Category: Palaeography

Continued evidence of interest in Great Parchment Book and the history of the Plantation

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The Great Parchment Book blog has been rather quiet over the last few months, but that’s not to say that interest in the content and the project has declined. To the contrary, the Great Parchment Book continues to prove relevant to research in the UK and across the globe. Page views to the Great Parchment Book website have now exceeded 160,000 and downloads of the XML data are also steadily increasing in number.

And it’s also good news for our partners Derry City & Strabane Museum and Visitor Services. Statistics recently received record that to 31 December 2017 nearly one and a half million visits (1,479,598 to be precise) had been made to the to the Plantation, People, Perspectives exhibition in Derry Guildhall. Just to put this in perspective and indicate the impact of the exhibition, this figure is many times the population of Derry itself and more than three quarters of the population of Northern Ireland. The exhibition is still going strong and we look forward to this year’s figures.

So, if you have done research based on the Great Parchment Book, why not share it more widely on this blog? Please contact the editor via for more information.

And finally, here are the updated statistics for the Great Parchment Book by numbers:

  • 1 Great Parchment Book of The Honourable The Irish Society
  • 165 folios and fragments, stored in 30 bespoke boxes (originally 16)
  • 11 Great Twelve livery companies’ holdings recorded (should be 12, but the Merchant Taylors’ portion is missing)
  • 1095 personal names indexed on the website including variations in spelling
  • 992 place names indexed also including variations
  • 49 occupations and titles recorded such as barber-surgeon, fellmonger, muster master and winecowper
  • 120 entries in the glossary including occupations and titles, but also terms such as ballibetagh, creete, kill house, rampier, standall and vayle
  • Over 160,000 page views of Great Parchment Book website and blog to 9 November 2018
  • 148 blog posts published including this one
  • 270,000 visitors to Plantation, People, Perspectives exhibition in Derry Guildhall in the first year (opened 30 May 2013) when an original folio of the Great Parchment Book was on display. Nearly one and a half million visitors (1,479,598 to be precise) to the exhibition to 31 December 2017 (many times the population of Derry and over three quarters of the population of Northern Ireland). Still going strong.
  • 37 downloads in 7 countries across 3 continents of the Open Access set of 326 XML documents containing encoded transcriptions of the individual folios (2.56MB of data)
  • 6 presentations about the project in countries outside the UK across 3 continents, and innumberable links from other websites across the world
  • 20 project partners including 14 funders
  • 4 awards, 3 shortlisted/finalist, 1 highly commended
  • 1 inscription on UK Memory of the World Register (inscribed on 21 June 2016)

All summed up as 1 unique record of the 17th century Plantation of Ulster.

International interest in Great Parchment Book continues

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International interest in the Great Parchment Book continues unabated and here we share two recent connections with projects and programmes in France and Finland.

Les rescapés du feu

Colleagues in France were very interested to find out more about the digital reconstruction of the Great Parchment Book and invited the project to present at a study day in Chartres on 17 November 2017 entitled Les rescapés du feu: L’imagerie scientifique au service des manuscrits de Chartres (Fire survivors: Contribution of imaging techniques to the study of Chartres manuscripts).

The parchment collection at the heart of the study day has many parallels to the Great Parchment Book, being a form of doomsday book of the region of Chartres, and having fallen victim to a fire. The Municipal Library at Chartres was one of the great European libraries and home to a prestigious manuscript collection dating from the 11th century. On 26 May 1944 the library was bombed and fire destroyed many of the manuscripts. However, 220 of the 518 medieval manuscripts survived; some are almost intact, others as charred blocks or shrivelled fragments. Extremely fragile and often difficult to identify, the manuscripts remained inaccessible to researchers for more than seventy years.

The project REMAC – A la REcherche des MAnuscrits de Chartres – got underway this year. Like the Great Parchment Book project, the collaborative research has brought together a range of experts to work on the use of different imaging techniques to retrieve the written content in the damaged manuscripts. In parallel, research is being undertaken to set up new imaging and microscopy techniques to assess the degradation of parchment.

