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“Battle of Assandun, showing Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Great." Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
“Battle of Assandun, showing Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Great." Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Were Medieval Books Written on Uteruses?

“Battle of Assandun, showing Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Great." Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
“Battle of Assandun, showing Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Great." Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you were a fancy person in the Middle Ages, you might have known how to read. If you were very, very fancy, you might have owned a book. And if that book was fancy, the pages would have been made of a material called uterine vellum.

Let’s break that phrase down. In this context, vellum refers to a type of thin parchment made from animal skin. Although the word vellum comes from the French word for calf, it could come from any number of animals. Records suggest that people used everything from cows to squirrels.

And uterine? As Gwen Pearson explains in the Washington Post, historians generally believe the term refers to vellum made from the skins of stillborn animals, not actual uteruses. This is more specific, but not any less gross. It's also really impractical, since fetal animals have such tiny little skins. Parchment makers would need huge piles of tiny carcasses to yield the amount of vellum they needed.

So how was this stuff made? And of what?

In today’s technological climate, you would think such a question would be pretty easy to answer. You’d be wrong. To run molecular tests on historical documents, scientists would need to sample the material—that is, cut a piece out. And that sort of behavior doesn’t go over too well with archivists.

Researchers knew there had to be a better way. They found it in a most unexpected place: a desk drawer. Pencil erasers made out of PVC are a favorite tool of conservationists, who use them to remove stains from parchment artifacts. Rubbing the eraser against the document creates a teeny electric charge that draws in dirt and other foreign materials.

The erasers gave University of York biochemist Sarah Fiddyment an idea. If the eraser picked up soil, she thought, it was probably also picking up molecules from the parchment itself. Collecting the little crumbs left over after erasing could be a way of non-invasively obtaining samples.

Fiddyment joined forces with other researchers and archivists around the world to collect molecular samples from hundreds of vellum documents created in the 13th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Analysis of the samples found that most of the vellum came from cows and sheep.

But the animals used varied over time. By figuring out which animal skins were being used, the researchers were able to determine what kinds of livestock were most common in the regions where the parchment originated.

“By shedding light on the different animal species used in the production of books in specific areas and periods, the data given by DNA analyses can provide us with a better knowledge about medieval economy as a whole,” University of Liverpool historian Damien Kempf told the Post

And how about those uteruses? “Because the parchment is very fine, very thin, people assumed it must be from small animals,” Fiddyment said in the Post. “We thought, ‘well, realistically, just how many rabbits are we talking about?’" 

They did the math. Thirteenth-century bookmakers were turning out no more than 200 bibles a year. If each bible had an average of 474 pages, and if uterine vellum was made from stillborn animals, parchment makers would have needed 55,000 rabbits, 27,500 stillborn sheep or goats, or 18,000 stillborn calves. If, instead, they actually used young calves—the kind eaten as veal—they only would have needed 4500. During that time, the researchers found, people were eating about 306 veal calves a week in Paris alone. That would have been more than enough skin to go around. 

Just to be sure, Fiddyment and her colleagues compared the proteins in a stillborn calf, a young calf, and a piece of old uterine vellum. The vellum and the stillborn calf had nothing in common, suggesting that uterine vellum might be nothing more than the veal of the parchment world.

The study results were published in two papers: one in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and one in the journal Philosophical Transactions B

Parchment and vellum are still very much in use today. At this very moment, the British government is trying to decide whether or not they will continue writing Acts of Parliament on goat-skin vellum. They’ve been through this before. In 1999, the House of Lords approved measures to discontinue the 500-year-old practice in favor of archival paper, but the idea was smacked down in the House of Commons.

The pro-parchment politicians were adamant about preserving their traditions. Some, like MP Gerald Hogarth, argued it was a matter of pragmatism. "Who is to say whether archival paper will last 300 to 400 years?” he asked the BBC. “We shouldn't take the chance."

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12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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