Thursday, November 26, 2015

On the history of parchment

(ANCIENT) TECHNOLOGY WATCH: Written on Beasts (Bruce Holsinger, NYR Daily).
Parchment, a medium that came into widespread use beginning in late antiquity, has for many centuries held a special place in the cultural imagination. “When you want to have the love of whatever woman you wish,” advises a medieval necromancer’s manual, “first you must have a totally white dove and parchment made from a female dog that is in heat.” In the Talmud parchment comes in for extended discussion, much of it devoted to the ritual treatment of animal skins. Tractate Shabbath, the Talmudic book that deals with rules for the Sabbath, contains rigorous rabbinical debates over the suitability of certain kinds of membranes for sacred use: the perforated skins of birds, the split hides of cows and sheep. “Can teffilin be written on the skin of a clean fish?” a rabbi asks at one point. No, answers another—but only because of the smell.