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YESTERDAY, WE GLEANED TIDBITS from Tom Johnson’s review of Orietta Da Rold’s Paper in Medieval England: From Pulp to Fiction. Paper arrived big-time in England in the late 14th-century. Fifty years later, developments of the printed press began to replace scribes in transmitting information with this new medium. 

Paper in Medieval England: From Pulp to Fictions, by Orietta Da Rold, Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Differences Under the Quill. “Paper,” Tom Johnson writes in London Review of Books, “felt different under the quill. Unlike parchment, with its smooth, oily surface, paper is fibrous and porous, so absorbs ink more easily. As Orietta Da Rold suggests, this enabled scribes to write more quickly, and may have abetted the development of the cursive ‘secretary’ hand found in later medieval administrative writing.”

Image from

Parchment’s smooth, oily surface also meant that any scribal mistakes could be scraped off. Johnson notes, “… the medieval Latin erado, from which we derive the word ‘erase,’ means literally ‘to scrape off.’ ”

Printing favored paper’s porosity. Being fibrous, paper absorbed ink more readily. But the only means of amending errors was to cross them out in an early proof and redo the document.  

A Notorious Misprint. Thus, paper called for multiple proofs to eliminate pesky errors in press runs. One of the most notorious errors occurred in the 1631 reprint of the King James Bible originally appearing in 1611. 

Image from Wikipedia.

What’s more, its rendering of Deuteronomy 5:24 may have contained another typo: The word “greatness” might have been set as “great-asse,” the resulting sentence reading “Behold, the Lord our God hath shewed us his glory and his great-asse.” (No actual copies exist, though several show an inkblot where the “n” should have been. It’s also conjectured that the irregularity may have been a rival printer’s bit of sabotage.)

Coexistent Strategies. Parchment (treated animal skins) and paper (sourced from discarded, mashed textiles) weren’t competing per se. Rather, each had distinctive qualities.

Da Rold examined hundreds of medieval manuscript books held in Cambridge University Library. Johnson notes, “… she found 118 that contained paper; of these, a third contained both parchment and paper. Parchment bifolia were used to wrap the paper quires that were stitched together to form books, dispersing parchment reinforcements in a way that seems to have been intended to improve a book’s longevity.”

As another example of the two media coexisting,  Johnson describes a pair of contemporary documents: One was in parchment, for permanence of the law. A related document was in paper, chosen for quick calculations, for temporary states of affair, and for handbills, pamphlets, and posters.

On Longevity: In 1490, the bibliophile Johannes Trithemius wrote that “handwriting placed on skin will be able to endure a thousand years.” Yet Da Rold observes that paper had a prestige as an imported, even exotic commodity in England. Johnson writes, “one of the earliest surviving manuscripts of the complete Canterbury Tales, held in the Cambridge University Library, was written on paper watermarked with an image of a dragon, probably made in Italy in the last years of the 14th century.”   

On Tradition. Johnson observes, “Acts of Parliament were recorded on vellum until 2017, when the switch was made to archival paper to cut costs.” ds  

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 

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