MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — Watching Jesse Meyer, one of North America’s few authentic parchment makers, pull a sodden, smelly animal skin from a five-gallon pail, it’s hard to imagine the exquisite nature of his final product. During a recent workshop at the Mahaney Center for the Arts, Meyer captivated a crowd of 30 students and faculty with a three-hour presentation that was equal parts history, chemistry, and craft. 

Contrary to our modern understanding of parchment as a paper product, original parchment, which provided the base for ancient manuscripts, was made from animal skins. And, unlike the soggy blob that first came out of Meyer’s bucket, the end result is a bright white, paper-thin material with a silky, smooth surface. Meyer, who works for the specialty parchment company Pergamena, demonstrated a manual process for making parchment but says he normally uses machines that make the work go faster. Modern parchment is sought after by instrument makers and fine artists, among others.

Eliza Garrison, associate professor of history of art and architecture and one of the workshop’s organizers, said that students were getting a new appreciation for what went into making such an important material during the medieval period. “Parchment is the support for beautiful works of art that are firmly part of the canon of Western art history,” said Garrison. “In many ways, you could make the argument that painting on panel or canvas really begins in books. So that’s a really wonderful thing to think about!”

Fellow organizer Rebekah Irwin, director of the College’s Special Collections and Archives, said she hopes this experience gives students a new perspective on some of the ancient texts owned by the College, and that they’ll feel more comfortable using them. “The next time they come into Special Collections, I hope they won’t be so cautious and careful, but that they’ll dive in and ask different kinds of questions!”

Reporting by Stephen Diehl; Video by Stephen Diehl and Ben Savard ’14.