Wednesday Word Tangle: how to use a dead calf to write an act of parliament

page of hand written text

Image: Pixabay


Today’s Wednesday Word Tangle is brought to you today by


According to the Online Entymology Dictionary a palimpsest is a parchment where the original text has been removed and subsequently used for new writing.

In these days of cheap, mass produced paper and rampant online brain spillage, it might seem a heretical act, to destroy original writing just to reuse the parchment.

But making parchment was a long winded and expensive process unvolving the slaughter and careful skinning of young animals (the finest vellum comes from unborn calfs), then there’s soaking in lime vats and scraping the hair off and stretching and more scraping and drying …

Eventually you’re left with a material so durable, it can last for centuries – much longer than paper. No wonder the UK government still records every new act of parliament* on vellum. It’s a real statement, isn’t it? It’s saying

We can’t write our new laws in stone, but here’s the next best thing. And we won’t need a bricklayer’s hod to carry them.

I find palimpsests enigmatic, mysterious phenomena. Being used to recording thoughts and images on paper (my brain being analogue and in many ways not used to the digital way of recording information) I found the idea of scraping away old text interesting.

Try scraping the average page of A4 and see how long it is until you’ve nothing more than smudged ticker tape.

And when you scrape the old text from vellum, is it like trying to rub out marks made with a scratchy pencil?

Are traces of the old writing left, ghostly remains behind the current text, a watcher in the shadows.

The answer is, of course, a resounding yes.

A few years ago a Byzantine prayer book was found to be a palimpsest made from several accumulated texts – including copies of lost works by Archimedes, Hyperides and Aristotle. From these flickering, ephemeral letters, scholars discovered that the Ancient Greek mathematician anticipated calculus – over two thousand years before it was developed in the 19th century.

So, what have we learned?

That making the anicent equivalent of paper is a messy, stinking process – that you have to be prepared to butcher animals in utero if you want the best quality writing material.

And that Archimedes was a very, very clever man.


Thanks to my blogging pal, Kat for starting W4W.

*This tradition was due to end – saving the country £80,000 pounds a year in the process – but it seems it has been saved for now.


15 thoughts on “Wednesday Word Tangle: how to use a dead calf to write an act of parliament

      1. Ah, wouldn’t that be grand? Researching all day, having tea with the lovely Sandi Toksvig, sharing a biscuit and a joke with John Lloyd . . . A new career awaits.


    1. Haha! I wish I had half the brains of a QI elf! I knew about the vellum making process before – I watch a lot of history docs and studied art history – and learned what a palimpsest was whilst studying. Love a medieval manuscript, see. I derive small pleasures from these things. Always wanted to set a murder mystery in a tannery, too – all those vats of lime …

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know, I should, shouldn’t I? There’s a half idea floating around in the back of my noggin, but mainly setting and character with little actual plot. I shall have to work on that. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too – words shadowing other words, a hidden story beneath the surface … Like when they scan a canvas and find another paiting beneath.


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