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A Brief History of Paper by Elizabeth de Nevell

Before the common use of paper as a writing surface, indigenous peoples of the world recorded information on genealogy, religion, divination, and government on many different natural substances such as rocks, leaves, and fabric. Long strips of tree bark, sometimes as long as thirty feet, were also used to record information. The first record of paper is in China circa 105 AD. However, recent archaeological investigations place the actual invention of papermaking some 200 years earlier.

"Early Chinese paper appears to have been made by from a suspension of hemp waste in water, washed, soaked, and beaten to a pulp with a wooden mallet. A paper mold, probably a sieve of coarsely woven cloth stretched in a four-sided bamboo frame, was used to dip up the fiber slurry from the vat and hold it for drying. Eventually, tree bark, bamboo, and other plant fibers were used in addition to hemp". (IPST website)

It took nearly 500 years for papermaking to travel from Asia to Europe, by way of whatís modernly referred to as the Middle East. Many Chinese papermaking materials, such as rice and bamboo, were not available to Middle Eastern papermakers, who substituted flax and other plant fibers instead. They also developed a human-powered trip-hammer to save time in preparing the pulp. The first European papers were made from linen or hemp rags, or from the more tarry hemp of ropes and sails.

Although the export of paper from the Middle East to Byzantium and other parts of Europe began in the 10th and 11th centuries, the craft was apparently not established in Spain and Italy until the 12th century. The earliest extant European document is a deed of King Roger of Sicily of 1102, and Englandís earliest is a document of 1309 from the Hastings Court of Lyme Regis, on what is probably Spanish paper. Early paper was disfavored by the Christian world as a manifestation of Moslem culture at first. Paper was so out of favor (being a product of Godless heathens) that, in 1221 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II declared all official documents written on paper to be invalid. It is possible that this decision was made under the influence of wealthy sheep and cattle merchants, who feared losing the income from their parchment trading.

Paper and its predecessor parchment were in use concurrently in Europe for some centuries before paper became the standard writing material. Poor quality writing and wrapping papers were commonly in use but, by their very nature, have rarely survived. General use of paper for writing and printing came about as a result of advances in printing technology, greater literacy, and the economics of supply and demand. Towards the end of the medieval period manuscripts were also produced on paper, and it is the medium of fully one third of the surviving manuscripts of Chaucerís Canterbury Tales. By the thirteenth century paper was available for use in book production. Although it is considerably less durable than natural parchment, paper had, and still has today, one great advantage: itís enormously more cost effective. By the fourteenth century, a variety of papers were readily available to anyone who needed them for a reasonable price.

The following table roughly charts the spread of the manufacture of paper from country to country in medieval Europe from thereon by the dates of the earliest known papermills, although it should be noted that the use of paper in a country may predate manufacture by 2-300 years.  



Spain (Xativa)

poss 1056

Italy (Genoa)

1255 (poss. 1235 on Ligurian coast)

France (Troyes)


Germany (Nuremberg)


Switzerland (Friebarg)




Great Britain (Hertfordshire)


The Process of Papermaking has changed little since the earliest batches were made. Preparing the stock, forming the paper web, drying the sheet, and applying coatings and additives were all as much a part of the medieval paper makerís job as they are of the work in modern paper mills. Work at the paper vat normally involved four people: the vatman, who made the sheet using a mould; the couch squirt working in time with the vatman, placing the sheet on felt; the layman, who drew off the still moist sheets from the felt after pressing; and the apprentice, who had to feed material to the vat and provide for vat heating. The press was operated jointly by this team. Depending on format and basis weight, up to nine reams (4,500 sheets) of paper were made in the course of a working day averaging 13 hours.

The material of choice for the European papermaker was cotton or linen fiber from rags. The rags were sorted, cleaned, and heated in an alkali solution, first in an open vat and the later under the steam pressure of a closed lid. After draining and aging, the rags were then washed and beaten to a fine pulp. In order to retain a long fiber, it was necessary to make sure that the rags were shred using a dull blade and cut very slowly. It would take a weeks time to prepare the pulp used in the finest papers. If a pristine white paper was wanted the pulp was then bleached to remove the final traces of dyes and the residual darkening from the cooking process, it was however just as common to find unbleached paper.

A paper mold is a sort of frame consisting of four raised edges with a fine wire screen covering the bottom. To form a sheet of paper, the papermaker dipped a paper mold into the vat of stock and lifted it out horizontally, trapping the fibers against the screen of the mold.

After forming, the sheet was "couched" from the mold and placed on felts or woolen cloth for pressing. A stack of paper sheets and felts, was then placed in a large wooden screw press, and all the workers in the mill were summoned to tighten the press by pushing or pulling a long wooden lever. An average 2-foot post might be reduced to 6 or 8 inches in this way. After pressing, the sheets were strong enough to be lifted from the felts and hung to dry, usually in groups of four or five known as "spurs" to prevent wrinkling and curling. Drying was usually carried out in the highest level of the mill, away from soot and dust.

Typical of the card-like papers produced in period, was the rough and highly absorbent surface which made it difficult for calligraphers to difficult to achieve a thin line. To make the paper less absorbent, the dried sheet was dipped in animal gelatin or glue. Such sizing was more important for writing papers than for printing stock, since printing inks were thicker and did not soak into the paper so easily. The first method for smoothing the sheet was simply to burnish each sheet by hand with a glossy stone; a water-powered hammer smoother was developed in the early 17th century.

Attaching a wire pattern to the mesh of a paper mold forms watermarks. When the paper slurry is drained of its water, the layer of residual fibers over the raised wire pattern is thinner than the rest of the sheet. When pressed and dried, these thinner areas result in patterns that only show clearly when held up to the light. European papermakers were the first to use watermarks. As an offshoot of the guild system, the watermark served as a means of identifying the paper with the members of the trade organization who manufactured it. Just as with trademarks stamped into silver or firearms, the watermark indicated that the paper was the product of a trained artisan's labors.

Watermarks and deckle edges are typical of medieval handmade papers. Today, Medieval Watermarks provide crucial evidence for the bibliographical analysis of early book production, for they help identify lots of paper moving through a printing shop. Watermarks and the related characteristics of hand made paper (countermarks, chain and wire lines, and physical traits), are the "fingerprints" by which we can date and establish the provenance of manuscripts from the late medieval and humanist eras. The evidence of the paper on which they are written can link even unsigned manuscripts with the centers of copy or the scribes that produced them.



"American Museum of Papermaking Web Page", Institute of Paper Science and Technology, 2000 http://www.ipst.edu/amp/

Carvalho, David N; "Four Centuries of Ink", Project Gutenburg, Champaign, 1998

Clement, Richard W.; "Manuscript Books", Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies, http://orb.rhodes.edu/encyclop/culture/books/medbook1.html

de Hamel, Christopher; "A History of Illuminated Manuscripts", Phaidon Press Ltd, London, 1997

Diehl, Edith; "Bookbinding; Itís background and technique", Dover Publishing, New York, 1980

"English Paper", The British National Archives Public Records Office, http://www.pro.gov.uk/default.htm, 1998

McDonald, Lee; "The Guide to Papermaking", Lee S. McDonald, Inc, Charelstown, 2000

The British Association of Paper Historians, http://www.baph.freeserve.co.uk

"Paper Online", CEPI - Confederation of European Paper Industries, http://www.paperonline.org/index.html

Velke Losiny Watermarks http://members.tripod.com/~handmadepaper/w_en.htm, 1998


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