In today’s “Discuss-a-Doc” post, I look at what were without-a-doubt the highlight of my research finds during my PhD- the use of medieval vellum in the production of 18th century Royal Navy records. In the first go-through of my PhD thesis, I became fixated on the idea that the Royal Navy ‘defined’ its existence through the creation of documents. To be honest, I was thinking about Gilean the Grey from Dragonlance (one of the Dungeons and Dragons series), who chronicled all of existence. On a more practical level, I had four chapters, the first of which focused on documents that “defined” (part of the problem I think was that I didn’t differentiate between defining, recording and reporting( the Royal Navy’s existence- legal, financial, materiel). To that end, I went to the National Archives at Kew, and pulled samples of Pay books and Muster Books at random- some from the 1670s, some from the 1690s/1700s, some from the 1720s and some from the 1740s. I really didn’t have a methodology to this- other than flipping to a random page on the online catalogue and selecting a volume that fit my needs. I often chose ships whose documents I’d used for other selections- in this case, the Royal Oak, which was a prominent part of the section of my thesis analyzing Royal Navy warship names. In this case, it was the second ship of that name, built in 1674 after the first one was burnt at the Medway raid in 1667.1
One of the great thrills about archival research, for me, is handling documents and things that were of the period I’m dealing with. For example, working with Rawlinson’s Pepysian Manuscripts at the Bodleian was.. just amazing. Flipping every page- letters from Legge to the Admiralty, Documents in Pepys’ shorthand, all kinds of interesting things. Documents handled by Pepys, Charles II, James II, and many others. Same thing, doing research at the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum, and at Kew. But the most thrilling document I handled was Royal Oak’s muster book from May to August, 1748. And the reason for this was that the individual books within that volume were bound in medieval vellum. (Further text below the images)
To be honest, I don’t actually remember any of the Royal Navy’s content from this volume (I didn’t end up using it in the final form of my thesis)- but I’m struck by the memory of.. opening the cover, and seeing the first page. Seeing the musical notes, the texture of the vellum underneath my fingertips.
This is actually a really good example of the kind of work that the National Archives does as well. Prior to doing this blog, I only knew that the vellum was medieval, that it was a psalter, and that they were the oldest thing I’ve touched, by several hundred years. However, the catalogue entry (which I linked to above) contains the following description “Medieval manuscript used as muster sheets in ff.69, 129, 202, 225. Manuscript: 15th century Gradual, Sarum use. Whitsunday and Wednesday in Holy Week.; Inc. (f.225r) ‘infixus sum in limo’; 4ff.; cf. Missale ad Usum Sarum, ed. F. H. Dickinson (Burntisland, 1861-1863), 425-426, 286-288; Graduale Sar., pp.91-92.” From a text search of the catalogue, this is the only Admiralty record which is tagged as having medieval vellum.
One of the hallmarks of the Royal Navy following the Restoration was the sheer amount of paperwork and records that were created. I think that it would be fascinating to do a massive-scale project looking at Admiralty records as material history- I think it’d be fascinating to know what the fabric of these records could tell us about how the Royal Navy used and reused materials for new purposes.