Parliament’s use of vellum, which has been a contentious issue for more than a decade, has fallen victim to austerity.
LONDON — For centuries, acts of Parliament have been inscribed on vellum
, a parchment made from calfskin. The 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.
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The House of Lords — with 819 members the world’s largest legislative assembly outside China — said the move would save about 80,000 pounds (nearly $116,000) annually. It said that using animal skin to painstakingly record and preserve laws was not 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 Wednesday.
This being Britain, where tradition runs deep, the plan to scrap vellum has irritated traditionalists who argue that history is being forsaken for a pittance.
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 authority and 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 Wednesday, noting 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.
Proponents of calfskin vellum say it lasts about 5,000 years, compared to the roughly 250-year life expectancy of high-quality archival paper. “If the Magna Carta had been on paper, it would have long ago been a bag of dust,” said Paul Wright, general manager of William Cowley, which has been supplying vellum for Parliament. The company began in 1870 and says it is the last of its kind in the country.
“With vellum you can roll up a document and leave it on a shelf for 5,000 years. You can handle historic documents that were touched by great artists and kings,” Wright said. “ If early civilizations hadn’t used vellum, our understanding of history would be diddly-squat!”
While some animal-rights activists challenge using animal skin as unnecessarily cruel when paper is readily available, vellum advocates note that the calfskins used in vellum come from animals that have already been slaughtered for meat.
Proposals to get rid of the vellum tradition spurred anger in 1999, when the House of Lords voted to abolish vellum, but the move was defeated by the House of Commons, which cited tradition.
The House of Lords is the less powerful chamber, but it is responsible for recording the acts of Parliament for both the parliamentary and national archives.
The chairman of a House of Commons committee dealing with the issue affirmed in January that the House of Lords had the authority to make the switch, according to the statement from the House of Lords.
Gray, the member of Parliament who defended vellum, said he would fight for a debate on vellum to take place in the House of Commons: “The game isn’t over yet.”