The science of parchment and paper: discovery and conservation

Over the past year, a battle has been waged between the House of Lords and the House of Commons as to whether public Acts should continue to be printed on parchment. On the one hand, parchment is used at a substantial cost compared to paper; on the other, it is more durable and maintains tradition, including keeping in business the last parchment and vellum maker in the UK. But what is the distinction between vellum and parchment? At the Bodleian Library on 14 February, a large group gathered to attend a joint venture between the local ‘Café scientifique’ and the Bodleian to find out more about ‘Science and the love of books’ in all their animal, vegetable and mineral glory from Bodleian conservator Andrew Honey. One of the things that we learned was that vellum is a type of parchment, the latter referring generally to all animal skin used as a writing support. But confusingly, while ‘vellum’ literally refers to parchment made of calf-skin, it has, in certain circles, come to acquire the connotation of ‘high-quality parchment’. Which is why it is safer to refer to parchment tout court to avoid speaking at cross-purposes about vellum.

Honey talked the audience through the process of transforming animal skin into parchment, complete with (sometimes somewhat grisly) photos and videos from the Conservation department’s successful attempt to do so from scratch, the results of which were present for viewing and handling. It was interesting to learn that a practical understanding of the material is enabling the team to work out the size of calves in the twelfth century thanks to a close examination of the pages of a large Bible, the pages of which retain clues to anatomical features such as the ilium, the sacrum, the caudal vertebrae and sometimes the first and second thoracic vertebrae. By the eighteenth century, parchment had mostly been replaced by paper for writing and printing, though Alexis Hagadorn gives a detailed account of parchment-making in eighteenth-century France. Even in the nineteenth century, it was still occasionally used by ‘ordinary’ people for binding books instead of calf or morocco leather, as attested for example by this travel diary by William Campion, dated 1858.

‘Observations of Wm Campion In His Travels 1858’, Voltaire Foundation collection.

When it came to paper, we were in more familiar eighteenth-century territory. The process described, and which can be viewed in this 1976 film made at Hayle Mill, would have been familiar to the writers of the 1765 Encyclopédie article ‘Papier’ which, in addition to explaining the techniques used to make the European ‘Papier de linge’ (cloth-based paper), also describes other types of paper from around the globe. What the author, Louis de Jaucourt, would not have known, however, was the neat chemical transformation that takes place as the wet paper dries in its mould, whereby the hydrogen bonds between the fibres and the water are slowly replaced by hydrogen bonds between the fibres themselves, thus giving the paper its structure.

Paper is flexible, foldable – and, just as crucially, scalable. Paper can give us the folio volumes of the Encyclopédie as well as small duodecimo (or even smaller) books which are portable and easily hidden. As Voltaire wrote to D’Alembert on 5 April [1766]: ‘Je voudrais bien savoir quel mal peut faire un livre qui coûte cent écus. Jamais vingt volumes in-folio ne feront de révolution; ce sont les petits livres portatifs à trente sous qui sont à craindre. Si l’évangile avait coûté douze cents sesterces, jamais la religion chrétienne ne se serait établie’ (I’d like to know what harm can be done by a book that costs a hundred crowns. Twenty folio volumes will never bring about a revolution; it is the small, portable books costing thirty pennies that are to be feared. If the gospels had cost twelve hundred sesterces, the Christian religion would never have caught on).

It sounds as though a conservator’s life is never dull. Something new always comes to light when an object needs to be disassembled for repair, even if that discovery is the distressing mess of animal-based glue that reveals a hasty nineteenth- or twentieth-century repair done on the cheap. The prime candidates for restoration work are items that are both badly damaged but also in high demand by readers. Digitisation is possible, and also a solution increasingly adopted by the Bodleian but, happily for us readers, conservators are aware that there will always be cases when, in order to answer research questions, scholars need to see and handle the original document, when nothing but an examination of the object, in all its sometimes messy physicality, will do.

Gillian Pink

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