Understanding skin – Examining the parchment of a 14th century Samaritan manuscript

As part of our current project to conserve the CBL Hebrew collection, I have been working on a large 14th century Samaritan Pentateuch. In the first post about this manuscript I will concentrate on the context in which it was written, and the materials from which it is made.

Heb 752 - Mss

The disbound textblock before conservation.

The Samaritan people are a religious and ethnic group preserving the tradition of copying the Pentateuch in the Samaritan alphabet. The Pentateuch comprises of the first five books of the Hebrew bible/Old Testament, also known as the Five Books of Moses because they are believed to have been dictated by God directly to Moses. The Chester Beatty manuscript codex was written in 1339 AD in Samaritan majuscule Hebrew characters. The primary scribe of this manuscript is believed to have been Abisha ibn Pinhas ibn Joseph.

This manuscript is composed of 28 parchment quires, each made of five bifolios (H: 32cm x W: 51cm). Given its overall size, a very large number of animals have been used to produce the textblock. Earlier this year we provided samples from some of our parchment manuscripts to be tested by the BioArch project at the University of York.

Taking samples

This fascinating project uses minute rubbings from the surface of the parchment to gather collagen which can be analysed with mass spectrometry. The protein within the collagen can be extracted and provide valuable information about the parchment species and its condition.

Analyses from three bifolios and a singleton from this manuscript all confirmed that the parchment is made from sheep skin. This confirmed features seen in my visual examination of the skin characteristics such as size and colour. Follicle patterns, although sometimes visible, can be misleading due to distortion during the production process. The cost of buying the  raw skins, the time spent preparing the parchment, as well as writing the text meant that the cost of production for this manuscript was likely very high and it was probably commissioned by a wealthy devote.

Composite images 3

A natural stretched edge (left) and imperfect keratinised areas (right).

As I worked on this manuscript, I found considerable evidence that the parchment skins were being used economically. Scholars in the field believe that Samaritan scribes were responsible for preparing their own skins and kept even the flawed skins for use, supporting the evidence that the material was a valuable commodity. I found that they had used all areas of the skin that were available, even the hard keratinised extremities of the stretched skins and imperfect or transparent areas.

Single folios were created from any remaining areas of the skin, which were not large enough for full bifolios. In some of the quires a full bifolio is substituted for two single guarded folios. The single folios are always inserted in the middle of the quire between bifolios- this is consistent throughout the manuscript. The quires with guarded folios are usually located in the second half of the codex but no more specific pattern was identified.

Heb 752 - scrapping marks and holes in skin (3)

Holes and cut marks, possibly made during flaying.

I was able to observe a number of large holes throughout the manuscript. These may have been small cuts or imperfections already present in the skin or holes accidentally made during preparation of the skin that have become larger after stretching during preparation of the parchment. Other elements of the parchment manufacturing process are also apparent; the de-hairing of the manuscript appears to have been poorly executed on some of the skins, leaving patches of animal hair in the manuscript, and the scraping of the skins has created both some harsh flay cuts and shaving marks on the parchment, and also unevenness in the thickness of the skins. However there are no sewing repairs in this manuscript, a rather common feature in Samaritan manuscripts.

Heb 752 ff231-240 (11)

Delamination of the skin.

Heb 752 - Assessment (6)

Marks left by the parchment maker’s knife during thinning of the skin.

Although the parchment used in this manuscript is not of the best quality, the collation follows Gregory’s rule, a common medieval practice of collating parchment skins so that when folded and arranged in quires the hair side of the skin faces hair side and the flesh side faces flesh side.

By looking in detail at the parchment, I have tried to understand the scribe’s preparation process. The text appears to be very carefully centred on the page. Most often the skins were prepared for calligraphy by folding the bifolio in half and piercing both layers of parchment with a metal point along the fore-edge. The perforations were made on the folded bifolio. On most bifolios the pricking marks line up but in some cases the parchment has moved, throwing off the alignment while others simply do not align. A metal point was used to score between the marks at each fore-edge, creating blind lines to write on, while leaving a margin at the fore-edge and centre of the bifolio. On single guarded folios, I observed a similar approach with the pricking of the parchment on both the folio and the guard.

Heb 752 - Blind lines

Ruling across a bifolio (left) and pricking marks along the fore-edge of the folio

To create the vertical lines, a pair of marks about one centimetre apart was made at each corner of the folded bifolio by perforating the parchment with a sharp knife. When joined these create vertical blind lines which were used to centre the text in the page.

Heb 752 - different hands and inks used

Heb 752 Scrapping of ink and parchement (2)The decoration in the manuscript is rather sober, in compliance with the Samaritan’s interested solely in the text. Aside from some simple black ink markers throughout the manuscript, there are only a few dividers that separate the text. Those decorated dividers often indicate a change in hand and inks. Most commonly, the ink appears to be a black carbon ink, with possibly some gall inks mixtures. I could observe very little evidence of damage or loss, with the exception of some scraping of entire words, possibly as a way of correcting a mistake.

One folio (120) showed three blind compass circles along the fore-edge. I think they are an unfinished feature on this particular folio as there are no other examples in the manuscript.

Heb 752 f.120 drawn circle (2)

Heb 752 - Trimming lines (1)The uneven trimming of this codex is also worth noting. The scored lines at the edges of the bifolios appear to have been drawn with a metal point being dragged along the parchment, creating small ridges on the surface. The lines were then used as a guide for trimming by the binder.

Another interesting feature of this manuscript is found along the tailedge of folio 144v. A strip of parchment is sewn with a medium thickness red thread and protrudes over the fore-edge of the manuscript where it has been used as a bookmark. The text on this page (Lev. 9:22-10:1) is heavily worn, supposedly from kissing. This is a common occurrence in Samaritan manuscripts, again demonstrating the importance of the written word for the Samaritans.

CBL Heb 752, f.144v

I look forward to posting more about the conservation of this manuscript in the New Year.

Julia Poirier, Book & Paper Conservator

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4 thoughts on “Understanding skin – Examining the parchment of a 14th century Samaritan manuscript

  1. Pingback: Shared experiences in Copenhagen | Chester Beatty Conservation

  2. Pingback: A short review of Samaritan binding practices | Chester Beatty Conservation

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