Medieval Fur Preservation

We mention at the end of every podcast that we’ll take your questions. But we have been regrettably slow in answering the ones we haven’t incorporated into the actual episodes. There have been a lot of reasons for this–plague inertia, Dr. Jesse’s class schedule/general academicness, Em having some health issues (and, uh, a baby). But now, for 2021, we’re cleaning up our act, and we’re going to post the questions we answer here! So keep on sending them in!

From A.:

How did people preserve furs in medieval times? Would any peasant do it, or did it require special tradesperson materials?

As with many things in the Middle Ages, some techniques to preserve furs were open to anyone and others required specialized craftspeople. Sumptuary laws also governed the furs that people of different classes and professions could wear. Moreover, if peasants killed (or poached) rabbits or squirrels, etc., for fur, the quality of the end product was likely to be lower than that of imported fur (unless you were a skilled peasant who lived in an area with highly prized animals).

Fur and leather production were related crafts. There were a number of specialty tanners (depending on the type/quality of leather being created) as well as taw(y)ers or whittawers who tawed skin (rather than tanning it) by using alum and salts (for example) to create a white leather. Grömer, Russ-Popa, and Saliari discuss this process at length on page 72.

Grömer, Russ-Popa, and Saliari on fur: “When manufacturing furs, special attention is given to ensure that the hair retains its firm hold on the skin. The pre-tanning operations are similar to those of leather manufacturing. Traditionally, skins can be processed without tanning. They only receive preservative treatments that soften the skin and protect them from bacterial attack. For fur, tanning, tawing or treatment with oils is also possible (Thomson 2006: 73); treatment with smoke [one of the most original processing methods, which is still practiced today (Trommer 2008: 15)] is also an option” (73). Smoke preservation would be possible for most people, but the chemicals and knowledge needed for tanning or tawing were generally reserved for craftspeople.

Here is a portion of Grömer, Russ-Popa, and Saliari’s discussion of tawing: “Another method to produce leather is to treat the hides with alum. Here, a paste of alum is kneaded into the pelt. Besides alum, the paste can obtain other ingredients such as salt, egg yolks, butter or flour (Thomson 2006: 72). This process is repeated until the leather is tawed. The advantages of tawing versus vegetable tanning are: faster production, softer leather and lighter weight. These help explain why it was favoured amongst the craft conditions in Antiquity and the Medieval Period. The produced leather is white and therefore readily dyed (Trommer 2008: 26). The disadvantage of this method is the washability of the alum. If the alum is removed by water, the leather again behaves like a raw skin and, for example, is prone to putrefaction. Due to the washability of alum, this method is considered to be a semi-tanning method. The origin of this method is assumed to be Asia Minor, with some evidence also from ancient Egypt. The Romans and Arabs therefore contributed significantly to its spread (Trommer 2008: 24)” (72).

Karina Grömer, Gabriela Russ-Popa and Konstantina Saliari, “Products of animal skin from Antiquity to the Medieval Period” in Annalen des Naturhistorischen Museums in Wien. Serie A für Mineralogie und Petrographie, Geologie und Paläontologie, Anthropologie und Prähistorie, 119. Bd. (15 Feb. 2017): 69–93. [Available on JSTOR.]

The sources they cite in the paragraph I’ve quoted above are:
Thomson, R. (2006): Testing leathers and related materials. − In: Kite, M. & Thomson, R. (Hrsg.): Conservation of leather and related materials – pp. 58–65, Oxford (Taylor and Francis Ltd).

Trommer, B. (2008): Archäologisches Leder. Herkunft, Gerbstoffe, Technologien, Alterungs- und Abbauverhalten. – 244 pp., Saarbrücken (Verlag Dr. Müller).