Monday, 15 February 2016

Historic Reprieve for Parchment in the UK!

At last! Today we were graciously informed over the airwaves that the use of parchment will be continued in Parliament, continuing a tradition of a mere 800 years (and more). There is to be a reprieve and in the UK we can continue to "keep  history to hand" for millennia to come. 

Common sense, exhibited by those representing the House of Commons or at least it's Cabinet Office, and more importantly a sense of history have prevailed. The House of Lords' recommendation to save a mere £80k by discontinuing the use of vellum (calfskin) or other parchment skins (sheep, goat) has been ignored. Savings will be found to fund the cost (Ed: what about an application to the Heritage /Lottery Fund anyone? Would that embarrass the House of Lords?)

As a representative of William Cowley (est. 1870), the last remaining Vellum maker and Parchmenter in the UK and one of only four in the world, reminded us - parchment keeps for at least 5000 years and needs no special conservation -the Dead Sea scrolls dating from 435 BCE were discovered in a cave. We cannot be sure, but Archive quality paper may last only 500 years at best. Cowley remarked that a small number of people (Ed: be they ignoble Lords perchance?) seemed to have decided that in the future ordinary people should not touch history. Vellum or prachment has provided us with more understanding of earlier civilisations than any other historical artefact.

MedievalMorsels  followed the issue back in October 2015 but did not thoroughly got under the skin of this problem....sharing its findings as a post be:

"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).


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, parchmenters William Cowley (est. 1870) provided the largest calfskin ever for use in the magnificent re-creation of a Mappa Mundi, commissioned by English Heritage, which hangs in the refurbished Great Tower of Dover Castle. Cowleys is one of only four parcmenters in the world and probably the last 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.).



"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! And now will be for thhe future...


Now (Ed: October 2015) 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: "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." "