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Parchment and Parliament: Vellum making headlines

Over the last two years, parchment has proven to be a contentious issue in the UK Parliament. This blog post reconstructs a debate about parchment in the UK House of Commons in April 2016.

June 2017: The Queen and the Goatskin

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Last week (June 12-18, 2017), various newspapers ran the story about a possible delay of the Queen’s Speech for the State Opening of Parliament (marking the formal start of the parliamentary year). The delay, it was said, would be caused by the fact that the speech had to be printed on goatskin and that the ink would take days to dry. While goatskin may remind some of medieval parchment (often made of the skin of goats), reporters were quick to point out that, while the monarch’s speech was indeed traditionally printed on parchment, no goats are harmed to produce present-day goatskin paper. Instead, it is high-quality paper that lasts for 500 years, bearing a watermark in the form of a goat. Be that as it may, the whole affair reminded me of April 2016, when parliamentary dealings with actual parchment were making headlines.

April 2016: Veni, vidi, vellum

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On 20 April, 2016, the UK House of Commons held a debate to repeal a decision to stop printing the Acts of Parliament on parchment – a suggestion made made by the House of Lords in February of that year. The rationale behind the initial decision was to cut down the annual printing costs (£103,000 per year) by replacing the pricy parchment for high quality paper. James Gray, MP for North Wiltshire and instigator of the debate on 20 April 2016, pointed out that, despite the fact that Parliament could save perhaps £10,000 or £20,000 a year, parchment has some advantages over paper. His two main arguments for not abandoning vellum were 1) the longstanding tradition of using vellum for important documents and 2) the fact that parchment is more durable than paper.

The records of the proceedings are published here in the House of Commons Hansard and make an intriguing read – especially for a medievalist: the various MPs refer to precious medieval documents to praise the value of parchment. Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland West, for instance, makes the point that, without parchment, we would not have had copies of Magna Carta, the Domesday Book and the Lindisfarne Gospels:

“Our most important documents have been printed or written on vellum, from the Magna Carta to the Domesday Book and a piece of important north-east English history, the Lindisfarne gospels. All these historical manuscripts have been preserved for posterity because they were printed on vellum. They have lasted through the ages due to vellum’s durable qualities, which have ensured that future generations can appreciate and respect our shared history. Surely the legislation that we make here is worthy of this small additional cost.”

Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for the City of Durham, also raises the importance of the Lindisfarne Gospels (luckily without noting that it had been printed on vellum!):

“The issue is close to my heart because of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Everyone here will know their relevance to the north-east and to my Durham constituency. Produced in around 700, the gospels were written and painted on vellum, without which the gospels simply would not be with us today. Not just old relics, they are important living texts for our understanding of the culture and heritage of the north-east and elsewhere.”

Reading how present-day politicians refer to medieval documents as being relevant cultural products is, of course, a joy for any medievalist. And who could deny the stunning cultural impact the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels still have today? (check them out digitally here)

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The art of the Lindisfarne Gospels: Dogs, birds and a self-portrait(?) on the opening page of the Gospel of St John © London, British Library, Cotton Nero D.iv, fol, 211r

Not everyone agreed with upholding this medieval tradition of using parchment, even if one MP in favour of abandoning parchment (Paul Flynn for Newport West) still cited the medieval Welsh poem Y Goddodin:

I cherish the history of this country; I cherish the Book of Aneirin, Y Gododdin, presumably written on vellum:
“Gwyr a aeth i Gatreath
Godidog oedd eu gwedd”.
That goes back to the early centuries, before English existed as a language. Of course we treasure the past, and our heritage, but it has nothing to do with this century. We have other ways of maintaining a record.

The 13th-century Book or Aneirin was indeed written on vellum and, while the poem Y Gododdin is older than its manuscript (composed between c. 700 and 1100), it should be pointed out that English was already around back then!

Nevertheless, while the long-standing tradition of reporting important matters on parchment may not have swayed everyone, there was another argument, one that strikes surprisingly close to home for myself.

Porck and parchment in Parliament

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Porck gets a mention in Parliament. Tweet by parliamentary journalist Richard Wheeler

In order to make the point about the durability of parchment over the durability of paper, Tory MP Chris Skidmore (for Kingswood) cited one Henk Porck (the tweet by parliamentary journalist Richard Wheeler above suggests that the name caused Sidmore some difficulties!):

Europe’s leading expert on the subject, Dr Henk Porck of the Netherlands national library, has gone on record as saying that current ageing tests for paper

“cannot be reliably predicted by means of the present artificial ageing tests.”

When it comes to printing our country’s laws, arguably our most important documents, we need to ensure that we have a clear assurance that the materials they are printed on will last the test of centuries, as vellum has. Paper-printed Acts of Parliament may last a long time—I do agree that they last a significant amount of time—but it is not long enough, and we need all the details of what is being proposed.

This Henk Porck is, in fact, my dad, a bio-chemist who worked at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands) as conservation scientist and curator of the Paper History Collection. His full quote on current, artificial ageing tests for paper reads “The rate of paper deterioration and other quantitative aspects of the natural ageing of paper, such as durability and permanence, cannot be reliably predicted by means of the present artificial ageing tests” and his report ‘Rate of paper degradation: The predictive value of artificial aging tests’ (2000) can be found here. In short, Henk Porck’s statement that the ageing of paper cannot be reliably tested was interpreted as a strong recommendation to use vellum instead of paper.

The statement (even though it did not advocate vellum per sé) proved convincing enough for Matthew Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office, who concluded the debate by noting that he was now in favour of retaining the tradition of printing the Acts of parchment:

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) brought his great and deep expertise to the debate, and told us why Dr Porck thinks we should print on goatskin. For that insight, I thank him. … On the basis of symbolism, cost and practicality, therefore, we should continue this great and long tradition.

So did my dad play a vital role in Parliament’s decision to hold on to using parchment? Unfortunately, that is not the full story.

Parchment wrapped around paper

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Even though the House of Commons voted on 20 April, 2016, to keep using parchment ( 117 Ayes vs. 28 Noes), the House of Lords still decided to switch to using high-quality paper. In the end, a compromise was reached, which means that the Acts will now be printed on high-quality paper, but will have parchments covers, with the name of the legislation in caligraphy. Parchment wrappers! Understandably, some MPs responded with disgust, including MP Ian Liddell-Grainger who was cited in the Daily Mail as follows:

We never learn. You try to save pennies and you lose pounds. The history of parliament is the history of our nation. Remember history because you will need to learn those lessons.

[About the Article 50 Act (triggering Brexit)] It should be written on vellum. Because in a thousand years’ time people will ask, ‘what did they do in March 2017?

They will not read it on paper. Ancient man had it right.

Now that the UK Parliament has switched to paper (with parchment wrappers), it is to be hoped that they treat and store the paper with care. Should they be interested, ‘Europe’s leading expert on the subject’ and myself co-wrote an article about a late medieval text from 1527 on book preservation, which appeared with an English translation of the medieval text as T. Porck & H.J. Porck, ‘Eight Guidelines on Book Preservation from 1527: How One Should Preserve All Books to Last Eternally’, in: Journal of PaperConservation 13(2) (2012), 17-25. The article is available on Academia.edu. A summary was featured on this blog as “Do not give your books to children!” and other medieval tips for taking care of books

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Medieval monkeys making parchment (source; Erik Kwakkel’s Tumblr-page)

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