bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Parliament and the Vellum Debate, part I

Posted in Future of Books by bonaelitterae on 6 March, 2016

Given the momentous and quick-moving issues at stake in politics this year, a question of stationery might hardly register. But when, this coming Thursday (10th March 2016), the House of Commons debates the future format of the copies of record of parliamentary statutes, there is something more going on than a simple choice between parchment and paper. Here is a palaeographer’s guide to the issue, brought to you in two instalments.

1. Some background

At the very middle of the nineteenth century, in 1849, two significant innovations were made concerning the official record of legislation. Up to that point, the ‘copy of record’ of each statute was written by a scribe on a parchment roll, the length of which varied – some rolls were over 400m long. The decision was made to dispense with tradition: in future, ‘with the view to preventing the chances of error’ the record would be printed, and the format would be a booklet, not a scroll. The one element that did not change was the material on which it was to be produced – it remained parchment or, as the parliamentary record constantly terms it, vellum.

The question of whether there should also be a change in material was (as the Research Analyst at the House of Commons Library, Elise Uberoi, has shown) considered in these discussions but, it seems, rejected at the last stage. In that sense, what is being discussed now could be seen as a piece of unfinished business. It is also, though, very much interrupted business: it was over a century later, in the later 1950s, that the decision was to taken to print Private Acts on paper; in 1957, a wider move for all legislation was rejected. There was further discussion in the mid-1980s, and, in 1999, the House of Lords proposed reform but this was also rejected in the Commons after a debate. The issue was revisited last year, and the process became byzantine: a Committee report recommended the change but there was no vote in the Commons; it was then announced a month ago that the decision had been made to end printing on parchment on 1st April. The Cabinet Office, however, has intervened to offer to cover the costs of continuing the practice, and the debate now set for Thursday is intended to provide a resolution to the matter.

2. Vellum versus Parchment

We should clarify terms. Parliament’s preferred term, ‘vellum’, and ‘parchment’ are often used interchangeably to describe the skin or membrane of an animal which has been prepared in such a way that it can be a writing surface. Strictly speaking, ‘vellum’, which is related to ‘veal’ should signify parchment from the skin of a calf, but many of the leaves used for statutes have been goat-skin. There is, though, another connotation to ‘vellum’: as the best quality parchment is considered to be that of ‘uterine calf’ (that is – and the squeamish should turn away now – from stillborn or neo-natal cows, where the hair has not had opportunity to grow and so the skin particularly smooth), the word can also imply the highest-grade of animal skin. It would seem that it is with those overtones that the term was used in the nineteenth-century discussions – a contrast is, at times, drawn between ‘vellum’ and ‘parchment’. Though, in the present debate it goes unstated, something of that sense of quality lingers in the continuing insistence on the less common and so more evocative term.

3. Modernisation versus Tradition

Reporting on the previous Commons debate in 1999, the BBC commented ‘this is one battle the modernisers have lost’. The idea that a change would be modernisation is curious and not just because a shift to a technology first introduced into Europe in the thirteenth century is hardly cutting-edge. Behind talk of ‘modernisation’ usually hides an implication of improvement but even the most rabid supporters of paper would not claim it was superior in durability or feel to parchment. Indeed, for most of its history, paper has been the poor cousin of writing surfaces. When the printing press was invented in the mid-fifteenth century, it proved a more conducive surface than supple parchment on which to stamp metal type, but even with that advantage, it was considered of lower quality: Johann Gutenberg himself had the Bible he printed produced on paper but with de-luxe copies on parchment. The practice was to continue in the following centuries. One late example of it which fascinates me is the twentieth-century tradition of churches in England commissioning manuscript books listing those from the parish who fell in war: out of respect for the dead, these are not only calligraphic masterpieces, they are most often on what many would call vellum.

On the other side of the debate, there is a similarly questionable assumption underlying some of the statements. The inclination to cite tradition as a reason might warm the cockles of conservative hearts. While it is never a sufficient rational argument for the status quo, in this case it is especially suspect. It can hardly be claimed that the printing statutes on vellum is itself a habit that has endured centuries, considering it began in 1849. A variant on ‘it has always been done like this’ could be ‘it is everywhere done like this’ but that would be demonstrably untrue. While the practice of printing on parchment was used in the United States for the copy of a Congressional bill sent to the President for signing, since 1947, the requirement has been only that the copy should be ‘printed on parchment or paper of suitable quality’. The question, in Britain, is whether paper can constitute ‘suitable quality’ – and whether the quality of parchment comes at too high a cost.

4. Price versus durability

The discussions in 1999 and in 2015-16 have been stimulated by a desire to save money. The claim has been made that using parchment is unjustifiably expensive, both because it is rare and costly product and because it requires a ‘highly specialised form of printing’. It is certainly the case that, in Britain, there is a monopoly on the industrial production of parchment: the one company in business is William Cowley of Newport Pagnell (for whom supplying Parliament plays a major role in keeping them in trade). The second claim, though, is surprising: certainly, as has been mentioned, printing traditionally has found parchment a less usable surface than paper but with the developments in technology to the extent that 3D printing would allow you to build your own tank or replica art masterpiece, it is implausible that fairly cheap methods of printing on parchment are unavailable. Overall, the claim has been made that moving from parchment to paper would save £80k but opponents of the change, led by the energetic calligrapher, Patricia Lovett, have estimated that the real difference is £37k per annum.

Against these financial calculations is set the issue of ‘quality’ or, more specifically, durability. A perennial problem for the reputation of paper has been that the suspicion that it will not survive in perpetuity. In the thirteenth century, the Emperor Frederick II banned the use of paper for recording his laws precisely because pages made only a few decades earlier were already disintegrating. It seems that the durability of the material was improved later in the same century in the Italian town of Fabriano which became the first major centre of the paper industry. In recent discussions, one argument has been that the ‘archival paper’ proposed to replace parchment is designed so that it should be able to last five hundred years. It was also pointed out, in the 1999 debate, that if a fire were to occur both parchment and paper would perish. This is only partly true, as anyone knows who has worked with manuscripts once owned by the seventeenth-century antiquary Sir Robert Cotton which were then subject to a fire in 1731. Some were destroyed completely but others survived in a fragmentary state, the parchment translucent, contorted and brittle but often still legible. The reality is that paper is quicker to burn, just as it is more susceptible to water damage. What is undeniable is that, while parchment is more durable, that is not in itself a guarantee that it will withstand all the possible disasters that can befall a physical object. If you want endurance, perhaps we should be looking beyond the physical.

Click here to read Part II.

2 Responses

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  1. […] continue from yesterday’s post, where I discussed the tensions in the debate over whether British statutes should continue to be […]

  2. […] in favour of rejecting the move to change to printing on ‘archival paper’. As with my previous discussions on this issue, I do not want to dwell on whether this is the right resolution as much as on the […]

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