The study day aimed to present the research project from the perspective of historians, imaging scientists and conservators. It also included presentations from other research teams in Europe concerned with improving the accessibility and conservation of damaged manuscripts which is where the Great Parchment Book came in.

Tim Weyrich, Professor of Visual Computing and Deputy Director of the Centre for Digital Humanities (UCLDH) from project partner UCL, delivered a well-received presentation (in French!) on the Great Parchment Book at the study day. We hope that this will be available online in due course along with all the other presentations (watch this space).



Finland’s DIGIHUM programme

Tim has also been making connections with Finnish digital humanities researchers. On 4 October 2017 UCLDH were delighted to meet with delegates from the Academy of Finland’s multidisciplinary DIGIHUM programme, with the aim of sharing the latest British and Finnish research in digital humanities, and strengthening collaborations between the two. UCLDH presented on three projects including the Great Parchment Book.

Great Parchment Book retrospective: transcription and textual encoding

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As we reflect on the different elements which made up the Great Parchment Book project in this continuing series of posts, we now turn our attention to transcription and textual encoding.

Alongside the conservation and digital imaging work, a palaeographer, Dr Patricia Stewart, was employed by London Metropolitan Archives partly funded by the Marc Fitch Fund and some of the Great Twelve City of London livery companies to prepare a readable and exploitable version of the text. The aim was to produce both a transcription of the original text as found in the Book, the ‘original transcript’, and also a modernised version, the ‘modern transcript’ with an accompanying glossary.

To enable the Great Parchment Book to be as comprehensively searchable as possible, it was decided to encode the text in XML compliant with the Textual Encoding Initiative. TEI is a set of guidelines which specify encoding methods for machine-readable texts. It is widely used by archives, libraries, museums and individual scholars to present texts for online research and preservation.

Encoding the Great Parchment Book

Patricia already had some familiarity with TEI, but had to think about how it would work in the context of the Great Parchment Book, and to think about transcription conventions and methodology. To begin with, though, she had to learn about the historical and archival context of the manuscript and its structure and arrangement. There was also a steep learning curve getting to grips with Irish personal and place names and some of the less familiar terms used. Last but not least there was the distorted text itself which in places was illegible or even missing.  Patricia was able to supply some text through her knowledge of how the manuscript was arranged and its use of formulaic text. She was also able to re-order some of the folios and identify a few of the fragments.

Transcribing the Great Parchment Book

Patricia worked with Kazim Pal, the doctoral student, to test the flattening software as it was being developed to see whether it made deciphering and transcribing the text any easier. She also was involved in the discussions with the website designers Headscape on how the transcripts and glossary would be presented on the website alongside the original and flattened images of the individual parchment folios.

This painstaking work took longer than expected and so the original six month project was extended to eight months running from September 2012 to May 2013 to enable the transcripts and glossary to be completed and uploaded to the website.

Patricia continued to be involved in the project by presenting papers at events such as the Plantation Families: People, Records and Resources event held in Belfast and Londonderry on 27–28 September 2013 and the Great Parchment Book Day at LMA on 25 July 2014.

The digitisation of the Great Parchment Book was recognised in 2014 when the project received a European Succeed Award (for digitisation focussing on textual content) Commendation of Merit.

You can find out more about the transcription and encoding of the Great Parchment Book on the blog (go to the end of the page once you’ve clicked the link to read in chronological order).

Great Parchment Book retrospective

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When we embarked on the Great Parchment Book project, we were very uncertain that we would be able to achieve our aim: a digitally reconstructed and fully accessible manuscript that could take pride of place in the exhibition in Derry Guildhall opening in June 2013 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the building of the city walls.

Great Parchment Book partners

The project was an ambitious collaborative undertaking committed to exploring new techniques and technologies; nothing else had any chance of success. Each element was a major piece of work in its own right and different partners and funders were approached for each aspect of the project.

