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Editorial: May Parchment Endure in England

Thursday, February 18, 2016
When technology and tradition collide, tradition generally gets the worst of it. That appeared to be the case recently in England, where the House of Lords announced that archive copies of Acts of Parliament would no longer be inscribed on parchment but rather printed on archival paper. Granted, the use of paper might not strike most of our readers as a late-breaking innovation, but context is important: We’re talking about an ancient institution in a land where tradition is revered far more widely and deeply than here across the pond.

As is so often the case, the motive to abandon a long-standing practice — a 500-year-old one in this instance — was economic. The Lords determined that switching to paper would save the equivalent of about $116,000 a year. Not surprisingly, the reaction was swift and furious both inside and outside of Parliament.

According to The New York Times, 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 dignity they deserved.”

Paul Wright, general manager of William Cowley, parchment supplier to Parliament, put the case succinctly: “If the Magna Carta had been on paper, it would long ago have been a bag of dust.” Indeed, the fact that the Magna Carta — “the Great Charter” of English democracy and the rule of law — has survived in physical form for 800 years reinforces the enduring value of its content.

Parchment proponents assert that vellum lasts 5,000 years, compared with a life expectancy for high-quality archival paper of 250 years. (Parchment is a general term for an animal skin, usually calf, goat or sheep, that has been prepared for writing or printing; vellum refers specifically to parchment made from calf skin, according to the U.S. National Archives.)

The Cowley company, which dates from 1870, still makes parchment the old-fashioned way: by hand, stretching and scraping the animal skin to prepare it, and eschewing harsh chemicals. That does not mean, however, that the firm is hidebound. Its website notes that the skins used in the process come from animals raised for other purposes, and are a renewable natural resource. “William Cowley believes in environmentally sound business practices, including responsible production methods,” the website declares, perhaps partly to pre-empt objections from animal rights activists.

Anyway, just when it appeared that the handwriting was on the wall for parchment, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron offered a reprieve. It said it would cover the extra cost of printing on parchment out of the budget of the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General. “While the world around us constantly changes, we should safeguard some of our great traditions and not let the use of vellum die out,” said Matthew Hancock, the minister responsible for that department.

Hear, Hear. In a world where so much is fleeting, it is more than refreshing that permanence, or as close to it as can be attained, forcefully states its case. Moreover, the fact that a nation thinks enough of the work its legislative body does to want to continue to record it in lasting fashion, as it has since 1497, also says something about the enduring value of traditional forms.

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