Sunday, 24 July 2016

Tally Sticks, Parliamentary Scrolls, and Vellum: A Visit to the Parliamentary Archives

I was very fortunate to have had the chance to visit the Parliamentary Archives, which holds the official records of the UK Parliament including acts, acts, journals, appeals, peerage claims, architectural plans, sessional papers, hansard (debates), various personal papers, etc.

The earliest document they hold is from 1497 for the House of Lords, and as for House of Commons the earliest they have is from 1547, but it would have been much earlier if not for the 'tally sticks' fire of 1834 and the small, unassuming "Jewel tower" standing across the road...

Apparently in 1834 the Exchequer/National Treasury had to dispose of a bunch of tally sticks, which were a physical form of accounting system that was becoming obsolete at the time. A primitive form of accounting which could be used even if you were totally illiterate, they were basically sticks marked with notches that were split lengthwise. These sticks were used to keep track of taxes that had been paid and an example of them can be seen here at the National Archives. Unfortunately the obsoleted sticks had their revenge just as they were being disposed of by being burnt in the basement of the House of Lords, resulting in a fire that consumed many records, except the ones in the Jewel Tower and ones that were furiously pushed to safety out of the window by a clerk...

We entered the grounds via Black Rod's Garden Entrance, and having never come explicitly to see Big Ben and the other the "touristic" sights of London before, I was shocked at the extreme numbers of people walking all around in all directions. People of every size, colour, and age, milling about on the greens and all over the roads, in every direction! "Is there a protest? Is something special going on today?" "Are these people coming to a festival? Is this place like this because Theresa May was just appointed as PM? Or is it because of Brexit??" No. Just another day at Westminster, inundated with an endless stream of flashing cameras and transient sightseers who have come to see the spectacle of parliament...

The persistence of the monarchy in the UK is a curious anachronism. From the perspective of a visitor coming from a foreign republic, the notion of it doesn't really bother me, but up close it is truly a very strange vestigial limb, wrapped up in a bizarre spectacle and ritual that I half-expect to be parody or a satire of itself.

We went up on an old lift and found ourselves in a maze of tiny passageways. The funny thing about very old and important buildings is that sometimes they seem to have been built for people who were much smaller, perhaps harking back to a time when the world's population was also smaller. You couldn't really expect to bring a big group through these tiny corridors, there just wouldn't be any space!

For those uninitiated with televised broadcasts of the State opening of the UK Parliament at the start of each new parliamentary session, Black Rod (whose Garden Entrance we used) has a very visible role in the ceremony of the opening of Parliament and the Queen's speech, where Black Rod (as representative of the Queen) summons the Commons to come to the Queen's speech. As he approaches the door of the House of Commons the door is slammed in his face, symbolising the independence that the Commons have from the queen. He then uses his black rod to knock on the door 3 times and then is admitted in to summon the Commons to attend the Queen's speech. (The short explanation of why this ritual exists is that in 1642 Charles I attempted to arrest 5 MPs which constituted a breach of the constitution, so the monarch's representative has to ask to be let into the Chamber of the house of commons, symbolising the right of the commons to question the right of the monarch's representative to enter the Chamber...)

We were shown the spot from which some strategic camera angles of the Queen are had... as the opening of this former ventilation chimney lies directly above the Sovereign’s Entrance.

"Hmm... did you say this entrance is only for the Queen? But the inside of this chamber is covered in pencils and small bits of stationery carelessly dropped in by other butterfingered visitors and researchers passing through! What will happen during the next opening?..."

Here is the famous room where all of the UK's parliamentary acts are stored - a controlled climate room to keep over 60 thousand vellum scrolls in the best condition possible.

These are actually the first scrolls I've ever seen in my life in person (I'm definitely no medievalist!). All written in iron gall ink apparently. I've never had occasion to request for a document in scroll form from any archive or library in the past. In fact I've never had to think about real scrolls in this way before, or to have to use the word Codex to distinguish it from the Scroll. [Codex being individual sheets of vellum which are then bound along one side.

I think of the Page/Codex as the "older" format from which tyrannous Infinite Scroll has emerged out of. But historically, the scroll came first. To see the scrolls as retired format for the archive is vindication that the infinite scroll is indeed a regression in terms of design - an abomination of both readability and function. I hate the infinite scroll with no end in sight, which overwhelms with too much information and takes control away from the reader who may have wished to index, bookmark or access the text with more precision. Often it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the location of the data that one wishes to find back later, especially if you have pressed the back button on an Ajax loaded infinite scroll. As for a page/codex format, even though one can only read one page at any one time, it is also easier to make a decision on whether any material of interest will be present in a document by reading one highly specific page, as opposed to skimming through a potentially infinite chunk.

