Translating Parchment: Deciphering Medieval German for Art in Translation

A special issue on parchment will appear this September 2021 in Art in Translation

Caroline Danforth

Discovering Parchment

One’s interests can ebb and flow unpredictably…and I have observed how some of my own passions have quickly bloomed…and then swiftly subsided. One such “flare-up” (which I feared would prove temporary) developed twenty-two years ago after being blind-sided by a simple yet captivating exhibition about parchment at Kloster Bebenhausen, a beautiful Cistercian monastery outside of Tübingen, Germany. Seduced by the materiality and faunal origins of parchment, my interest grew, firmly persisted, and can now safely be called an enduring obsession.

Combined Obsessions

By 2018, I had amassed a considerable collection of German publications about parchment’s history, manufacture, and preservation. My mother had bestowed her children with the gift of her native tongue, German, which allowed me to enjoy these articles alongside those in English. I began to imagine what fun it would be to translate the German texts, which would combine my love for artist materials, language, and art history. Naturally, this led me to google: ART – HISTORY – TRANSLATION, a search that produced Art in Translation (AIT), a quarterly e-journal that publishes art historical texts in English translation. What a perfectly thrilling discovery!

Art in Translation

At first, I proposed a single text to AIT, one that focuses on different types of thin parchment by Henrik de Groot. Particularly fascinating is the author’s discussion of the so-called goldbeater’s skin, a ridiculously thin, diaphanous membrane prepared from a cow’s caecum. At one time, this material was used as interleaving between layers of gold being pounded by goldbeaters or by conservators mending parchment, a collagenous cousin. The proposal to translate de Groot’s work was accepted. Feeling encouraged, I mentioned additional parchment-centric publications that might be of interest. Slowly, the project evolved and finally culminated with a plan to dedicate an entire AIT issue (for the first time!) to technical art history; in this case: PARCHMENT.

Choosing texts…

With tremendously helpful input from many generous art conservators (in particular Abigail Quandt and Jiri Vnoucek), parchment makers, and biocodicologists, I chose four texts for the parchment issue. Two of these were penned by practitioners with deep first-hand knowledge of parchment that appear in Peter Rück’s 1991 tome: Pergament: Geschichte, Struktur, Restaurierung, Herstellung: Zeger Hendrik de Groot’s Die Herstellung von Goldschlägerhaut, transparentem und gespaltenem Pergament and Gerhard Moog’s Häute und Felle zur Pergamentherstellung. The bulk of the project, however, is comprised of two older texts written by authors with comprehensive, albeit theoretical, knowledge: Jérôme de Lalande’s 1792 Art de faire le parchemin (translated by the intrepid Gay McAuley) and a section about parchment from Wilhelm Wattenbach’s 1896 revision of Das Schriftwesen im Mittelalter, excerpted from his chapter on writing substrates.

Translating Wattenbach

It’s fairly easy to grasp the basic steps that transform a raw animal skin into a useful material for manuscripts, documents, correspondence, membrane thread, templates for bobbin lace, and reinforcement for codices and textiles. Familiar steps – washing, liming, scudding, stretching, scraping, pouncing – are dependable terms that anchor our understanding of the general process. Reading these terms in German posed few obstacles, yet translating them was a completely different enterprise. Wattenbach, in particular, enriched his book with dozens of passages in languages other than modern German including Latin, Greek, medieval French, medieval German, medieval Dutch, and Italian.

Paraphrasing? Nope.

Wattenbach rarely paraphrased his sources. Instead, he reproduced every poem, letter, and document he could find that mentioned parchment. It seems Wattenbach was a polyglot. I am not. So, for the Latin and Greek passages, we enlisted the help of art historian Andrew Griebeler. For the others, I set out to find specialists who might correct my imperfect interpretations of medieval German. Dr. Henrike Lähnemann not only amended my attempts, but did so with generosity, enthusiasm, and impressive swiftness. 

