bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Parliament and the Vellum Debate, part II

Posted in Future of Books by bonaelitterae on 7 March, 2016

To continue from yesterday’s post, where I discussed the tensions in the debate over whether British statutes should continue to be printed on vellum for the copies of record.

5. In the internet we trust?

The transformation of the world wrought by the invasion of the internet is, of course, the most significant change since the issue of parchment versus paper was last discussed on the floor of the House. Some, indeed, have pointed out that both sides in the debate seem antiquated: real change, it could be argued, would come with using the internet as the primary form of record. There would be worries about interoperability, that is the future availability of the texts as technology continues to revolutionise itself. This, though, is not the fundamental problem: ‘real change’ would be change to the virtual; the word of the law would be an apparition on screen, a vision – or a mirage. Is there yet enough trust in the gods of the internet who can conjure up words before us to let those things we considered most precious out of our grasp, to become intangible? It is improbable that such a future would commend itself to the honourable members of the Commons. Whatever presence a statute has on-line, it is likely Parliament will want to have the reassurance of a physical copy. This appears to be the consensus which hides behind the division of opinion – and not only that: there is a common acceptance among the law-makers that the form the copy of record takes should be of a quality to reflect the respect due to the law. This is, it should be stressed, not the only position that could be taken. In fact, a different approach was proposed by the Assistant Clerk to the House of Commons in 1837, when he noted that:

…the durability of the [copy of record] itself is of less consequence, when the permanent preservation of evidence of its contents is sufficiently secured by the multiplication of copies by printing, in case of the destruction of the original…

In other words, replication itself could stand as the guarantee of longevity. Admittedly, this reveals an ignorance of the frequency with which a printed work can disappear completely but what is more significant is that, in the nineteenth century, there was a trust in technology which could envisage an alternative to reliance on the specific copies of record. Of course, his argument was rejected: the insistence on durability and appropriate quality won then and will win now, whatever the outcome. It is not the only logical solution available but that it is seen as logical should give us pause to reflect.

6. More than skin deep

There is a paradox at the heart of the issue: the on-line would be consider insufficient because it is intangible but, equally, for the vast majority of the population, the physical copies of record are not within their reach. For each statute, there are two copies, one held in the Parliamentary Archives, and the second sent the National Archives at Kew. Any citizen can travel to Kew to check that record – but very few would bother. Most of us prefer, instead, to have confidence in the process and not to test it. We might consider ourselves cynical of those in power and about the workings of the state but, at some level, we look to it for reassurance. That reassurance lies not just in the fact that there are established methods of doing things – rituals of mundane bureaucracy – but also in a belief that there has been and will be continuity, that they have lasted and will be durable.

The rhetoric of durability, that is to say, is not simply or primarily a practical consideration: it speaks to the fundamental expectation that government provides stability. The party in power may change, policy and legislation itself may be overturned or revised but beneath that – we are being reassured – lies a more basic constancy. In creating that aura, however mendacious it might be, the choice of material on which to preserve the law of the land is part of the rhetoric, an element of the arcana of the state. In this context, parchment has a special advantage: it exudes archaicity and rarity. Perhaps even more than that, the idea of writing on the skin of animal hints at something visceral or elemental. The argument might go: while medieval kings hunted beasts in the royal forests, the rights of their subjects were written in charters on parchment. That ‘vellum’ – and now we may see the full import of the preference for that term – symbolises tradition certainly overlooks the greater changes that have occurred in the recording of legislation, but its continuing use creates or fabricates a sense of tradition.

This is heightened by the very fact that parchment is now rare: the message being given is that Parliament is so committed to showing respect to the law that they will seek out materials of the highest quality, however difficult they are to come by. That there is only one company in Britain commercially producing parchment is very much to the advantage of this rhetoric. If there continued to be as lively an industry as there was in the nineteenth century, this would have less traction. Parliament, then, should thank William Cowley of Newport Pagnell for being the sole survivor of that industry: in the years in which Parliament has relied on them for the supply of ‘vellum’, the apparatus of the state has, I would suggest, gained more in aura or charismatic capital than the company in financial return. For that reason alone – whatever doubts or suspicions we might have as citizens about the aura created – Parliament surely owes a debt to William Cowley; £40k a year sounds like a rather small subsidy to keep alive the only representative of an industry. If, though, that still seems excessive and the honourable members want to cut costs further, they might think of a more radical solution and one which would allow them to spend more time in their constituencies: pass fewer laws.


2 Responses

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  1. jbpiggin said, on 7 March, 2016 at 8:28 pm

    Thanks for this information-packed and deeply reflected account of the issues in the vellum debate. You have brought out so much that was lost in the noise. The 1837 quote from the assistant clerk is truly remarkable and forward thinking, and I am inclined to think it makes the most sense. That is why I so strongly advocate the digitization of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts on since there is a real risk those sources will vanish in some disaster or war, but 10,000 surrogates on computers right around the globe (and maybe some day on other planets) will be practically impossible to eradicate. Massive reproduction is the most effective means to preserve anything.

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