Now with the successful outcome well-established and the project in the public eye once again, it seems a good time to reflect on the different elements which made up the project and look back on the journey.

Over the next few weeks watch out for posts about –

  • Conservation
  • Digital humanities: imaging, transcription and textual encoding
  • The history of the Plantation and synergy with other original sources
  • Public engagement and recognition
  • The legacy and the future

And to help you get your bearings here is the Great Parchment Book project timeline –

  • Initial discussions between LMA, University College London and other potential partners, March/April 2010
  • Imaging – Four year EngD at UCL, September 2010-September 2014 (first year taught so project got underway in September 2011)
  • Conservation, April-September 2012
  • Transcription and encoding, September 2012-May 2013
  • Great Parchment Book website launch, 30 May 2013
  • Derry Guildhall exhibition opened, 10 June 2013
  • Public engagement, recognition and future developments – ongoing

Technology meets Scholarship: Handwritten Text Recognition

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If like us you are excited by ways to revolutionise access to archives through the use of new technology and innovation, you might be interested in a conference on Handwritten Text Recognition in Germany early next year (2016) as part of the co:op project.

Technology meets Scholarship, or how Handwritten Text Recognition will Revolutionize Access to Archival Collections.

Hessian State Archives, Marburg, Germany

19-21 January 2016

Participation at the event is free, but please register on the project website where you will also find the detailed programme.

If you want to get an idea of the possibilities of Handwritten Text Recognition, take a look at the website of the EU project tranScriptorium, as well as the Virtual Research Environment TRANSKRIBUS.

We’ve posted before about HTR – see also Magic in Action which refers to tranScriptorium and Update in developments in HTR technology which looks at the READ (Recognition and Enrichment of Archival Documents) project.

Update May 2016: The presentations at the Marburg conference were all filmed and have been published on the co:op blog and co:op Youtube channel.

Update on developments in Handwritten Text Recognition technology

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At its heart, the Great Parchment Book project is all about enabling access to archives using innovative techniques and technology. As previously reported in this Blog (Magic in Action), and in pursuance of this, our partners at University College London are also involved in the tranScriptorium project which aims to develop innovative, efficient and cost-effective solutions for the indexing, search and full transcription of historical handwritten document images, using modern, holistic Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) technology.

Now a large European project proposal has been developed as a follow-up. Called READ (Recognition and Enrichment of Archival Documents), it involves a multidisciplinary consortium of 13 partners, including UCL, working in Computer Science, Pattern Recognition, Machine Learning, Image Processing and Humanities. The consortium plans to start work in January 2016. You can find out more about the project on the tranScriptorium website.


Magic in action

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Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software could be developed to read handwriting as well as printed text? University College London is part of a consortium aiming to do just that. The aim of the tranScriptorium project is to develop innovative, efficient and cost-effective solutions for the indexing, search and full transcription of historical handwritten document images, using modern, holistic Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) technology.You can find out more about the project on its website.

Bentham 1

To see the magic in action, take a look at some of the examples on the website (click on this link and then on a picture to start). The examples are in constant development as the computer code behind the process is being uploaded and tweaked, so it’s worth revisiting the site to keep an eye on what’s going on.

Bentham 2

Programme announced for Great Parchment Book Day

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LMA is holding a Great Parchment Book Day at LMA on Friday 25 July 2014. The morning will focus on the Great Parchment Book story; the afternoon will look to the future and explore accessing historical documents through innovative technologies.