Strangely when I look at these very old scrolls, I think of them almost as a painted landscape, of them painting an infinite, continuous history. (Also: I suppose that if the scrolls consisted of only visual material and formed a continuous narrative, perhaps I'd be less prejudiced against the infinite scroll itself...)

Another significant change has recently happened, or rather, NOT HAPPENED. Although legislation has been printed and paginated for quite some time, this year there was a big decision on the material to be used. Vellum which is made out of calfskin (actually sheep and goat too) has been the traditional material used to inscribe or print upon because of its longevity - it survives thousands of years and has enabled the persistence of documents in the parliamentary archives for a thousand years! (except for humidity and fire! it can't do fire!) But earlier this year, the House of Lords debated that legislation should be printed on archival paper in order to save tens of thousands of pounds a year. The use of vellum was argued as being "vanity printing" and "frivolous flummery" in an age where efficient digital alternatives seem exist)... But of course this begs the question, how much trust can we put in digital alternatives? Can there really be any digital media storage solution which isn't inherently unreliable or under the physical threat of becoming obsolete as a format further down the line, when we are talking about 500, 1000, 5000 year time scales?

Paper lasts around 200-500 years (probably more in the range of 200), but vellum purportedly can last 5000 years. The Domesday Book was written on vellum in 1086. The Magna Carta was put on vellum in 1215. Unbelievably we can still see those very documents today. Vellum from 600 can be found in excellent condition today. There is no telling how paper will survive beyond 200 years. So, although the material change would result in some savings for parliament, it might mean jeopardise the accessibility of historical documents in the long term future - assuming that we also believe that time will go on and switching to paper might even result in costly preservation issues in 200 years time!

At the time, Paul Wright, William Cowley's general manager and Britain's remaining maker of vellum was quoted in The Telegraph as saying: "What they have decided is that future generations will be denied the privilege of touching history and no man has the right to make that decision."

Fortunately, after protests from MPs and many other supporters, it was decided that they would continue using vellum. The ability of people in over 500 years time to touch legislation made today may seem rather inconsequential in the short term, and obviously a vellum maker also has vested interests in the matter, but it touches on something quite important: indeed one may argue that we can let go of things, and sometimes we may even be forced to let go of things, but I think the desire to touch and hold these historic things in our own hands will continue to persist. A primal desire to prove its existence by squeezing it in our own hands, to have that personal tactile connection with something that we believe is real and authentic...

Here is the original FOI act printed on Vellum.

Thank you to archivist Mari Takayanagi for showing our group around the archives.

Update: On more recent attempts to gather galls to make Iron Gall Ink!

So all the acts were written in Iron Gall ink on Vellum. We know where the Vellum came from, but where does the iron gall ink come from? Where did it come from in the past? Was this ink imported, and where from?

At first, I began by doing the obvious - trying to find oak marble galls myself. Whenever I read online that galls are "widespread" around the world, I weep because for some reason, I must be living in an area of London that is somehow devoid of the specific wasps which are responsible for causing those characteristic oak marble galls.

After hours in my nearest park, Finsbury Park, I determined that there are probably only just 3 large English oak trees of note. You'd have thought there'd be more Kings of the Forest in there, but noooo, it is mainly populated with London Plane trees and a smattering of other trees including cedar, horse chestnut, holly, willow, lombardy poplar, beech, and a fair number of hornbeam trees. (NOTE: not an exhaustive list!)

English Oak

Baby Acorn (English Oak aka pedunculate oak has acorns with stalks, sessile oaks which are also known sometimes as irish oaks have stalkless acorns. These have got stalks)

Spangle Galls

Knopper Galls

Every acorn, a knopper gall!

Out of these three English Oak trees in Finsbury Park, two have a lot of galls on them, but only spangle galls and knopper galls. Funny enough, as I was searching for galls under the oak trees, I found myself being bizarrely hit on the head by a constant rain of knopper galls (the very things I came for!) as it turns out that there was a small squirrel very very high up in the tree trying to eat the baby acorns but it was discarding all the excrescences and throwing the gnarly bits down on to the ground!

Half eaten acorn, only excrescence is left!

The miscreant who is pelting me with galls

Anyway with my handful of knopper galls, I went home to read up more about galls, and on closer reading I realised that the Andricus kollari wasp itself responsible for galls was not introduced to the UK until the 1800s!!! In any case it is reported that galls on English Oak trees are ascertained to contain little tannic acid, and are of little value. I haven't verified this properly but it seems Aleppo galls from Syria and Asia Minor are said to have been shipped over in boatloads to Europe for the production of iron gall ink???


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