On the 12th October 2015, a Commons Committee voted in favour of scrapping the use of vellum as the material on which Acts of Parliament are printed (see here). This has been a much debated decision for a number of years: in 1999 MPs voted 121 to 53 to keep the practice, and again in 2011 MPs from both sides of the House argued the pros and cons of keeping printed vellum records.
Those wishing to reject vellum in favour of archive paper argue that the practice is antiquated and expensive; Lord Laming said that vellum costs the tax payer “slightly over £100,000 a year”, whereas archive paper “was superior for print quality”. However those in opposition to the change protest this; the manager of the UK’s only vellum manufacturer calculated an average annual cost of around £47,000, which is not that dissimilar to the price of paper.
The contents of Worcester Cathedral library allow us to see a record of the writing materials used for manuscripts and books throughout the centuries. Will a quick survey allow us to take sides in the twenty-first century battle between vellum and paper?
Papyrus is one of the oldest writing materials in the world, thought to have been manufactured as early as the fourth millennium BC. It is made from slicing the sticky inner stem of the papyrus plant into strips, laying the strips side by side and on top of each other in perpendicular layers, and then hammering the layers flat before drying it out.
In a dry climate, such as that of Egypt, papyrus is extremely long-lasting because it is made of rot-resistant cellulose. However in wetter European climates it becomes vulnerable to mould and seems to have only lasted for a matter of decades when stored normally.
In 1896, two British archaeologists were excavating what they thought were a series of rubbish mounds in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, when they realised that this dump was essentially a Hellenistic time capsule. Because of the uniquely dry conditions of the desert, thousands of papyri that had been thrown away in the Egyptian, Greek and Roman periods were uncovered in remarkably good condition. The finds at Oxyrhynchus provide an unparalleled picture of the running of an ancient town through accounts, tax returns, receipts, personal correspondence and many more miscellaneous documents, as well as providing previously lost literary works such a number of Sophocles’ plays.
We have four fragments of Oxyrhynchus papyri in the library. The first here is a fragment of a letter written in Greek in a large hand on the back of a taxing list, dating from the second or third century AD. The second is thought to be from the late first or early second century AD, and is a part of a taxing or survey list, written in cursive Greek.
Vellum is the earliest type of writing material used in the British Isles, and is made from calfskin. The oldest manuscripts in the library are written on vellum; this fragment of six leaves dates from the eighth century, and was found in the binding of a medieval book. The handwriting style, known as semi-uncial insular, may suggest that it was written in Worcester.
Nowadays vellum is often used synonymously with the wider term ‘parchment’, meaning a material made from animal skin including that of goats or sheep. The skin is washed and soaked in lime for several days to soften it and remove any hair, before being hung up on a frame and scraped. When it is completely dry, the skin is carefully cleaned and cut into sheets and rubbed to allow the ink to adhere better to the surface. Often it is white or cream in colour, and sometimes the veins of the animal are visible on the surface.
Vellum – and especially ‘uterine vellum’ made from a calf foetus – was an expensive, high-quality material. Unlike the everyday papyri found in the rubbish dump at Oxyrhynchus, it would not be used for shopping lists or business invoices. Some of our most sumptuous medieval manuscripts are made from vellum. This beautiful Book of Hours from the fourteenth century has been lavishly decorated with gold leaf, and inks made from crushed semi-precious stones.
Although it was largely replaced by paper after the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, vellum continued to be used for legal documents and by artists who prefer the material to paper. Vellum has proven to last over a thousand years in excellent condition; however, it can be very vulnerable to changes in humidity, which causes pages to buckle. Books with parchment pages were bound with strong wooden boards and were clamped shut by metal clasps or leather straps in order to keep the pages pressed flat.
3) Medieval Paper
It is thought that paper came to medieval Europe from China in the thirteenth century. Its rise can be tied to that of the printing press – unlike parchment, paper was cheaper to produce and easier to press and bind. These paper pages are from a rare first edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales printed by Caxton in c. 1478.
Often medieval paper was made from rags, which were dampened and left to rot for several days before being pulped in a stamping mill. The wet pulp was then drained through a mould, which left a layer of matted fibres behind, placed with a piece of felt into a screw press and pressed repeatedly until all the water was squeezed out. If it was to be written on, the sheets of paper would be dipped into a vat of animal size, a liquid made from boiling scraps of parchment or leather shavings in water. This process gives the paper a smooth and impermeable writing surface, which was not necessarily needed for printing. Finally, like vellum, the paper was burnished by rubbing it with a smooth stone.
Water-powered papermills helped to speed up the process of papermaking in fifteenth-century England, but making enough paper for a book was still expensive. This is a printed page from a book by Charles I on the Tumults in Scotland, 1639.
The library has a large number of printed paper books from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – these are the leather-bound spines that line the main bulk of the shelves.
4) Modern Paper
In the nineteenth century, steam-driven papermaking machines helped to revolutionise the process. Although wood had sometimes been used previously in papermaking, by the end of the nineteenth century almost all printers in the Western World had foregone rags and used wood to make paper instead. Along with the invention of the practical fountain pen and the mass-produced pencil, as well as the steam-powered printing press, cheaply produced paper contributed towards the widespread rise of literacy levels in England.
Although early paper that was made from wood-based pulp did not have its lignin removed and as a result deteriorates over time, turning yellow and brittle, modern, high-grade acid-free paper has a life-span of over a thousand years. Foxing – yellow or brown spots on aging paper – can be found on the paper of low-quality modern books. For example, this history book from 1912 shows signs of foxing.
So which material comes out on top? The truth is, there can be no true winner. The biggest factor in their preservation is the care with which the documents are kept. Vellum has proven to stand the test of time, but modern high-grade paper is specifically engineered to last just as long. If the cost of each material is roughly the same, the decision that MPs will face when the matter comes to a vote will be a sentimental one: to preserve a centuries-old tradition, or to have their writing material reflect the changing times.