The Great Parchment Book of The Honourable The Irish Society is a major survey, compiled in 1639 by a Commission instituted under the Great Seal by Charles I, of all those estates in Derry managed by the City of London through the Irish Society and the City of London livery companies. It represents a hugely important source for the City of London’s role in the Protestant colonisation and administration of Ulster. Damaged as the result of a fire at Guildhall in 1786, it has been unavailable to researchers for over 200 years. However, the manuscript has remained part of the City of London’s collections held at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA reference CLA/049/EM/02/018.) As part of the 2013 commemorations in Derry of the 400th anniversary of the building of the city walls, it was decided to attempt to make the Great Parchment Book available as a central point of an exhibition in Derry’s Guildhall.
Physical description and issues
The manuscript consisted of 165 separate parchment pages, all of which suffered damage in the fire in 1786. The uneven shrinkage and distortion caused by fire had rendered much of the text illegible. The surviving 165 folios (including fragments and unidentified folios) were stored in 16 boxes, in an order drawing together as far as possible the passages dealing with the particular lands of different livery companies and of the Society (see Book History.)
It soon became apparent that traditional conservation alone would not produce sufficient results to make the manuscript accessible or suitable for exhibition, since the parchment was too shrivelled to be returned to a readable state. However, much of the text was still visible (if distorted) so following discussions with conservation and computing experts, it was decided that the best approach was to flatten the parchment sheets as far as possible, and to use digital imaging to gain legibility and to enable digital access to the volume.
From the start, the project was a large collaborative undertaking in which the practical conservation of the Great Parchment Book was the essential first step, followed by the digital imaging work. After that, the aim was to develop a readable and exploitable version of the text, comprising a searchable transcription and glossary of the manuscript. The ultimate goal of the project was to publish both the images and transcript online. The progress of the project was recorded in the Great Parchment Book Blog.
To make the digitisation process as successful as possible, preliminary limited conservation treatments were carried out. At the same time, the format and the condition of the book were investigated and thoroughly documented. Conservation work on the membranes encompassed cleaning, humidification, and tension drying, using magnets placed on top of the parchment above a metal sheet to hold creases open during the drying process. This opened out areas of parchment where the camera would not be able to reach the text. Once treated, the membranes could not be put back in their original boxes as their size and shape had changed, and there had previously been too many membranes in a box. The membranes were rehoused in 30 clam shell-style boxes interleaved with a suitable material for protection and ease of handling. This preparatory conservation work was supported by the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, Derry City Council Heritage and Museums Service and London Metropolitan Archives.
A partnership with the Department of Computer Science and the Centre for Digital Humanities at University College London (UCL) established a four year EngD in the Virtual Environments, Imaging and Visualisation programme in September 2010 (jointly funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and London Metropolitan Archives) with the intention of developing software to enable the manipulation (including virtual stretching and alignment) of digital images of the book rather than the object itself. The aim was to make the distorted text legible, and ideally to reconstitute the manuscript digitally. Such an innovative methodology clearly had much wider potential application.
During the imaging work a set of typically 50-60 22MP images was captured for each page and used to generate a 3D model containing 100-170MP, which allowed viewing at archival resolution. These models could be flattened and browsed virtually, allowing the contents of the book to be accessed more easily and without further handling of the document. UCL’s work on the computational approach to model, stretch, and read the damaged parchment will be applicable to similarly damaged material as part of the development of best practice computational approaches to digitising highly distorted, fire-damaged, historical documents.
Transcription and encoding
A readable and exploitable version of the text was also prepared, comprising a searchable transcription and glossary of the manuscript. This element of the project received a grant from the Marc Fitch Fund towards the employment of a palaeographer who also encoded appropriate terms using TEI to capture structural and semantic information about the texts enabling comprehensive searching of the document. Details of the conventions and methodology used during the transcription process are available through this link.
The transcript and images of the document are being made available online through this website, developed with Headscape, to enable sophisticated online presentation and searching of the document contents.
Outreach and further study
The virtual reconstruction of the Great Parchment Book features as the centrepiece of an exhibition in Derry as part of the commemorations of the 400th anniversary of the building of the city walls. Plantation: Process, People, Perspectives opened in June 2013.
The published images and transcription will provide a lasting resource for historians researching the Plantation of Ulster in local, national and international contexts. In addition, both Derry City Council Heritage and Museums Service and London Metropolitan Archives are planning to use the document in their interpretation and outreach programmes, developing resources for schools and colleges based on the information it contains.
The project represents a major partnership of international significance between a number of institutions. London Metropolitan Archives gratefully acknowledges the support of the following:
Derry City Council Heritage and Museums Service
Dr Billy Kelly
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
The Honourable The Irish Society
Marc Fitch Fund
Merchant Taylors’ Company
National Manuscripts Conservation Trust
Professor James Stevens Curl
The British Library
The National Archives
The Trustees of Lambeth Palace Library
University College London
London Metropolitan Archives:
Project management – Nicola Avery, Philippa Smith, Emma Stewart
Conservation – Caroline De Stefani, Rachael Smither
Transcription and encoding – Dr Patricia Stewart
Video – Laurence Ward
Imaging – Seamus McKenna, Dave Tennant
University College London:
Project supervisors – Dr Tim Weyrich, Dr Melissa M Terras
Doctoral student – Kazim Pal
Derry City Council Heritage and Museums Service:
We are very grateful to Alberto Campagnolo who supported the project throughout on a voluntary basis.
We would also like to acknowledge former colleagues at London Metropolitan Archives who have contributed to the project: Matthew Payne, Ann Stewart and Liz Yamada.