Wenlock Borough Council Minute Book
In 1495 the Burgesses of Wenlock Borough bought a book to record their minutes. This may at first sight seem a minor event. However, the minute book is made of paper, which was still a remarkably new and scarce material, for it was only during 1495 that the first paper was produced in England.
Examination of the paper and its watermarks suggests that it was produced as far away as Italy, probably in Milan. This was a city state at the centre of the great expansion of horizons now known as the Renaissance. Though the paper came from Italy, the binding was almost certainly done in England.
The earliest entries in the minute book are all in Latin, which was still the language of the educated. New pages may occasionally begin with a highly decorated word, much like the first word of any illuminated manuscript produced by monks. So in all likelihood the first clerks to the Borough were monks in the neighbouring Priory. Latin continued in use through to the Reformation and the English Civil War.
Entries in the minute book were in black ink using a quill. The quill would usually have been cut from a goose feather whose shaft was capable of holding a reservoir of ink. The ink was usually made using the crushed gall from an oak tree and iron filings as the main ingredients. The best ink was sometimes imported to England from countries such as Spain where the galls were common and suitable chemicals were readily available.
Some records have faded, but most are still clear. Some clerks seemed to find it easy to write horizontally across the blank page but others tended to wander at strange angles. Though the styles of writing did vary, there was an almost universal adoption of what are best described as elaborate curls in the lettering. What is also clear in examining the minutes of most clerks is the relative absence of either corrected mistakes or even smudges. This suggests skill and care but also that some means was in use to dry the ink before any smudging took place. In the days before blotting paper was in use various techniques were used, including scattering fine sand or chalk dust across writing to absorb surplus ink before turning the page.
For over 500 years the minute book has survived largely intact. Damp conditions have, however, stained and weakened the paper and the vellum cover has shrunk. The text block has also been eroded at the edges.
Our conservator is currenly working to remove much of the water staining and strengthen the paper. Lost paper will be replaced with similar, hand-made paper. The book will be rebound with new vellum in the same style as the original. The old binding will also be retained for its historical value. Take a look at the images below to see some of the conservation processes used.
This post is taken from an article written for the current Salopian Recorder, journal of the Friends of Shropshire Archives With thanks to volunteer archivists at Much Wenlock Town Council, Bob May and Howard Horsely.
The books have now been conserved and were on display in Much Wenlock. You can read transcripts and view digital images on our online catalogue at https://www.shropshirearchives.org.uk/collections/getrecord/CCA_XWB_C_1
(use ‘browse this collection’ for more information about the minute books)