum-shop; the monks then ‘hogged them’; the trade was all sewn up. When I asked if still we might see his brother, he shrugged, put his cleaver down, took his apron off, and led me next door. We made our way past brindled cow-hides drying hairside-out over wooden beams. Holding a knife shaped liek a newly risen moon, the brother was paring hairs from a pelt held drum-tight in a wooden frame. The pelt was so small and pristing-white I could scarcely credit it.
“Uterine,” he said, catching me looking. “The dearest of all vellum.”
“You abort the calves?”
“It is not official practice. But if a cow, for some reason, should miscarry  and its calf be stillborn…”
I stroked the pelt’s soft silk, then turned to the two brothers. Mean-faced and hatched-eyed, they looked no more fond of each other than of me–the Cain and Abel of the meat trade.
“I have in mind an order for five thousand skins,” I said.
“Of uterine vellum? Impossible.”
“Not uterine. It is a larger beast I have in mind.”

-Blake Morrison, The Justification of Johannes Gutenberg (2001)


Vellum was known in the Middle Ages as “veal parchment.” The finest, which was especially thin and silky, called “uterine vellum,” was made from the skin of stillborn or newborn calves. So very many manuscripts are claimed to be on uterine vellum as to suggest an unfortunate, and unlikely, situation for medieval cows!

-Janetta Rebold Benton, Materials, Methods, and Masterpieces of Medieval Art (2009)


The extremely thin and white parchment as found in the so-called Parisian Bibles of the thirteenth century is often called uterine vellum (carta abortive, virginea); it is doubtful whether this writing-material, apart from a few exceptions, was really made from the skin of unborn calves or lambs.

-Albert Delorez, The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books (2003)


Jack Cade: Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should  be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man?

-Shakespeare, 2 Henry VI 

11 comments on “Uterine Vellum: A Florilegium

  1. Tom Goodmann on said:

    I appreciate being provoked by this bouquet of the bizarre; being reminded of some choices, and some choice histories, of this being human: of being a consumer of animal flesh, a user of animal parts. It’s good to be run to ground with some of the many ways we are implicated–that we implicate ourselves–in our being-in-the-world, and of the implied choices we have made, and might make differently.
    I worked for a while in a meatpacking plant (so did my two sisters, and one of my brothers), and this post speaks to the enriched ethical exchange now current as animal studies, and pertaining to many fields of inquiry; I so look forward to this book. I might add “food for thought” and “this gives a new meaning to `having skin in the game,’” but I won’t . . . . Thank you for a properly unsettling post.

  2. Bruce Holsinger on said:

    Thanks so much, Tom, for a wonderful and generous response. One of the things that’s really struck me while writing A of the A–and it’s become perhaps the book’s central theme–is the inescapable relay between past and present that’s embodied in and by parchment. This is an ethical relationship, but it has less to do with rights than with sacrifice and utility, and I think the uterine vellum problem brings this out particularly well. Glad you got something out of the post.

  3. Robert Stanton on said:

    Thanks for a provocative project and a very rich florilegium. You’ve probably seen this peripherally-related post – the BL bloggers have a nice eye for material/physiological things. http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/02/crisp-as-a-poppadom.html

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Thanks so much, Robert–I actually didn’t know this particular part of the BL site, so I appreciate the reference.

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  4. Alexa on said:

    Very provocative; thank you for the poem by Catherine Byron! It happens that some merchants (mostly in the UK) today sell a product they call slunk, which they indicate comes from (naturally?) stillborn calves. Cowley’s of England is one such, L. Cornelissen and Son another, but there are several more. The exquisite little Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux at the Met is described by the museum as made of slunk; this seems plausible to me, as I have seldom seen parchment so delicate and unblemished, and I have handled hundreds of luxury-type manuscripts. I don’t know if any of this is at all helpful or new for you, but since I am also interested in the animal origins of medieval art materials I am very much looking forward to your book!

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Thanks Alexa–Cowley’s makes all the vellum for acts of parliament, which are still legally required to be recorded on animal membrane. I would love to hear more about your work. Be in touch offline perhaps?

  5. Here’s another one for the florilegium, from Laila Avrin, Scribes, Scripts, and Books: The Book Arts from Antiquity to the Renaissance.

    Avrin quotes Daniel V. Thompson (also quoted here): “I should be inclined to think that animal husbandry must have been in a very precarious condition if enough calves were stillborn in the thirteenth century to provide all the pages which pass for ‘uterine vellum’”.

    And then adds:

    “But this soft fetal product is still manufactured by parchment makers and is very much in demand. In today’s abbatoirs of South American countries, there are some forty aborted calves per hour whose pelts are sold to parchment makers”

    As it happens, I’m writing up a book on abortion in the early middle ages, and the use of “abortivum” is a nice little example of denoting premature or still-birth. I was wondering…do you know when the earliest references to “abortivum” vellum can be found?

    • PS – for some reason I can’t enter my name and email…
      (z dot mistry at ucl dot ac dot uk)

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Thanks “f”–a great addition to the list. The Pergamena tannery in New York, which I’ve visited, regularly makes “slunk”: vellum or parchment from uterine animals. So I think the ticklish language around this is very much a modern phenomenon, particularly among bookish folks who don’t have much experience with animal slaughter.

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