Conservator’s-eye-view: vellum and parchment

Over the next few months, St George’s Chapel Archives and Chapter Library will be publishing a series of blogs written by one of our invaluable volunteers. Peter Eley is the founder of conservation supplies company, Arquiva Conservation, which has supplied the Oxbridge colleges, the Royal Household/Royal Collection, National Trust and English Heritage. He has worked on many conservation projects and is currently carrying out a survey of the many wax seals held in St George’s Chapel Archives. Here he offers us a conservator’s-eye-view of some of the Archives and Chapter Library holdings, beginning this week with a closer look at vellum and parchment.

There is a remarkable collection of early documents and books safely stored at St George’s Archives and Chapter Library and it has been my privilege for several years to work as a conservator on many of the medieval deeds with wax seals attached.

All of the hundreds of deeds are hand written on vellum or parchment and in this rapidly changing age of electronic communication it is worth considering for a moment or two the merits and construction of this long-lasting natural material.

Vellum; the word is derived from the Latin vitulinum meaning ‘made from calf’, leading to Old French velin (calfskin).  The choice of animal skin and their treatment was determined by local economy and by the type of book or document for which they were intended. Goatskins were most commonly used in Italy. Sheepskins were favoured for documents (as per our deeds) since they showed erasures more noticeably than other materials and thus discouraged alteration. Large and thick calf skins were most suitable for giant lectern Bibles and choir books. Thirteenth century pocket sized Bibles used skins that had been split and pared down to thin leaves, ready for the scribes and illuminators to carry out their wonderful work. Calf skins of medium thickness and fine quality would have provided the durable and yet supple material for manuscripts of the size of Books of Hours, psalters, breviaries and pontificals.

To see how parchment is made please see YouTube “How parchment is made”, Mr Win Visscher showing Dr Stephen Baxter the process (a Domesday BBC programme).

Quite frequently in my career I have seen carefully executed repairs to manuscripts pages, especially on expensive Royal or ecclesiastical volumes, whereby the contemporary repairer has used pieces of ‘slunk’ or ‘uterine vellum’ (after their unlikely source, aborted calves). If well done, a tear or a blemish can be almost impossible to detect. Another use for uterine vellum, because of its thinness, was for the artist or illuminator to trace his/her design or initial letter onto the page in preparation for filling all or part of the page, following the scribe having written the text.  Today, a conservator can order similarly thin parchment called Goldbeaters Skin off-the-shelf to make fine repairs.

Despite the hundreds of years our parchment documents and books have survived in such good order, not to mention the climatic changes they have endured in this drafty part of Berkshire, the ‘skins’ have fought against attempts to restrain them – much as the tethered beasts they once were.

Peter Eley
Library and Archives volunteer

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.