Thursday, February 16, 2012

Scrutinizing the Scroll: Papyrus, Parchment and Vellum

In the original DMG, this is about as far as EGG goes into the differences between paper, papyrus, parchment and vellum... "A scroll of spells may be inscribed only upon pure and unblemished papyrus, parchment, or vellum - the latter being the most desirable."

As an educator on the history of graphic communication, I'm familiar with the origins of and differences between the various writing substrates (as well as the writing utensils and "inks" that correspond to each), but it struck me that many of you may not be. So what follows is a top-line overview of the various writing surfaces (particularly those used for spell scrolls) and considerations for incorporating those into game play.

Cave Walls and Ceilings
30,000+ B.C.

Obviously, the point of a scroll is to make the magic portable, convenient, and disposable. And, obviously, you can't do that with a cave wall or ceiling, but it was the first writing substrate. Every type of writing medium requires both a pigment and a medium and, in these cases, the pigments included red and yellow ochre, hematite, manganese oxide and charcoal, held in a medium of animal fat to bind the pigment.

Wet Clay
In common use from 3500-1750 B.C.

As nomads became farmers in the fertile lands between the Tigres and the Euphrates, village culture necessitated the need for records of properties, laws, ets. So the Sumerians when straight to the most available materials... reed styluses and wet clay. Pictographic writing gave way to symbolic writing in the form of cuneiforms (quick marks made with a triangular tipped version of the stylus.)

So... get out your copy of Deities and Demigods, go to the Sumerian Mythos section, and consider that in the earliest of the time period reflected here, clerics of these gods would (most likely) not see papyrus for at least 1,000 years (if they saw it at all.) And parchment? Forget about it. By the time the Sumerian language was fading away as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and/or scientific language in Mesopotamia, parchment was just being invented. Now, go the Babylonian section of the book. Those clerics... maybe.

As far as incorporating clay tablets into game play, it's obviously not conducive to carrying even one spell tablet with you into a dungeon, unless you happen to possess a Bag of Holding. However, in more primitive cultures, spell tablets are an option. I could see clerics or magic-users going into battle accompanied by horse-drawn carts filled with spell tablets prepared with summoning and protection spells (the tablets would disintegrate upon use, similarly to their papyrus and parchment counterparts.)

Invented c. 1,000 B.C.

This is an Egyptian invention that dates to around 1,000 B.C. However, it was adopted soon after by the Greeks (being supplanted later in Greece by parchment, a Roman invention), and was used widely through Europe and the Roman and Byzantine empires until it was replaced by the less expensive paper (invented in China, but introduced to the West by way of Arabia.)

Papyrus as a substrate is made from the pith (the inner portion) of the Cyperus papyrus plant. It essentially consists of two layers (or sides) with the fibers in each side aligned with the same side, and perpendicular to the other side. The fibers in the top (recto) side run horizontally, and the fibers in the bottom (verso) side run vertically. For longer scrolls, multiple pages of papyrus were glued together. In regards to writing utensils, the Egyptians used brushes made from rush stems, whereas Greek scribes used hard reeds, cut with a nib and split at the tip to aid ink flow.

As for game play, consider this... sure, papyrus is cheaper, but it also has a +5% chance of failure (per DMG.) Why? Firstly, in dry climates (like Egypt) papyrus is fairly stable, but in more humid climates it is highly susceptible to mold. No reason to not up that % chance of failure in more humid climates, especially the longer that papyrus has been sitting around in a less-than-airtight scroll tube. Second, those striations in the recto and verso sides do not exactly make for the smoothest of writing experiences, especially with "loopier" writing forms. It serves the Eqyptian Demotic ("priestly") script well, given its strong vertical and horizontal strokes. But Elvish is a little on the loopier side. Consider upping that % chance of failure based on the quality of the papyrus, as well as the form of the writing being used by the scribe.

Invented c. 500-200 B.C.

According to the Roman Varro, Pliny's Natural History notes parchment was invented under the patronage of Eumenes of Pergamon, as a substitute for papyrus, which was temporarily not being exported from Alexandria, its only source. ("Parchment" is actually an English word derived from the name of the city where it was reportedly invented.) Though a Roman invention, it was quickly adopted by the Greeks, and was used popularly throughout Europe, even concurrently with the use of paper up through the invention of the printing press (mid 1400s A.D.) In fact, though most copies of the Gutenberg Bible were printed on paper, a few parchment copies exist. Papermaking was mechanized around this time, which made paper inexpensive enough to allow it to become pervasive.

