Shadrina (2022 Congress)

Elena Shadrina
(Department of History, Harvard University)

“The Case of the Missing Papyri:
Document Survival and the Transition to Parchment in Medieval Venice”

Abstract of Paper
57th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Online, 2022)

Session on
“Medieval Writing Materials:
Processes, Products, and Case-Studies”

Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Mildred Budny
2022 International Congress on Medieval Studies Program



This paper will explore the evidence for early papyrus use in Venice and attempt to characterize the transition to the use of parchment as a primary writing support over the course of the tenth century.

Early medieval Venice is known to be something of a documentary void: only a few dozen documents survive from the entire period before 1000 C.E. The volume and detail of surviving documentation then increases significantly between the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and after the mid-twelfth century, the growth in the quantity of available material is exponential.

I argue that the lack of documentary material from the early period likely stems at least in part from an accident of preservation: until the late tenth century, Venetian documents were written on papyrus instead of parchment, which made them especially vulnerable to the humidity of the lagoon. The increase in the number of surviving documents after c. 1000 C.E. does not, then, necessarily correlate to an equally dramatic increase in the actual rate of document production. In fact, the attested number of notaries in the city began to increase already in the late ninth century, suggesting that more documents began to be produced then, but few have survived.

By analysing the earliest documents on parchment alongside the surviving copies of documents on papyrus, in this paper I will interrogate the ways in which the transition from papyrus to parchment affected Venetian documentary culture and how it has shaped the patterns of document preservation.