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TOM JOHNSON BEGINS his London Review of Books article with quite an amazing tidbit: “In 1391, 2.3 million sheets of paper arrived at the port of London: a page for every person in England.”
All that paper, note, some fifty years before printed books. Johnson’s article “Different Under the Quill” is a review in LRB, May 12, 2022, of Orietta Da Rold’s Paper in Medieval England: From Pulp to Fictions.
Background. From time to time, SimanaitisSays has explored the history of transcribed material, in “From Tablet to Scroll to Codex to Book,” and, specifically, in “Paper Chase!” Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are more tidbits on this topic gleaned from Johnson’s LRB review of Da Rold’s book.
Origins of Paper in England. Johnson writes, “Paper first arrived in England in the 13th century. The technology itself was very old, having been developed in China around 100 ce and spread through the Islamic world in the eighth century. Lacking mulberry trees, Arab craftsmen discovered that paper could be made from textile waste alone.”
Johnson continues, “Rags and old ropes were bleached with lye, smashed with mallets and broken down into fibres. These were pounded with water in vats, and then the pulp squeezed and left to dry in large frames, resulting in paper that could be cut into sheets.”
Paper’s Earliest Uses In England. Of one page per person in the year 1391, Johnson notes, “Most of it was probably low-quality brown paper used as a packing material to protect foodstuffs and ceramics as they juddered along cartways into the city. A small amount, some 3500 sheets, was the ornamental paper used for decorations at feasts and known as papiri depicti (Chaucer refers to elaborate ‘bake-metes and dish-metes … peynted and castelled with papir’ in ‘The Parson’s Tale’). The rest—hundreds of thousands of sheets—was writing paper.”
And, not surprising, Johnson cites an authority estimating that the English royal government put out around thirty thousand documents a year as early as the second half of the 12th century.” Apparently they were no more a “paperless society” than we are today.
Watermarking as a Paper ID. “Wire shapes,” Johnson notes, “were placed within the drying mesh, meaning that a little less pulp would settle there, leaving a ghostly outline in the paper.”
“These marks,” Johnson continues, “enabled customs officials to identify the manufacturer, supposedly so that purchasers could prove they were observing the papal embargo on importing goods from Islamic countries. The marks were, I suspect, also an attempt at brand-building in this highly commercialised export industry.”
From Rags to …. The rag-smashing industry evolved: Johnson describes, “…water wheels drove camshafts fitted to enormous hammers, the heads furnished with blades and nails to shred the rags. The water was squeezed out more quickly with huge screw presses developed in the winemaking industry, leaving a finer pulp that could be dried to make much thinner paper. All this meant that smoother, lighter, stronger paper could be produced in much larger quantities.”
“The selection and sorting of textiles was key,” Johnson notes, “light rags were remade as fine quality white paper, while dark rags were put to use as miglioramento, the thin brown paper used for wrapping and packing.”
Chaucer’s White. Johnson observes, “Fine writing paper, made from the whitest rags, had a lustrous glow. When Chaucer was looking for a metaphor to describe the horse on which Dido rode to greet Aeneas, he decided not on snow or lilies, but on ‘paper-white.’ ”
Tomorrow, Johnson and we focus on what happened when paper encountered a new transcription process: no longer scribes, but the printing press. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022