UICB Grad Heads to Cambridge to Research the Craft of Medieval Parchment Making
Wednesday, September 6, 2023

An MFA degree from the UICB can lead you in surprising directions, in the best way: Madison Bennet (MFA 22) just completed an MPhil and is now starting on her PhD at the University of Cambridge in archaeology, reconstructing medieval techniques for creating ultra-thin parchment using craft-based, historical, and scientific research techniques.

Madison, an accomplished calligrapher and parchment-maker, first began exploring the history of parchment-making and the craft of ultra-thin parchment as a UICB MFA student. “It all started,” she wrote, “because I wanted to use ultrathin parchment in an artist book for my MFA thesis show--and then found out that no one’s been able to make it consistently since the 13th century!” Work with UICB faculty, including Cheryl Jacobsen, Tim Barrett, Eric Ensley, and Beth Yale, led her into a deeper understanding of—and curiosity about—the history of these materials. She began to ask how they might have been made. For her thesis research at Cambridge, she’s measuring page thickness of medieval manuscripts to define the characteristics of “ultra-thin” parchment and  preparing control samples of parchment with different thicknesses and analyzing their protein content. The control samples will then be compared to samples derived from the “Trinity Gospels,” an 11th century illuminated English Gospel book held at St. John’s College, Cambridge.

Madison credits her time at the UICB with instilling in her the confidence to take on challenging historical and scientific questions. While working on her MFA, she developed the expertise and connections with other artists, scholars, and craftspeople that she needs to address those questions. Madison writes, “Did I know anything about protein analysis coming into Cambridge? No, I did not. But did I know anything about parchment making coming into UICB? Also no. And yet here I am, a liability at dinner parties because all I want to talk about is the microstructure of sheepskin.”

As she reconstructs the techniques for making ultra-thin parchment, Madison’s research promises to contribute to scholarship on the medieval book, modern-day book arts practices, and the conservation and care of these beautiful manuscripts, exemplifying the best of what the UICB has to offer, with its distinctive approach to bringing together art, scholarship, and craft. You can follow Madison on Instragram, where she shares snapshots of her work and life in the UK, at @madbenn. We look forward to seeing how your research develops!