supple and flexible in quality - changing the history of parchment to match the Sinaiticus faux date

Steven Avery

Medieval Parchment: the analysis of manuscripts from the State Library of Victoria
Elizabeth Anne Melzer

Libby Melzer
Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne

Grimwade Staff

Senior Paper Conservator


Written most likely in Rome in the fourth century, the Codex Sinaiticus originally consisted of 730 leaves mostly in gatherings of eight. Just over 400 leaves survive which are divided between four collections.96 The text consists of four columns of 48 lines of text in a Greek uncial script. Gavin Moorhead identified that for the most part the gatherings were worked with one skin supplying four leaves (quarto-folio), and his assessment of the parchment indicates that it is fine and uniform with very little evidence of degradation that cannot be attributed to handling.97 His general conclusions about the parchment are that it is

'exceptionally uniform in thickness; supple and flexible in quality; generous in bi-folio size and lavish in layout; characterised by a sparse quantity of visual imperfections and blemishes'.

He further asserts that in his opinion this is evidence of

'a well-resourced enterprise [for parchment production); the idea of excellence in the animal husbandry; high standards in the selection of skins; high degree of manufacturing finesse'.

The quality and state of preservation of the parchment, the use of eight leaf gatherings, and characteristics of the page layout, show that all these aspects of manuscript production, as well as the preparation of parchment, were not just established, but refined centuries before the first written account of the production of parchment. This highlights that an absence of written sources is not an reflection of a lack of refinement and maturity of the trade of parchment making.

96 347 leaves are in the British Library; 43 leaves are in the University Library, Leipzig; six leaves are in the National Library of Russia, Saint Petersburg; other fragments are at the Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai
97 Moorhead, 2009, p. 5
98 Moorhead, 2009, p. 10

One of the critical quotes is omitted, this is de facto the acknowledgement that it is not an ancient ms.

“despite being over 1600 years old ....”

The conservation team discovered that, despite being over 1600 years old, the pages of Codex Sinaiticus held at the British Library consisted of a supple, high quality parchment in relatively good condition. This is difficult to put into context as the only other similar surviving 4th/5th Century parchment codices, Codex Alexandrinus[19] and Codex Vaticanus[20] are at this stage unable to be physically compared with Codex Sinaiticus. Certainly the Codex Alexandrinus is also affected by ink corrosion but all have had different histories and conditions affecting their parchment folios and ultimately the data collected by this condition assessment will enable comparisons to be made in future.

Apart from a small percentage of folios with heavy ink corrosion, most of the folios appeared to have survived the rigours of 16 centuries with an unexpected lack of damage, suffering in the main only from small tears and losses along the head, tail, fore-edge and spine folds. Much of this damage is more likely attributable to mechanical damage than physical deterioration. Clues to explain the relatively small amount of ink corrosion and brittleness may be found in the ink recipe. But equally, explanations for the minimal damage and good condition may lie in the secrets of the parchment makers. The current condition of the parchment may also be due to the environmental conditions the codex has experienced throughout its existence.


Reed asserts that the lack of Medieval references to the use of lime liquors for parchment manufacture or the dehairing of skins in preparation for tanning, prior to the Lucca Manuscript suggests that the technology was probably introduced into Europe through the influence of Arab scientific knowledge of alkalis, and he cites the Arabic influences on the Compositiones Variae in support of his case.79 Indeed, Anthony Cains identified that the parchment of a group of Insular manuscripts had a significantly dark tone which he concluded was more consistent with a process of bating then liming.80 However, the Codex Sinaiticus, as we will see shortly, predates these manuscripts by several centuries and shows no features suggesting any other process apart from liming. Further, as the use of lime is also mentioned in the recipe of the Selestat Manuscript, and similar Arabic influences have not been identified in this instance, Reed's conclusion requires further examination.

79 Reed, 1972, pp. 135-6
80 Cains, 1992, p. 53

So, liming was introduced late, perhaps in Arabic times, but the Codex Sinaiticus likely has this later production technique. This element needs more checking.

The degree if liming also might help explain its being white parchment (before any colouring.) For some reason, Jacob M. Peterson found white parchment unusual, in one of his many puzzling comments.


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