Christmas Cards , Vellum and Medieval Literacy

Christmas has been and gone and I have packed up the decorations and stored the tree, removed the paper chains and rolled up the lights. But what of those Christmas cards and their messages of friendship and goodwill? I will recycle them of course, but it did make me marvel at the manner in which we take for granted something so common. And not just cards! I believe I have at least one paper product in every room of my house. From tissues, toilet paper, hand towels, note books, magazines, novels – the list goes on.

Can you imagine a time without paper? When hygiene items were recycled scraps of material and documents or letters were written on parchment or vellum!

Vellum is derived from the Latin word ‘vitulinum’ meaning ‘made from calf.’ The term often refers to a parchment made from calfskin, as opposed to that from other animals. Vellum is generally smooth and durable, although there are great variations depending on preparation and the quality of the skin. The manufacture involves the cleaning, bleaching, stretching on a frame (a ‘herse’), and scraping of the skin with a crescent-shaped knife (a ‘lunarium’ or ‘lunellum’).


Parchment wasn’t cheap and only the wealthy could afford to keep stock on hand. It certainly wasn’t a throw away item, wasted on shopping lists or reminder notes. However, it was used widely, for correspondence between families, letters to traders and to record items such as the number of weapons held in the armoury or food items stocked by a household.

Monasteries were the biggest users of vellum as they produced the largest proportion of ‘books’ during the Middle Ages, whether for their own use, for presentation, or on commission. However, commercial scriptoria were appearing in large cities, especially Paris, and in Italy and the Netherlands, and by the late fourteenth century there was a significant industry producing manuscripts. Wealthy families could order their own ‘Book of Prayers,’ however, books as such remained a rare commodity.

f. 4 recto - Arrest of Christ

There has also been much discussion as to who could read and write. The male gentry and members of the clergy have always been accredited with the skill – the lower class failing to have the opportunity, wealth or the time to undertake such study. In fact Ian Mortimer in his work The Time Travels Guide to Medieval England states that male literacy rate in the 14th century was ‘5 percent of the adult population in rural areas and twenty percent in urban areas.’ However, there is much argument about women and their level of education.

There were numerous well known, medieval women who could not only read and write but who produced vast works, including the famous poet Marie de France, Heloise d’Argenteuil, who penned letters to her former lover and Christine de Pizan, who wrote multiple books and was highly regarded by the French royal family. It cannot be assumed that ALL women were uneducated and, in fact, Ian Mortimer goes on to state ‘a surprising number of townswomen were literate,’ in the medieval period.

Marie de France

Back to my Christmas cards. I certainly received far less than in previous years, perhaps because a large proportion of my friends and family now send electronic ‘well wishes’ via email or iphones. I wonder how we will be sending Christmas messages in 3014?

Cathy A


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