Home » Non-US » Traditionalists Rebuffed as Parliament Turns the Page on Parchment

Traditionalists Rebuffed as Parliament Turns the Page on Parchment

11 February 2016

From The New York Times:

For centuries, acts of Parliament and other important documents have been inscribed on vellum, a parchment made from calfskin. Magna Carta, which King John signed 800 years ago last year, was written on vellum. So was the Domesday Book compiled in 1086, 20 years after William the Conqueror sailed across the English Channel.

This ancient tradition has survived wars, revolutions and the rise and fall of the British Empire. Now, the use of vellum, which has been a contentious issue for more than a decade, has fallen victim to austerity.

The House of Lords, Britain’s unelected upper chamber of Parliament, is finally moving to replace the calfskin with high-quality archival paper, calling the move which will come into force in April a necessary — and thrifty — adaptation to the digital age.

The House of Lords — with 819 members, the world’s largest legislative assembly outside China — said the move would save about 80,000 pounds, or nearly $116,000, annually. It said that using animal skin to painstakingly record and preserve laws was hardly efficient, given, among other things, that it is more unwieldy and difficult to store than paper. It can take the skins of as many as 130 calves to produce a 500-page book. Moreover, archival paper is surprisingly durable.

“Currently, the oldest paper records in the Lords date back to the early 16th century, and are only a few years younger than the oldest vellum record in the Archives, which is an Act of Parliament from 1497,” the House of Lords said in an email statement on Wednesday.

. . . .

James Gray, a Conservative member of the House of Commons, called the move a reckless breach of tradition and argued that inscribing laws on vellum conferred on them the dignity they deserved. “Vellum lasts 5,000 years, while there is no guarantee that electronic means of preserving documents will be there 1,000 years from now,” he said in a phone interview on Wednesday, noting wryly that the once wildly popular floppy disk had long since been consigned to history’s dustbin.

Indeed, historians, archivists and librarians around the world have wrestled with the problem of digital decay: There is no guarantee that today’s electronic document-storage formats, like PDFs, will survive.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

PG is an unashamed Anglophile and loves stories like this.


18 Comments to “Traditionalists Rebuffed as Parliament Turns the Page on Parchment”

  1. PG is an unashamed Anglophile and loves stories like this.

    Agreed. I have a fantasy where the society has only recently shifted to using the “codex” form instead of scrolls. One man laments having to have his archives copied out “all over again.” Another character takes the long table she had used for unfurling scrolls and repurposes it as a banquet table. And another character has to catch herself from telling everyone to get on the same line of the scroll: “I mean, the same page in the codex.”

    As much as vellum lends majesty and prestige to a document, I have to side with prioritizing longevity. Maybe they can compromise and have important, history-in-the-making documents written on both paper and vellum. Everything else can be on paper.

    • Your fantasy sounds like fun. Title?

      • This has been posted a number of times, but it’s a goodie anyway.


      • In my Hounds of Annwn series, the new (human) huntsman takes over from the old (fae) one, and looks at the shelves of hunt logs in the huntsman’s office, a codex every 4 years, or so. He starts at the most recent and works his way back.

        Binding methods become more robust after a while — thick cords and wooden boards. The material shifts from paper to parchment. And then, somewhere in the dark ages, the scrolls begin.

        That’s what I use to get across the feel of just how long the fae can live…

      • JM — Thanks! When it’s published it’ll be called “The Arcana,” which is what spies are called in the Vindolanda Tablets. Some of my characters do use tablets for quick “Post-It” type notes. I’m looking forward to reading your “Winter Glory,” which I snagged a when I saw it on E-Book Soda a last week.

        Dave — I’ve never seen that video, so thanks for the laugh 🙂

        Karen — I love that kind of worldbuilding: weaving it through the fabric of the story.

        • Thanks, Jamie. For both the kind words and the title of your story. When is your projected release date?

          • Fourth quarter, hopefully as a birthday gift for myself in November (16th). This is the first in a trilogy. The second book is complete, and I’m editing it while I’m working on the third. The first two are each ~160K words, so I’m estimating the third will end up the same. I’m reluctant to release them one at a time, for fear of readers burned out on GRRM/Wheel of Time syndrome 😛

  2. I wonder if Amazon sells parchment. Goal: write a whole novel on parchment.

  3. So… they’re adapting to the digital age by beginning to use paper? That’s adorable.

    • Um – they’ve used paper since whenever –

      “…the oldest paper records in the Lords date back to the early 16th century”

      Mind you, some of those Lords are probably still there…

  4. Tomoe River paper and iron gall ink. I knew it!

  5. Cows and their children salute you.

  6. I hope they’re going to be careful. One of their previous media updates went horribly wrong.


  7. We’ve complained for years how plastic never breaks down in landfills and lasts nearly forever… figure out how to print your documents on plastic in a manner that bonds to the plastic at the molecular level. Poof, eternal archival printout. Yeah, yeah, there’s probably problems with that idea too.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.