10.00am Registration, coffee and housekeeping

10.15am Welcome (Deputy Catherine McGuinness)

10.20am Introduction to LMA, collections overview, where the Great Parchment Book sits within those collections, why it became the focus for the project and why it mattered (Philippa Smith)

11.00am  TEA/COFFEE

11.15pm Accessing History through Innovative Technologies:
The Great Parchment Book Project Story
Conservation (Dr Caroline De Stefani)
Transcription/textual encoding (Dr Patricia Stewart)
Digital flattening (Kazim Pal)



14.00pm Welcome and introduction – impact, outcomes and wider context (Dr Tim Weyrich)

14.30pm Display of damaged original materials including Great Parchment Book and LMA Rogues Gallery; demonstration of digital flattening software; opportunity to discuss further possible applications of flattening software and other techniques being researched on LMA material; demonstration of textual encoding (Dr Caroline De Stefani, Marie Poirot, Dr Tim Weyrich, Kazim Pal, Dr Helen Graham-Matheson, Dr Patricia Stewart)

15.15pm TEA/COFFEE

15.30pm HISTORY FUTURES PANEL (Professor Melissa Terras – UCL, Chair, Dr Tim Weyrich – UCL, Emma Stewart – LMA, David Howell – Bodleian Library)
How new technologies can and may impact on challenging materials, access and availability, preservation issues – how can we take projects forward? HLF partner bid proposal, Q&A and expressions of interest

16.30pm  CLOSE

The event is already full, but if you would like to be added to the waiting list, please go to

Great Parchment Book website viewed more than 50,000 times

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This week the Great Parchment Book website passed the landmark of 50,000 page views since it was launched on 30 May 2013.

In addition, the Derry Guildhall exhibition – Plantation: Process, people, perspectives – which until recently displayed an original folio of the Great Parchment Book, has had 323,033 visitors from its opening in June 2013 until the end of March 2014.

We are really pleased that the Great Parchment Book has been seen and appreciated by so many both as an original folio in Derry, and remotely through the website. There will be a further chance to see the real thing at the Great Parchment Book Day at LMA on 25 July 2014 so book your place now at

Booking opens for Great Parchment Book Day on 25 July 2014

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LMA is holding a FREE Great Parchment Book Day on Friday 25 July 2014. The morning will focus on the Great Parchment Book story; the afternoon will look to the future and explore accessing historical documents through innovative technologies. A more detailed programme will be posted as soon as it is available.

In the meantime, you can book your place at


Friday 25 July 2014

London Metropolitan Archives

9.30 am – 4.30 pm

FREE, booking is essential; tea and coffee available, but bring a picnic for lunch.

Great Parchment Book project receives Succeed Award Commendation of Merit

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LMA and UCL are pleased to announce that the Great Parchment Book project has received a European Succeed Award Commendation of Merit. The winners were selected from 19 nominations world-wide and, due to the high quality of the project, the Board decided to distinguish it with one of two Commendations of Merit.

Succeed is funded by the European Union. It promotes the take up and validation of research results in mass digitisation, with a focus on textual content.

You can find further information about the awards by clicking on and

The project represents a major partnership of international significance between a number of institutions. LMA and UCL gratefully acknowledge the support of the following:

Clothworkers’ Company; Derry City Council Heritage and Museums Service; Drapers’ Company;  ETH Zurich; Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council; Fishmongers’ Company; Goldsmiths’ Company; The Honourable The Irish Society; Ironmongers’ Company; Marc Fitch Fund; Mercers’ Company; Merchant Taylors’ Company; National Manuscripts Conservation Trust; Skinners’ Company; The British Library; The National Archives; The Trustees of Lambeth Palace Library.

Save the date!

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Planning is underway for a Great Parchment Book Day at London Metropolitan Archives on Friday 25 July 2014. The morning will focus on the Great Parchment Book story; the afternoon will look to the future and explore accessing historical documents through innovative technologies.

Save the date now! A more detailed programme and details on how to book will be posted as soon as they are available.

Complete transcription now available

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The original and modern transcriptions of all the folios are now up on the Great Parchment Book website.

We still have a few fragments to decide what to do with, and one page to insert, but essentially, it’s all there now.

If you need help to explore, there is a guide to Finding your way around the book. To get the most out of the text, go to Transcription Methodology and Conventions to see how the transcriptions work.

You will find useful background information in the Ulster PlantationProject History and Book History pages, as well as in previous Blog posts. To access relevant posts, go to the list of Categories on the right hand side of the Blog page and choose the area you are interested in.

