Hello there, I’m Cassidy Cash. Welcome to That Shakespeare Life, this week is another episode of DIY History, where we try out games, recipes, and crafts from the life of William Shakespeare.
The advent of paper arrived in Europe with the Printing Press, in the 16th century. Paper as we know it today was made in Shakespeare’s lifetime from cut up plants and fabrics. One common paper was linen paper which we explore further and show you how to make yourself in another episode of DIY History.
But for centuries before the advent of paper, parchment was the main material used for writing on. One famous example of parchment’s durability is the Dead Sea Scrolls, which was written on parchment. Parchment was made from animal skin, usually goat or cow skin, that’s tanned down very thin to make the parchment.
By Shakespeare’s lifetime, it was still in use alongside paper, but much like parchment paper you would cook with today, the parchment of Shakespeare’s lifetime had many other uses besides being used to write on. Today, we’re going to explore one use found in Hugh Plat’s book from the 16th century titled Jewel House of Art and Nature. This book was a how-to manual for it’s day, and in this recipe, Hugh teaches his readers how to make parchment transparent so that it can actually be used as a window in a home.
We’re going to explore his methods, and try it out for ourselves, right now on DIY History.
Shakespeare mentions parchment in Comedy of Errors when Dromio says “If the skin were parchment, and the blows you gave were ink, Your own handwriting would tell you what I think.” (That’s Act III Scene 1)
Again parchment is mentioned as a writing foundation in Henry VI Part II Act IV Scene 2 when Jack Cade says, “Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment?”
Hamlet even talks about the parchment being made from either sheep or cows, when he talks with Horatio in Act V, Scene 1:
Hamlet: Is not parchment made of sheepskins?— Hamlet, (V.1)
Horatio: Ay, my lord, And of calveskins too.
The shift away from parchment to paper that was happening in Shakespeare’s lifetime is reflected in the frequency with which Shakespeare references each writing tool in his plays. The word parchment is used 7 times across Shakespeare’s works, whereas the word “paper” is used 116 times. Parchment is always used in Shakespeare’s plays as a foundation for writing something, whereas paper comes up also as something to write upon, but you see it, too, as something that’s pre-printed. Characters will talk about reading something on paper, or even wrapping things in paper, as happens in Alls Well That Ends Well Act V Scene 3.
In Florence was it from a casement thrown me,— Alls Well That Ends Well (V.3)
Wrapp’d in a paper, which contain’d the name Of her that threw it
There’s an entire world to be explored there about the history of parchment and paper from Shakespeare’s lifetime, and I unpack a lot of that history for you in the bonus history guide that goes along with this activity as is available on Patreon, so if you want to learn more about the history of paper and parchment, check out the Shakespeare Educator tier on Patreon which I”ll link you to in the show notes below this video.
Today, parchment paper that you cook with is usually made from vegetable cellulose, but if you check out a fine art store, you can find animal skin parchment made from goat or cow skin just like they had available in the 16th century. This is my parchment paper I’m using today. You can see it’s much thicker than printer paper or notebook paper. This is made from animal skin. I’ll link below to the website where I found my parchment, but you can also check out your local art supply store which should be able to hook you up with the real thing. It’s important for this activity that you use real parchment, not the “parchment paper” you find at the grocery store.
Once you have your sheet of parchment, Hugh’s recipe tells us that we need to “Scrape the parchment very thin with a knife, but you must first wet it very well with water.”
Now, Hugh’s instructions aren’t clear there whether it’s the parchment or the knife that needs to be wet with water first, but later he refers to letting “it” dry and is talking about the parchment, so I’m going to assume he means the parchment needs to be wet well with water first before scraping it. There’s not any real instructions or guidelines here on how to get it wet, so I’m just going to dip the parchment in clean water.
Then he says “Strain it on a frame and tighten it well.” Of course, I don’t have the kind of frames used in antiquity to tan hides into parchment, but I believe the main goal is to to pull the parchment taught to make the following steps easier to execute, so to keep my parchment taught, I am using a sewing frame for one sheet of parchment. Naturally, this isn’t nearly enough to make a complete window the way Hugh suggests we might be able to use this parchment when we’re finished, but it’s plenty big enough that we will be able to evaluate the see-through quality at the end, so I think it will work for this exercise.
Next, Hugh says that after we’ve scraped it well, we need to let it dry, and then apply a coat of oil. Interestingly, he instructs that we should spread the oil over the parchment with a pencil, and I’m not at all sure how that works. I asked some early modernists on Twitter for some input and literally no one had any clear ideas. Apparently, using a pencil to spread out your oil on parchment is a bit of a grey area historically. Therefore, we’re just going to spread the oil out with my fingers instead, since I couldn’t really understand how the graphite wasn’t going to make the end product cloudy, and after all, I’m trying to create a window here. And here, Hugh recommends using Almond Oil or Turpentine. I’m using olive oil because its what I have on hand, there may be some science, however, to using exactly what Hugh recommends, so if you’re trying this at home, I’d recommend using one of the oils he suggests.
Once we get the oil on the scraped parchment, we are to let the oil dry and then at that point Hugh says “When it is thorow dry, it will show very clear and serve in windows instead of glass.”
As you can see in the episode, the final product is not as clear as window glass today. It is transparent, and lets light in well. Additionally, once the parchment dries again, it is very hard, making it durable and sturdy against the elements. I can see where this might have been useful for a window, and as a glass alternative.
Noticing that there was a huge difference in the transparency of today’s windows and the parchment, however, I was curious how the scraped parchment compared to 16-17th century glass. My friend, Brigitte Webster, of Tudor and 17th Century Experience, has just the right window and she shared images of it on Twitter:
This reflection of a window on the wall sorts the originals from the later panes. pic.twitter.com/SfCfdOhbL6— Brigitte Webster (@tudorfoodrecipe) September 23, 2023
You can see that the glass panes are actually very cloudy, hard to see through, and compared with modern glass panes, the visibility is quite poor. Additionally, the window panes are very small. Each one of the diamonds in her picture window shown above is an individual pane. It is conceivable that using parchment to replace glass was a matter of home repair, the same way you might duct tape something back together before you go out and completely replace it. If you were looking for a quick DIY fix for a hole in your window pane, you might have opted for parchment to get the job done quickly, efficiently, and cheaply.
If you’d like to try this activity out for yourself, I have printable step by step instructions, a supply list with links, a bonus history guide about parchment and the advent of paper, along with coordinating podcast episodes, research resources, and more packed into a complete activity kit for this DIY History episode. You can download this kit by supporting us on Patreon at the DIY History level. Visit patreon.com/thatshakespearelife to find out more.
That’s it for this week! I’m Cassidy Cash and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time! Goodbye!
A few of the resources consulted for this episode (not a complete list, and not all sources included were used.)