Over the past couple of weeks of our residency at Chetham’s we have been thinking a lot about manuscripts, documents, and papers. They are the perfect example of ephemera: often existing in their lifetime to prove something or act as a reminder, which becomes irrelevant when the person it belonged to no longer has any need for it. I was thinking about this in the Football Museum as well – there’s a ticket for a match in there about the size of a postcard. Our tickets are shrinking smaller and smaller, often to the extent that they don’t have a physical form at all because we only need a digital copy on our phones. I wondered where archaeologists are going to find our tickets. A running thread while we have been thinking about manuscripts and documents has been authenticity, copies, and proof: our workshop about forgeries (coming up this Saturday) has been on our minds.
There is a beautiful manuscript kept in Chetham’s about the size of a suitcase (or less romantically, A2) which is covered in immaculate, perfect Latin calligraphy, and in the top corner, a picture depicts two figures exchanging a document or deed. It is decorated in gold leaf and very detailed filigree flourishes. That’s the picture accompanying this post. For a long time, there has been much debate about whether or not it is really medieval. It almost passed as a genuine medieval artefact but eventually it was decided it isn’t – because of the lack of depth in the image, amongst other reasons. It makes me think about the motives of this manuscript’s maker. Did they make it for profit, as a private memento of the original, or simply for the joy of copying? Before photography this was the way to capture something so you could return to it. I can’t help but picture the artist bending over this manuscript carefully making every letter exact and precise, and whatever reason they had for making it I feel like they took pleasure and pride in making it so well.
We have also seen a 15th century indenture in Chetham’s: this kind of document draws its name from the indented edge left where “chirographum” has been written across the middle, before it was cut in half in a wavy, jagged line. This is so the two people in possession of each half of the document would always be able to prove they held the real version by putting their halves together, confirming their contract together. I was struck by how simple and how clever this idea is. The part we saw was the bottom half and I wondered where the copy that had been attached at the top was now, and whether it existed any more. After a while indentures were no longer regularly cut in half so documents like this, in half, are quite rare.
The material these documents are on is fascinating. Wood pulp paper quickly weakens, yellows and becomes brittle over time but vellum parchment sheets are often surprisingly well-preserved. On some documents (if the vellum was not very thoroughly prepared) you can see a ghost of where the animal’s hair follicles would have been.
Here is a short poem I’m working on about vellum’s tendency to stretch and warp. We’ve been told an eerie fact about vellum: when it isn’t kept in stable enough conditions (eg temperature) it warps back into the shape it would have been on the animal.
Under a weight of temperature
it is too old to bear, the vellum cockles:
it remembers how
it is the outside of an animal,
it bends to accommodate
its lost body. Long years
among the other sheafs:
long years bearing
other peoples’ sentences.
Tired, it crumples slowly
in the closing
of some invisible fist:
curls up to sleep
in a more comfortable position.