The images accompanying the transcriptions will follow. We will let you know when they are available.


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You can now start to explore the Great Parchment Book for yourself.

A good place to start is the video on the Home Page which illustrates the challenging nature of the project.

To continue your exploration, click on “Take a look inside the book” or search for a person, place or livery company.

If you want to know more about the historical background, book or project history, investigate the history tabs at the top of the Home Page.

The website is dynamic. Work is continuing on the transcription, and transcriptions and images will continue to be added to the site. Once the transcription is complete, the book history page will be expanded to take account of new insights into the codicology of the book, and to explain the arrangement of the folios.

The Great Parchment Book Blog is now embedded into the website and you can subscribe to the Blog on the website. Work is continuing to align the original Blog and the website Blog.

If you have any comments on the website, or can offer additional insights into the Great Parchment Book and what it reveals about the people, places and organisations involved in the history of 17th century Ulster, please share via the Blog or use the comment form at the bottom of the website Home Page.

Beginning the transcription

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Now that the conservation work is completed, we have begun the transcription and encoding of the folios. We are beginning with the six folios on the Goldsmiths’ proportion and will use these to plan out the website and the particulars of the encoding into XML using TEI. But first they have to be transcribed!

The text itself is formulaic, which means that it is usually possible to fill in the text missing from those areas that are illegible, burnt, shrunken, torn, or covered in dirt. This also means that the transcription involves much rereading of the folios to fill in the gaps, but it is very satisfying to have a complete transcription.

Whilst the text itself is in English, there are lots of varieties in the spelling (for example, the use of ‘howse’, ‘fower’, ‘cabbyns’) so we are going to include a modernised transcription on the website, with modernised spelling, punctuation, and names (as far as is possible). We also plan for the website to include a glossary of terms that may be unknown or not immediately obvious to the reader, such as ‘quicksett’ and ‘fireboot’. The place names present extra challenges as some of the names mentioned correspond to current Northern Irish place names, but some of them do not. In addition, there is no guarantee that the 1639 boundaries of places such as townlands and counties correspond to the modern ones. Fortunately, the script itself is a large, neat, clear, secretary hand, and this makes the transcription a little easier.




Physical Evidence

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This, so far, is what we know about the Great Parchment Book:
The book is made of 165 folios and is stored in 19 boxes.

There are also a lot of fragments which, at this stage, are impossible to place in any of the pages which survived the fire in 1786.

The light brown ink line which runs vertically along the left and right margin of the written area.

The light brown ink line which runs vertically along the left and right margin of the written area.

The pages are about A4 size (295×210 mm). On a closer look at the surface of the pages, calf skin may have been used to make the parchment. It was very difficult to find the traces of the hair follicles since most of the pages have a thick layer of gelatine on the surface.
There are no traces of either the binding format or of the sewing structure. Although the fire and the water have damaged most of the document’s surface, the worst damages are found on the spine fold of the pages.
Writing area: the page is ruled with a different ink than the one used for writing: a light brown line runs vertically on the sides of the written area.

Light lines are present horizontally as a ruling guide

Light lines are present horizontally as a ruling guide

Detail of the ink used for writing

Detail of the ink used for writing

A different ink, possibly a lead pen, was used for ruling the horizontal lines. It is really difficult to detect the latter and it even looks as though just some lines were ruled, not all of them.
The media used to write is a metallogallic ink.
The Great Parchment Book is written in Secretary Hand. This was a script which began to be used in England in the sixteenth century and continued until the late seventeenth century. Scripts evolve continuously and this is a fairly late example of Secretary Hand, when the script was already starting to incorporate more rounded, Roman, characters. This makes the script of the Great Parchment Book much more accessible and readable than pure, early Secretary Hand.
Looking through the pages it seems that different hands have written the text.

The next thing to do is to assess the condition of the parchment sheets. We will attempt to cover this in our next posts.