Animal Husbandry


Vulagte Bible folio with illuminated initial.

Note the animal depicted in the initial.

The production of a Bible in the medieval period involved a significant communal effort. Once book production became the work of the laity, every decision of those involved impacted the final product. For example, the physical characteristics of a manuscript such as a Bible were influenced by the type of livestock used to produce the parchment. Different livestock animals were used in the production of parchment during this period; their hides would be sold to parchment makers who would process them using various methods. Sheep, goats, pigs, and calves were valued for the quality of their hides and because their size produced parchment that could be more easily handled.

The development of the wool trade in England—where this Bible was made—led to an increase in the number of sheepskins available for book production. This allowed parchment makers to offer different grades of parchment according to the desired quality of the final product, creating a variety in the quality and size of Bibles produced. The highest quality parchment was made from fetal and uterine skin, but this was too expensive to have been available to anyone except the richest customers; moreover, this parchment could only produce small texts due to its size. Some of the animals that were used to make parchment (namely sheep) featured frequently in Christian iconography and thus were often depicted in the illuminations of Bibles and other religious texts.


Folio with an illuminated initial.

Note how you can see the illumination of the previous page, revealing the thinness of the parchment.

The thirteenth century saw a crucial development in the history of Bible production: this was the first time that the ownership of a complete Bible became available to an individual person. Previously, a church or monastery would own a single, shared copy, but changes in book production during this time enabled more manuscripts to be produced, allowing for more widespread distribution and individual ownership. Individuals could now commission a text and could even determine the choice of animal skin used for the parchment. This choice was often made out of concerns over getting the best quality or the most valuable parchment, but sometimes ethical considerations would play a part. While some rich members of the nobility commissioned texts with parchment made from uterine skins because of its impressive quality, some cities in Italy banned this form of parchment production as it was allegedly associated with the writing of magical recipes.

Franciscan monks had a unique religious connection with animals due to stories surrounding the order's founder, St. Francis of Assissi. When purchasing Bibles, Franciscans had to reconcile the conflict between the use of sheepskin to produce parchment and the status of sheep as revered symbols of Christ and cherished animals that St. Francis himself had reportedly expressed affection for. The table of Introits (table of Mass readings) added to the back of the Bible in this collection reveals evidence of Franciscan use, which raises the question of whether the parchment is made from sheepskin and whether the Franciscan owner had considered that when acquiring it.

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