UK to scrap centuries-old tradition of printing laws on vellum

Several proponents of vellum are opposing the move, citing tradition, history, and the longer-lasting qualities of the material.

Gothic: Art for England 1400 - 1547' at the VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM
Detail of the Bedford Hours and Psalter. Illumination on vellum.

For centuries, Britain has printed its acts of Parliament on vellum, including the historic Magna Carta.

But now the practice of using vellum, a parchment made from calfskin, is under threat.

The House of the Lords announced that starting this April, all legislation will be printed on simple archive paper instead of the traditional calfskin vellum, in an attempt to save £80,000 (equivalent to $116,000) a year, the Telegraph reported.

But some members of parliament and conservationists are not happy, and say that scrapping the use will forsake the history of the UK.

“All of our most important historical documents, from Magna Carta to the Lindisfarne Gospels, have been made by using vellum and because of this have lasted through the ages so that future generations can appreciate and understand our shared history," said Sharon Hodgson, a Labour MP. She raised the issue in the House of Commons after a supplier of vellum was given 30 days’ notice by the parliamentary authorities, according to the Guardian.

“That is why it was disappointing that such an important decision, with ramifications on the future of the craft and the conservation of our history, was pushed through without any prior consent of the House of Commons and instead using a ruling made by the House of Lords from over 16 years ago – which was rejected by the House of Commons at the time – to push forward on this change," Ms. Hodgson added.

In announcing the move, the House of Lords 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,” according to The New York Times.

Some animal rights activists have long criticized the use of animal skin, as well, saying that it is cruel. Yet defenders of vellum refute the claim, contending that the skin is from animals that have already been slaughtered for meat.

Despite the scrutiny, proponents of vellum say that the skin has longer-lasting qualities that allows it to last for thousands of years rather than the hundreds of years that paper can survive.

“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,” Paul Wright, the general manager of William Cowley, which has been supplying vellum for Parliament, said, according to the Times.

"Had the Domesday Book, and other such historical documents, merely been printed on acid-free paper, would they still be around today?" asked Andrew Gwynne, Labour MP for Denton and Reddish. “I doubt it, which is why I hope the authorities think twice about this. We must leave a lasting legacy for future generations."

The proposals to eliminate the use of the material date back to 1999, when the House of Lords voted to stop the use of vellum, but the proposal was defeated in the House of Commons.

A spokesman for the House of the Lords said, “We took the view a long time ago that we wanted this to stop and as far as we are concerned the decision has been made,” according to the Telegraph.

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