Month: April 2016

Parliament and the Vellum Debate – the final word (for now)

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On Wednesday, the House of Commons finally found an hour and half to debate whether to abandon the practice of printing the official copy of statutes on ‘vellum’. At the end of the ninety minutes, 155 MPs – just under a quarter of the House – voted on the issue with a large majority in favour of rejecting the move to change to printing on ‘archival paper’. As with my previous discussions on this issue, I do not want to dwell on whether this is the right resolution as much as on the reasoning given on both sides of the argument.

It is often said – most often by MPs, but also by others among Westminster’s village-people – that the level of informed debate held in the Commons is impressive. If that is so, then the Members of Parliament were having a collective bad day on Wednesday. Most of the interventions revealed ignorance, revelled in irrelevance and resorted to hyperbole. The item at the heart of the debate – ‘vellum’ – was not well understood by many who considered their opinion should be heard. As I have explained before, the terminology has an innate ambivalence and its history is the subject of debate. A small example of this is my own mention in an earlier post of uterine vellum, a particularly smooth surface because (it is said) it is made from the skin of an abortive or neo-natal calf. My friend, Mary Garrison at the University of York, dropped me a line to point out that recent research demonstrates that there is no reason to assume that what was called, in the Middle Ages, ‘abortive vellum’ did actually come from such young animals: it may well instead be a matter of how the skin was prepared. There is, in other words, some doubts over details in scholarly circles, but there is nothing like the confusion MPs showed. Vellum is not, as Sir Paul Beresford would have it, a ‘very similar material to parchment’ – vellum simply is parchment. The term, as I have explained before, can have special connotations and, indeed, at Parliament’s parchmenters, William Cowley, it is used particularly to signify a writing surface made of calf-skin (I thank Patricia Lovett, the leading calligrapher who has campaigned hard on this issue, for confirming this). Vellum – etymologically connected to veal – is the calf-skin sub-set of parchment. This eluded some of those who rose to speak who talked of laws being printed on goatskin. This was a claim made in the 1999 debate on the issue, and recently repeated on television by young Jacob Rees-Mogg, but is no more than an error: goats can be used for the making of parchment, as can sheep, and both are utilised at William Cowley’s but not for the highest-grade material that is sold to Parliament.

The ignorance about what they were discussing was not confined to one material. The putative replacement is ‘archival paper’ which, according to Paul Beresford, has been used by Parliament since 1510. This conjures up an image of a clerk to Henry VIII visiting a paper-maker and insisting ‘I don’t want any of your run-of-the-mill stuff…’ – except, of course, there was no such distinction between types of paper in the sixteenth century and, anyway, in 1510 a royal clerk could not have simply have walked across London to find a paper-mill: there was none in England at this point or until the middle of the reign of Elizabeth. We might wonder how many of the speakers relish the idea that those early paper records were all written on imports from our continental neighbours.

This is not to say that all historic paper is as liable to destruction as some of the speakers claimed. Chris Skidmore, himself trained as an historian (did I not teach you one term, Chris?) and author of history books, described his visits to the National Archives at Kew. He was right to say that many of the early modern records on paper are fragile and unavailable to touch – but he surely also knows that there are others of the same date which have survived and show no sign of disintegrating in the next few years. The quality of paper varied and what is perhaps surprising is that some of the more ephemeral records written on thin paper not intended to last are still with us. It is not the case, as was claimed in the debate, that paper cannot last 500 years – just as we can have no certain evidence that, as James Gray moving the motion to retain vellum claimed, parchment will last 5,000 years. We have no examples of that age and, indeed, the city of Pergamon, most likely did not exist and certainly had not invented parchment (the city’s name is the origin of our term) in 3,000 BC.

Exaggerated claims, however, were not the preserve of those wanting to continue the use of vellum. On the other side, the amounts of money to be saved do not bear scrutiny. In an impassioned speech condemning the motion as a ‘vanity project’, Paul Flynn claimed £100,000 a year could be saved by moving to paper copies. This is more than double the figure of the cost of the vellum in the year of highest expenditure, and the amount paid to William Cowley, by their reckoning, is usually closer to £20,000. Like so many predicted government savings, this is likely to be one which does not materialise and then requires the costs of an investigation to find out why it did not.

Other speeches combined mistakes with misdirection. Michael Ellis noted that ‘Torah scrolls are printed on vellum’, except that the Jewish tradition requires the handwriting of the Torah (not printing) and, as the MP himself later noted, the ‘vellum’ was not produced by England’s one commercial supplier. What would be valid is the larger point that parchment still has uses beyond the copies of record of statutes – but whether that is a point which would commend itself to those MPs in favour of continuity is doubtful.

The reason for doubt is the implication of the central argument used for continuing the practice: a resort to tradition. Ronnie Cowan spoke eloquently against this mantra, hinging his contribution on a quotation from Woody Allen: tradition is the illusion of permanence. For some in the debate, it certainly seemed that the construction of an illusion was the value of vellum. Several speakers referred to Magna Carta, presumably because it continues to be so much in the public imagination following the 2015 celebrations; the argument usually ran that it would not have survived if it had been written on paper – overlooking the copying and re-copying which has been part of its success. On the other side, the importance of the Great Charter was taken to stand in opposition to the tawdry mundanity of much latter-day legislation. In riposte, the wittiest intervention, by David Warburton, contrasted the importance of Domesday Book with the ‘equally wondrous’ Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2016 but by mentioning them in the same breath intended to emphasise a sense of connexion – they are all part of the legal fabric of our nation and so all deserve to partake in a tradition of respect. In this logic, one would expect the processes of respect to be shared by all elements of that fabric but also confined only to them. Might we hear next of an attempt to make the use of vellum exclusive to those products of the genius of our MPs’ minds, the statutes of the realm?

I have said before that the argument that parchment should be used for printing records because it evokes tradition and stability suggests something worrying about how we construct our state, with recourse to mystique rather than reasoning. The cause of law on ‘vellum’ seeks for the physical material itself to express something of the ineffable spirit of our unwritten constitution. Is there no better argument? There surely is, but it was not expressed on the floor of the Commons. If, though, Parliament, for its own ill-informed and illogical reasons, wishes to provide a small subsidy to keep alive Britain’s one parchment-maker, then that does some good. The Commons may have had the wrong reasons but it reached the right decision – this time.

Will this be the end? In the normal run of things, we might expect to be saved from another debate for at least a decade. But, then, these are not normal times. Imagine (if you dare) this scenario: the EU referendum is won by those who want Britain to leave the Union. As a result, that other Union, between England and Scotland (which, by all accounts is solidly in favour of remaining in the EU) collapses, since it would be tyrannous for one partner to insist the other be bound to its own descent into squalid isolation. In that context, the newly English Parliament, faced with not just a political but also an economic crisis of its own making, would need to consider all savings possible. In that context, what would the fate of ‘vellum’ be?

Tagged: parchment, Parliament, Patricia Lovett, vellum, William Cowley

A previously unidentified manuscript from the collection of Christopher Urswick – and the need to catalogue maniculae

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One of the benefits of the addiction with which, as I have described, we manuscript researchers are afflicted, is the afterglow that follows the high. It is a short span of time but one in which it seems that the luck – or self-made serendipity – continues to hold and further finds can be made. So it has happened with me today. It is unrelated with the subject of the high itself, the unidentified work of Thomas Candour, but is connected with other codices I saw on my American travels. Two of these were the work of Pieter Meghen, both made for the Dutchman’s first English patron, Christopher Urswick, dean of Windsor. In both, the same reader annotates the volume and he has been identified as Urswick himself. I have not before studied systematically his manuscripts – here operates the curse of excellent scholarship which wards of later travellers through the same regions: Urswick’s book collection received a seminal study by the late Joe Trapp in the first volume of that estimable journal Renaissance Studies (estimable – I explain in the spirit of full disclosure – because it published my first article). With such a work published, is there any need for further investigation? There is, of course, always more to be discovered. What happened in this case is that the annotations with their distinctive drooping manicula reminded me of a note I made some fourteen years ago about a manuscript in the Bodleian. This is the first day since my return that I have had the opportunity to check MS. Rawl. G. 28, a tiny, pocket-sized later fifteenth-century copy of Cicero’s De officiis in a hybrid gothic script with some humanist features, including the repeated use of a low-set ampersand as both conjunction and suffix. Having just turned over it leaves, I can nwo announce with full confidence that it includes, starting at fol. 10 and with the last appearing at fol. 102v, marginalia which are, indeed, by Urswick. This should be added to the list of volumes that passed through his hands.

We might also add that he was not the first owner: another reader also annotates the book – sometimes translating short passages of Latin into English – and, as at fol. 95v, Urswick’s notes are written around those of the other reader, the sequence of ownership can be established. I think we may be able to go further and say something more about that other reader, but I am not fully certain of that yet (confirming it may require a trip to Rouen, tant pis) and, anyway, one revelation is enough for one day.

A revelation, you say? This hardly registers on the Richter scale of codicological discoveries, you complain. I did say the find was small – and, indeed, that is why it is presented here in what I have called before the imaginary journal,  Aperçus & obiter dicta, rather than being hidden away in my notes waiting, like so much else, to be launched upon the world in print and with fanfares. I mention it, however, because it introduces a wider issue to which we should attend. Too often, in catalogues, the presence of a manicula or pointing hand is noted with no more description. I could not have made the link I have done if I had not copied out an example of it myself (remember, this was before the days of digital cameras) and written a record as an aide-memoire of its main features. What I am suggesting is that we need both a repository of images of maniculae and an agreed language (equally for hard-copy descriptions and for tagging of on-line images), designed to explain the salient elements of a pointing hand. We might start with the term itself: some catalogues talk of a maniculum or maniculus but these are simply mistakes (in Latin, the diminutive of a term takes that term’s gender and as manus is feminine…); should we, though, talk of a ‘manicula’ or use the new English coinage, ‘manicule’? I leave to an International Convention the debate and testy resolution of that issue. What, I think, matters more is that we should record features like its angle: is it upright or horizontal, or diagonal (rising or, as I have just said, drooping)? Does it show fingers as well as fore-finger? Does it have a cuff? Is it connected to a marginalising line and, if so, in what style?

These, I would suggest, are the key elements we need to record: perhaps you have more you would like to suggest (as long as we stop short of a counsel of impossible perfection). Maniculae can be a powerful tool for recognising a person’s annotations, particularly when verbal notes are rare or overly succinct – but we can only harness that power if we show them the respect of a clear and shared vocabulary.

Tagged: Bodleian Library, Christopher Urswick, Cicero, maniculae, Pieter Meghen, Thomas Candour

Confession of a Manuscript Researcher

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Let us admit it: manuscripts research is a drug. An observer of a special collections reading room may not credit it, sensing the hushed atmosphere that envelopes the seated individuals oblivious to the watching eyes as their attention concentrates on the volumes resting before them. We toil in what can often be drudgery – admittedly, comfortable but, all the same, a grind of request, checking and return recorded in brief notes which confirm that a book has been excluded from our enquiries. Even in this process, there is a tingling sensation, the tiny frisson of the scent and touch of parchment, the affecting recognition of contact with scribes and readers long dead but still present in the codex we have before us, and the irrepressible hope at the point just before we open the pages that here, maybe, will be a ‘find’. And when a find does come, it provides the rush, the exhilaration that keeps us enthralled to this drug through the years or, more often, decades which lie between each hit. We manuscript researchers are patient addicts.

Like any addict, when we are under the influence of the drug, we want to break out of normal behaviour: we are so stimulated that we want to shout, to break the silence of the reading room and call others to our desk so they can share in our excitement. What stops us, beyond a residual sense of propriety, is a semi-conscious realisation that very, very few, even in that learned space, would actually want to share, would appreciate what we have found to the extent we do. I remember once in the Vatican, at the point when I made a discovery and the power of the drug coursed through me like an intravenous injection, I looked around the room and caught the eye of a young researcher, who smiled and so revealed herself as a fellow addict, who knew from her own experience the sensation I was feeling. We did not talk – that is not the point: this is a designer drug, individuated for each user. What gives a hit to one person will leave another cold; but in the civilised opium den that is the library, there is an honour-code by which each respects the others’ moments of epiphany.

You might be able to tell that I am living on the after-effects of a dose of The Drug. In my career, I have had more than my fair share of hits – indeed, one sensation which, for me, comes at the moment of the rush is the downer, the question in my head: do I deserve this good fortune? Perhaps my luck will end; perhaps I have had my last find. Even if so (and, Lord, prevent it), the memory of the act of previous discoveries will sustain me. From the first occasions, in the mid-1990s, when, in Cambridge, I found in quick succession two manuscripts owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, followed, on 5th April 2003, by the most memorable rush I have experienced, on a day when every manuscript I called up in the Bibliothèque nationale de France was a revelation – that day I nearly overdosed – with, only three months later, another hit, standing at the kitchen sink that serves the library of St John’s College, Oxford (have I told you that tale? Some day I surely will) – all these, and besides them, those moments in the Vatican Library, of course the Vatican, whose vast reserves of volumes to be seen will provide highs for eternity, with the most recent for me being reported on this website – each of these hits has driven me, impelled me to return to the library, to continue in this line of work while good sense (or the opposite, the demands of the REF) might argue otherwise. Note that it is the act itself that provides the hit; the thing discovered takes a cherished place in the friendship group of manuscripts one has known, but that is because of the associations it has earnt for you; certainly, the revelation of the discovery in print is only the after-effects, like the sucking on the lemon after the gin has been drunk dry.

I see, from the post I just mentioned, the date of my last hit was December 2012. So, I have waited nearly three and a half years for the next high: the interval itself increases the excitement. I have just returned from the States, where I had a useful week of research, looking in particular, at two manuscripts by Erasmus’s friend and the pre-eminent copyist in England in the early sixteenth century, Pieter Meghen. I visited first one, which by the date Meghen provides is his earliest manuscript; it was sold at Christie’s London rooms in 2010 (at a time when I as out of the country so unable to see it) and was bought by the Beinecke at Yale. The other has been at Princeton for longer and looking at it this week, it appears to me highly likely that it is from substantially earlier in Meghen’s career than that at Yale (I hope these words do not cause a feud between the two). All this, and the other books I studied, thanks to the kindness of the librarians at both Ivy League universities, was, as I say, useful – which is addict’s code for saying they provided no high. That, as happens, comes when and where you are not expecting it. It took place, in fact, last Thursday afternoon, 7th April 2016, in the special collections room in the Canaday Library of Bryn Mawr College. I was there because the reason for my visit to the States was to speak, at the generous invitation of David Cast and Roberta Ricci, at a colloquium on my old friend, Poggio Bracciolini, the following Saturday; my remit was to discuss his international reputation, for which I have stretched my own knowledge by studying his fortuna in early print but in which paper I also returned to manuscripts I know well, including those by the masterful mid-fifteenth century English scribe, Thomas Candour. The reason Bryn Mawr was such an appropriate location for this event was that the college was the alma mater of Phyllis Goodhart Gordan, who had translated the first collection of Poggio’s letters and who, in addition, was a renowned collector of rare books and manuscripts, many of them now housed in their Canaday Library. So, my purpose in arriving early was to study some of those volumes, with an eye to adding in some brief reference to them in my talk. What I found, however, could have transformed my paper completely: there was no way it would have been possible to know before I arrived that when I was handed a smallish volume, bound in pale calf-skin and containing two dialogues by Poggio, I was about to look on pages written by a man whose hand I know well – this is a previously unidentified manuscript produced by Thomas Candour. His codices are usually illuminated in a single style but – what makes this all the more exciting – is that the illumination here is not in that style but definably in the hand of the artist known as the Caesar Master. This is the only occasion on which England’s most significant humanist scribe and its most accomplished humanist-influenced illuminator are collaborators.

I warned you that a find is a personal thing. I can think of probably four people in the world who will be anything more than mildly interested in this – and one of those was in the audience on Saturday (thanks, Kathleen, for being there). Telling this tale, though, has helped me, I believe, to isolate the active chemical in the drug to which you, like me, may be addicted: it is serendipity. I have called serendipity before ‘the patron saint of palaeographers’, but perhaps that understates its importance or its relevance to a wider cohort of scholars. In what I have said today, you may recognise that what makes a find exhilarating is both its significance to one’s research and that it was unexpected. Serendipity does not prepare you for a discovery; it (or, if it is a patron saint, she) takes you in the hand blind-folded. But then she places you in front of what she thinks you should see, and takes off the blinkers and whispers in your ear, ‘look’. Of course, in truth, we make our own serendipity. By years of study, we gain eyes to see. By those years of drudgery, working without a hit, we make possible the irreplaceable sensation of the high. I am not giving up this drug – as I have learnt to say in the States – any time soon.

Tagged: Bryn Mawr College, Caesar Master, David Cast, Humfrey duke of Gloucester, John Tiptoft earl of Worcester, Pieter Meghen, Roberta Ricci, Thomas Candour, Vatican Library