The Unexpected Link Between Goats and Books

To most everyone’s surprise, a seemingly random farm animal has a strong connection to every book we use today. Goats played a part in the manufacturing of many early English books. Even in the actual contents of the texts themselves, goats come up in more ways than one would assume. From the first-ever English books, all the way into recent history, goats have been shaping what books are today.

First Mentions of Goats

Many of the first-ever printed English books included countless references to goats, Shortly after whole texts were even written on the animals. It is hard to determine a definite first-ever English handwritten book, however, translations of the Bible were certainly amongst the earliest. The first-ever bible in English was handwritten by John Wycliffe in the 1380s, however, the first-ever printed bible was the Tyndale Bible in 1526 written by William Tyndale. Motivated by making the word of God more available to individuals less educated in Latin and Greek than he was, Tyndale left England, because the Clergy disapproved of his work, to make English translations. For his work the Catholic monarch Mary Tudor, more commonly known as Bloody Mary, had him burned at a stake. Within the Bible, goats were generally portrayed as a valuable animal to humans for both food and other uses, for instance in the making of tabernacles. Beyond this, they were often used as sacrifices to God further underlining their value.

As printing became a more common practice in the sixteenth and seventeenth-century books began to be printed with texts dedicated to goats as well. Two such examples can be found in UW Madison’s Special Collections. The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents by Edward Topsell and Cheape and Good Husbandy for the well- Ordering of all Beasts by Markham Gervase both published between 1568 and 1658 both list known animals with descriptions of information known at the time with the latter having a more specific focus on farming. Information ranges from surprisingly accurate to myths that were believed and are now known to be untrue. Mating seasons, as well as descriptions of different species and their physical differences, were known and described in a way that still holds true. Nevertheless, myths such as giving goats salt water will make them more likely to mate, amongst others, are also commonly found within these texts.

Goat Vellum

Besides goats being in the texts, skins sometimes made from goat hide, were used as a writing medium called Vellum. This is thin parchment made from animal skins (See sidebar for information on production), and was first made in the 6th century BCE, however, the most popular period of time for the use of this material in bookmaking was between the 12th and 14th century AD. When referring to vellum many believe that processed calfskin is being referred to however goats and sheep were also possibilities. Peptide fingerprinting has been used to identify the species of animal used in bookmaking at the time. The choice of animal depended on a few factors which can be summed up by local availability, as preserving the skins using salt was expensive and transport at the time slow by today's standards. The availability depended on other economic products of an area as well as food preferences amongst others. Out of the European countries in the 13th and 14th century Italy had the highest percentage of goatskin vellum. Germany, Great Britain. also used goats however seemed to make a larger percentage of vellum from claves and sheep.

Vellum production

The process of creating parchment or vellum originated in Pergamon, which is also what the parchment is named after. It is made by taking a hide and riding it of unwanted flesh and fur with a knife, after which it is soaked in lime. Next, it is stretched. After this, the parchment can be given a different color using dye and then stretched again. To dye parchment chalk, egg white, varnish, or oils were used to dye sheets of parchment to give them unified colors. Finally, it is dried under tension again and made the correct thickness using a curved knife.

Using goats as writing mediums to most people today may seem like a practice of the distant past, however, it has actually found its way into very recent history in a long-lasting tradition of the English parliament. Ever since 1497, the parliament has printed its laws on vellum from goat and calfskin. Due to the sheer amount of time that vellum was being used, the country was extremely hesitant to switch to archival paper as it had become part of parliaments identity. Using animal skins is significantly more expensive and for a long time, the government was spending large amounts of money on the process that could have been saved had archival paper been used which was the primary reason that in 2017 the switch was made. Since a single sheet of vellum is estimated to have cost 30£ with every page being printed three times, it is safe to say that this was a very expensive tradition. Despite significant amounts of controversy about abandoning the tradition, archival paper is now what British laws are being printed on.

Ever since its invention all the way to very recent history goats have played a role in physical writing. From the pages text was written on to the text actually on the pages, surprisingly goats are very strongly linked to the history of books and therefore are a part of the reason for the current existence of the books we use in everyday life today. Furthermore, vellum made from goatskin has had its impact and has even caused controversy as recently as 2017. With all this in mind, it can safely be said that while holding a book today thinking about the history that books have had and their links to goats is not as far fetched as many may believe.

Key Resources and Further Readings

"From Wycliffe to King James" by,

"The History Of Vellum And Parchment” by The New Antiquarian

Scribes, Scripts and Books by Leila Avrin