13th Century Freidank

For example, Wattenbach included the following proverb from Freidank’s Bescheidenheit (104, 11a-g, 13th century), because of its use of permît, a variant of the Latin Pergamen (parchment). It was not only individual words that proved troublesome, but the subtleties of tone that evaded my comprehension.

waere der himel permît und daczuo daz ertrîch wît,
und alle sternen pfaffen die got hât geschaffen,
si künden nicht geschrîben daz wunder von den wîben.

If the sky and the wide world were parchment,
and all of the stars God created were scribes,
they could not record the wiles of women.

I had originally translated himel as heavens, wît as ink, and wunder as wonders. Himel, depending on the context, can mean heavens or sky. Heavens carried too spiritual and poetic a tone, while sky is more appropriate for this particular excerpt. I had found an extant translation in which wît was translated as ink and temporarily adopted it since it made sense in the context; in fact, wît means wide. So, ertrîch wît = Erdreich weit, in other words: the wide world. Finally, I had interpreted daz wunder der wîben too literally as the wonders of women. Dr. Lähnemann immediately recognized Freidank’s ironic tone and suggested finding a less complimentary term and supported this revision: the wiles of women

15th Century German

Darumb so ruwet mich daz was gar sere
Und die hude noch mere,
Die man verderbet zu solichen dingen,
Daz neman keynen nocz kan gebrengen.
Us dem was solde man kerczen machen
Und verbornen zu gotlichen sachen,
Schaffhude die sulden wolle dragen,
So endurfft neman nit von briffen clagen.

Wattenbach also includes part of a fifteenth century poem. I recognized the agitated tone and originally translated so ruwet mich as angers me. This turned out to be in the wrong spirit. Instead, the speaker laments the use of wax and parchment for extra-divine ventures. Was appears in the first line and means Wachs = wax; a subsequent reference to kerczen = candles confirms the word’s meaning. Hude was obvious since the subject at hand is skin and parchment: Hude: Haut = skin. Somewhere in the depths of the internet I found the term nocz translated as night-time. Nocz, however, means Nutzen, in other words use or benefit. Again, Dr. Lähnemann adjusted the translation to elucidate its message.

Therefore, I greatly lament wax
and skins even more,
which are spoiled for such things,
which will benefit no one.
Candles should be made from wax,
and lit in divine service,
Sheepskin should bear wool,
Then no one would be allowed to complain about documents.

Wrapping up…

Wattenbach’s strength lies in the references he painstakingly assembled for our benefit. I have relied on kindred spirits whose expert input helped accurately decipher Wattenbach’s many citations. Through translation, these parchment-centric texts will become more broadly accessible and will expand and enrich our understanding of this enduring and versatile material. My own obsession with parchment has only deepened, as has my appreciation for all who helped usher this project along.

The images included in this post were taken in 2018 at Pergamena, Jesse Meyer’s parchment studio in Montgomery, NY.

Bibliography: Texts translated in AIT’s September 2021 parchment issue:

de Groot, Zeger Henrik. “Die Herstellung von Goldschlägerhaut, transparentem und gespaltenem Pergament.” Pergament.” Pergament: Geschichte · Struktur · Restaurierung · Herstellung, edited by Peter Rück. Sigmaringen: Thorbecke, 1999, pp. 373 – 380.

Moog, Gerhard. “Häute und Felle zur Pergamentherstellung: Eine Betrachtung histologischer Merkmale als Hilfe bei der Zuordnung von Pergamenten zum Ausgangsmaterial.Pergament: Geschichte · Struktur · Restaurierung · Herstellung, edited by Peter Rück. Sigmaringen: Thorbecke, 1999, pp. 171-181.

de Lalande, Joseph Jérôme LeFrançais. Art de faire le parchemin. De l’Imprimerie de H.L. Paris: Guerin & L.F. Delatour, 1762.

Wattenbach, Wilhelm. Das Schriftwesen im Mittelalter. Leipzig: Verlag von S. Hirzel, 1896, pp. 113-139 (section on parchment).

1 thought on “Translating Parchment: Deciphering Medieval German for Art in Translation”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *