Saturday, 31 October 2015

MedievalMorsels gets under the skin of Vellum and Parchment


Parliament in the UK is grappling with the problem of Vellum or Parchment, or both. It’s a murky tale, a murky distinction and I cannot be sure what the outcome has been. Will they or won’t they discontinue a thousands of years old practice? MedievalMorsels has not thoroughly got under the skin of this problem....

Earlier this month House of Lords Committee recommended to the UK’s House of Commons that Parliament should no longer print the official copies of its Acts on Vellum. Instead, as a cost cutting exercise, it is suggested that record copies of Acts of Parliament  should instead be printed on archival quality paper. As now, one copy would continue to be stored in the Parliamentary Archives and the other sent to The National Archives (which has already stated that it does not require a copy on Vellum).


And the implication is that parchment quality paper used for other official purposes will also be discontinued. For the Queen’s Speech, her annual address to Parliament, for Royal wedding certificates and so on….


So it boils down to whether ‘recorded history’ will be accessible to those who follow many generations into the future. Archival quality paper has proven 250 years life expectancy and, we are told, a probable 500 year life expectancy. Centuries ahead it seems likely that posterity may not have Vellum or Parchment for to pore (?paw) over. But will it have an otherwise preserved written record?


What exactly is Vellum, and what is Parchment and what is the difference? The term parchment is a general term for an animal skin which has been prepared for writing or printing. Parchment has been made for centuries, and is usually calf, goat, or sheep skin. The term vellum from the French veau refers to a parchment made from calf skin. But even as early as the 16th century in England there has been some confusion in use of the terms.  So we had better leave it at that.

The manufacture of Parchment  involves removing the skin of an animal of any hair or flesh, stretching it on a wooden frame where the parchment maker scrapes the surface of the skin with a special curved knife. To create tension in the skin scraping is alternated by wetting and drying the skin. The Parchment must be scraped, wetted and dried several times to bring it to the right thickness and tautness for calligraphy or printing.

Parchment has traditionally been used instead of paper for important documents such as maps, religious texts, public laws, indentures, and land records as it has always been considered a strong and stable material. Even in the US the five pages of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Articles of Confederation are written on Parchment.

Back in the UK, in 2011 William Cowley was privileged to supply a piece of fine calfskin manuscript vellum to the Royal Household where Royal Calligrapher wrote and illuminated an ‘Instrument of Consent’, signed by the Queen and  sealed with the Great Seal of the Realm, giving formal consent to the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The largest calfskin ever supplied in the UK was used for magnificent re-creation of a Mappa Mundi, commissioned by English Heritage, which hangs in the refurbished Great Tower of Dover Castle.



"Going goat" is still a phrase used in Whitehall to describe the moment when the Queen's Speech has to be finalised and sent to the Palace for Her Majesty's approval. But the Monarch’s speeches, formerly printed on goatskin Parchment we must assume, are presently printed on sheepskin Parchment! Perhaps not for long...


Now I have been unable to find out how the Parliamentary Acts question was finally resolved in the Commons.Lets leave the last, spoken, word to William Cowley (est. 1870)  the last remaining Vellum maker and Parchmenter in the UK, one of only four in the world and probably the last in the world to produce skins using traditional craft tools and skills. Their Vellum sheets can take up to six weeks to produce and are sold to practitioners, conservationists, bookbinders, museums and libraries all over the world. No air conditioners or hermetically sealed rooms for Vellum! (Or Parchment? Ed.)


As Cowley remarks: "There is bitter irony that the very year we celebrated 800 years of Magna Carta, we may also witness the end of recording Acts on Vellum. Vellum has excellent 'green' credentials, needs no specialist aftercare, and has provided us with more understanding of earlier civilisations than any other historical artefact."