A sweeping exploration of the shaping role of animal skins in written culture and human imagination over three millennia
“Richly detailed and illustrated. . . . An engaging exploration of book history.”—Kirkus Reviews
For centuries, premodern societies recorded and preserved much of their written cultures on parchment: the rendered skins of sheep, cows, goats, camels, deer, gazelles, and other creatures. These remains make up a significant portion of the era’s surviving historical record. In a study spanning three millennia and twenty languages, Bruce Holsinger explores this animal archive as it shaped the inheritance of the Euro-Mediterranean world, from the leather rolls of ancient Egypt to the Acts of Parliament in the United Kingdom.
Holsinger discusses the making of parchment past and present, the nature of the medium as a biomolecular record of faunal life and environmental history, the knotty question of “uterine vellum,” and the imaginative role of parchment in the works of St. Augustine, William Shakespeare, and a range of Jewish rabbinic writers of the medieval era. Closely informed by the handicraft of contemporary makers, painters, and sculptors, the book draws on a vast array of sources—codices and scrolls, documents and ephemera, works of craft and art—that speak to the vitality of parchment across epochs and continents. At the center of On Parchment is the vexed relationship of human beings to the myriad slaughtered beasts whose remains make up this vast record: a relationship of dominion and compassion, of brutality and empathy.
Bruce Holsinger is Linden Kent Memorial Professor at the University of Virginia, editor of New Literary History, and an award-winning author. He lives in Charlottesville, VA.
Ecocritical Book Award Finalist, sponsored by ASLE
“This book of remarkable conception—from bioarcheology to contemporary book art, across many millennia and cultures—surpasses previous routine responses to reveal parchment as a deep archive of both human and animal history.”—Daniel Wakelin, University of Oxford
“On Parchment has great range: it spans millennia, treats Jewish, Muslim, and Christian literatures, and matches stories of a Dun Cow with studies of its distant relatives’ DNA. This book is erudite and provoking by turns; an enriching, unsettling, and necessary challenge to established ideas about the literary past.”—Alexandra Gillespie, University of Toronto
“In an epic sweep, Bruce Holsinger examines both the medieval fascination with this precious material and the modern fixation. On Parchment is an intelligent and engaging book that will capture the attention of medievalists and students.”—Raymond Clemens, coauthor of Introduction to Manuscript Studies
“Elegant, capacious, and engaging, this is an astoundingly broad yet detailed investigation into the manufacture, use, and imaginative understandings of parchment across a range of cultures from antiquity to the present.”—Peggy McCracken, University of Michigan
“In this deeply researched and creative book, distinguished medievalist and novelist Bruce Holsinger grapples with the manifold ways in which humans have literally enrolled animals in the task of memorializing the past. This book puts conversations about archival methods and historical memory in direct contact with the natural sciences, and it does so in ways that are deeply important for the humanities.”—Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library
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