A BYZANTINE SCHOLAR'S LETTER ON THE PREPARATION OF MANUSCRIPT VELLUM
Jeffrey Abt, & Margaret A. Fusco
IN COMPARISON TO THE RELATIVELY LARGE NUMBER of painters' manuals and model books that have survived over the centuries to reveal the methods of Western scribes and illuminators, few such sources on the manuscript techniques of Byzantium exist. For this reason, the pieces of evidence that have endured assume special importance. One of these is a letter written by the distinguished Byzantine theologian, translator, grammarian, and rhetorician Planudes (of Constantinople, ca. 1260–1330). As head of the school of the monastery at Khora, which possessed a great library, Planudes was often concerned in his correspondence with locating fine parchment for the creation of manuscripts.
The following translation and commentary on a letter by Planudes offers insights into the problems and practices of Byzantine vellum preparation. The information comes in the context of a request Planudes made to the monk Melchisedek of Akropolita (in Asia), who apparently was to purchase a supply of vellum for Planudes' use. Two sections of the letter are important today:
- a description of the use of an egg coating in the preparation of Byzantine vellum, which causes script to flake off the vellum, a phenomenon the severity of which (along with flaking pigments in Byzantine miniatures) distinguishes Byzantine manuscripts as a group from those of the Latin West;
- a description of the preparation of vellum leaves for bookmaking.
This translation is based on a transcription of the letter in Maximi Monachi Planudis Epistulae, ed. Maximilian Treu (Amsterdam: A. M. Hakkert, 1960), 135. Text in brackets, paragraph divisions, and punctuation have been added for clarification. Italicized words in brackets are transliterations of certain key terms where the Greek does not translate precisely. Superscript numerals refer to comments on both the translation and possible interpretations of the wording in the Greek original. The use of the word “parchment” in the translation is consistently followed to maintain fidelity to the Greek; however, it should be understood to mean “vellum” in the modern, less precise usage of the term.