As a substrate, parchment is made from calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin, often split. Think of parchment as a "half-ass" version of leather in that it's limed (the part of the leather-making process that removes the flesh, fat and hair from the skin) but it's not tanned (which helps protect leather from weather/humidity.) The skins are then soaked, stretched and scraped to finalize the process. However, additional treatments could make the parchment smoother or more writing-friendly (like rubbing pumice powder over the flesh side while it was still wet.) But let's go back to that not-being-tanned thing for a minute. Uh-oh... guess what that means...

Parchment, like papyrus, is extremely affected by its environment and changes in humidity, which can cause buckling. Books with parchment pages were bound with strong wooden boards and clamped tightly shut by metal (often brass) clasps or leather straps; this acted to keep the pages pressed flat despite humidity changes. Even after the use of paper made such fittings unnecessary, they continued to be used as decorative element on bound books of paper. But let's face it, buckling is not molding. I guess that explains the "± 0% chance of failure" in the DMG.

Popularized c. 500-1500 A.D.

Simply put, the difference between vellum and parchment is the difference between veal and beef, respectively. Vellum is really just a finer version of parchment made from the skins of calves and/or kids, depending on whether you believe the English or the French; it is either the split skin of any of several species (English) or the split skin specifically of the calf (French.) Now, when it comes to anything animal-related (particularly food-related, or quasi-food related) I tend to defer to the French over the English (but don't let them know I said that.) If this helps settle the argument, the term "vellum" comes from the French word "veau," which means "calf" or "veal." Most of the finer sort of medieval manuscripts, whether illuminated or not, were written on vellum. The Gutenberg Bibles mentioned above are (more specifically) on vellum.

In game, the thing to remember about vellum is that, for scribes, vellum's finer, smoother surface is the cream of the crop when it comes to writing anything. (Okay, that explains that -5% chance of failure from the DMG.) BUT!!! There is that climate thing to consider again. When store in areas with less than 11% relative humidity, it tends to get brittle. And in areas with 40%+ relative humidity, it has a propensity for mold and fungus growth. (Yummy!)

Invented c. 105 A.D.

Though the actual invention of paper is "shrouded in mystery," is invention was reported to the Chinese Emperor by Ts'ai Lun, an official of the Imperial Court. Even though paper was most likely invented 200 years earlier, WAY before Ts'ai Lun was born, Ts'ai Lun is nonetheless deified in China as the "god of the papermakers." By 600 A.D., paper was all over the far east. After the defeat of the Chinese in the Battle of Talas in 751 (present day Kyrgyzstan), the invention spread to the Middle East. By the 9th century, Arabs were using paper regularly (reserving the use of parchment/vellum for more important documents/manuscripts.) The oldest European paper documents date to around 1100 A.D. (most likely introduced to the West via The Crusades.)

In its more primitive forms (though still made essentially the same way today, albeit mechanized) plant fibers are soaked and pulped, set in a frame on a screen, shaken to cross the fibers and grains, the excess water pressed out, then the frame set aside for the paper to dry. The dried sheet of paper is removed from the mold, allowing the mold to be reused.

While the 1e DMG makes no mention of paper at all, by 3e you start to see mention of "high-quality" papers for use in scrolls. The more important thing to remember about paper, though, is the immense varieties of type based on the fibers and binders/additives used during the papermaking process. Vulnerability to weather and other conditions are completely dependent upon this.

Again, I refer back to the 1e DMG. This time I refer to the entire "Manufacture of Scrolls" section beginning on page 117. Note how much attention is given to the ink formulas and to the quill types being used, going as far as including the formula for the ink required to scribe a protection from petrification spell. And note how little attention is given to the writing surface. Even the BX Expert rule book (as limited as it is) goes further than the DMG on the subject matter when it suggests a "scroll might require a special parchment." Given the information in the post above, I don't see why you couldn't require the same thing of the writing surface that you might of a quill or ink. Scroll types could necessitate that parchments or vellums be made from specific animals, perhaps prepared particularly by alchemical or magical means (beyond the standard liming process.) I don't see why you couldn't require paper for certain scrolls be made from the pulp of specific plants or trees. Or papryus prepared from cyperus papyrus plants that grow in particular waters. What would happen if the PCs were to get ahold of a particular type of parchment or paper but, having been lied to by the merchant, procure the wrong type? It might accidentally turn that summon dryad scroll into a summon dragon one.


  1. Great post, thanks! i love it when library science & gaming intersect...

  2. Great job. This should have been in the DMG

  3. Very enlightening for us fools in the dark. I've usually not paid much attention to the different writing surfaces unless they fit the setting, though clay and wax-type writing tablets show up every so often.

  4. Excellent. This is the kind of post that I see and think, I should have written that! (I hope that's a complement.) :-3

    It also an example of how reality can and should contribute to Fantasy RPing.