Paper in Medieval England: From Pulp to Fictions 
by Orietta Da Rold.
Cambridge, 270 pp., £75, October 2020, 978 1 108 84057 6
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In​ 1391, 2.3 million sheets of paper arrived at the port of London: a page for every person in England. 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.

Only a hundred years earlier, paper was hardly known in England. Formal writing at the beginning of the 14th century, as in the previous half millennium, was done on animal skins. To make parchment, you washed the skin of a sheep (for vellum, a calf), soaked it in lime solution, washed it again, stretched it out on a wooden frame, scraped off the hair with a hooked knife called a lunellum, and cut it into rectangular sheets. Scribes kept a stone pumice to even out the gooseberried skin, and perhaps a boar’s tooth to polish the surface so that the ink – made from oak gall – would adhere. They kept another knife to scrape off any mistakes.

Such arduous processes were nonetheless used to produce vast quantities of text. The late Michael Clanchy estimated that the English royal government put out around thirty thousand documents a year as early as the second half of the 12th century. Using the ingenious method of calculating the expenditure on the wax used to seal documents, Clanchy found that the number of documents produced by the royal Chancery doubled every two or three decades over the 12th and 13th centuries. If we also take into account the documents and books created by the ecclesiastical bureaucracy, monastic houses, urban administrations, landed estates, merchants, lawyers, and even some peasants, we can begin to appreciate the scale of parchment production. It adds up to a lot of dead sheep.

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. 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. Early European paper bears the marks of this messy process. On a letter sent to Henry III by Berengaria of Castile sometime between 1217 and 1230, the oldest piece of paper to survive in an English archive, it’s still possible to make out the undissolved textile threads.

Paper took its medieval European name from the papyrus of the ancient Mediterranean world, although the two materials were only superficially similar. Papyrus was made by laying strips of dried reed fibres alongside and on top of one another and pressing them together. It was still produced in Egypt during the Middle Ages, but gradually edged out by parchment and paper. Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny in the mid-12th century, saw all three materials as profane surfaces on which to inscribe holy texts:

God reads, you say, the book of the Talmud in heaven. If it is the same kind of book as the others we typically read every day, is it at any rate compiled from the skins of rams, goats or calves, or from papyrus or the rushes of oriental swamps, or from old strips of rags, or from some perhaps even more common material?

In the later 13th century, Italian craftsmen in the small towns of the Marche used water power to improve the rag-smashing process: 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. Lodovico di Ambrogio rented and managed two paper mills in Fabriano at the end of the 14th century. His register gives a good insight into the business. The selection and sorting of textiles was key: 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. He recycled damaged paper and offcuts – the hammers shredded it all. White papers were made during the winter because it was thought cold weather meant paler paper. The thickness of the sheets varied according to the temperatures at which they were dried.

In 1389 the city of Bologna inscribed the dimensions of a sheet of paper on a stone that acted as a physical standard. There were four different sizes: imperial, royal, median and chancery. The manufacturer of a sheet of paper could be identified by a watermark. Wire shapes were placed within the drying mesh, meaning that a little less pulp would settle there, leaving a ghostly outline in the paper. These marks 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. Long before it became eponymous with identification, paper was among the first commodities to be made identifiable. In the sixteen years covered by his register, Lodovico used 24 marks, including a half-deer, a griffon, the head of a dog, a dragon, a goose and a pomegranate.

‘The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord,’ Marx wrote, ‘the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.’ The paper mill gave us a new textual economy, and in short order, a society clogged with text. What made paper different? Contemporaries were aware of its distinctive material qualities. One was its colour. 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’. This association with cleanliness may help to explain why it was often invoked in medical recipes. One 15th-century charm to reduce fevers suggested writing nine apotropaic words on a piece of paper and eating a word each day (parchment wouldn’t have gone down so easily). More prosaically, it was used as an alternative to linen for bandaging, and even mixed with water and ground into a paste for whitening teeth. The very finest varieties might even be eaten. A late 14th-century formula for Gobbettes Ryal (‘royal bites’) suggests wrapping red roses and sugar in white paper before eating them.

Paper 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. Paper’s porosity also meant that once the ink had soaked into the surface, it could not easily be removed. Parchment was quite different, as mistakes could be physically scratched off the thin layer of skin where the text lay; the medieval Latin erado, from which we derive the word ‘erase’, means literally ‘to scrape off’. By contrast, mistakes on paper were highly visible to the reader: they took the form of cancellation, the crossing-through of the offending text. Paper made evident the entire process of writing: the first draft, the missteps, the insertions – all the steps that resulted in the final text. The earliest surviving texts written in England on paper are the town registers begun by the port towns of Lynn and Lyme Regis in 1307 and 1309 respectively. Such registers were central to the most important rituals of the urban political calendar, when the town accounts were displayed to the citizenry for assent. Few would have been able to spot anything amiss, but any alterations would be evident in accounts recorded on paper. It allowed imperfections, even paraded them. It showed the text in flux.

Margaret Paston, matriarch of the Norfolk family famous for its collection of letters, reminded her husband, John, in 1451 that ‘paper is deynty,’ precious and not to be wasted. Da Rold makes a convincing case for its distinctive material qualities, and its prestige as an imported, even exotic commodity in England. There were expensive varieties, not just painted papers for feast decorations but the large sheets of high-quality white paper favoured by professional notaries. Paper was also sometimes used for the production of literary manuscripts. One of the earliest surviving manuscripts of the complete Canterbury Tales, held in 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.

Unlike the majority of man-made wares in medieval Europe, paper was intended for one-time use: most imported paper was described as spendabilis – expendable. Part of the reason for this was the huge quantities in which it could be produced. ‘On the day of 19 August,’ Lodovico di Ambrogio wrote in his register in 1398, ‘we sent six bales of paper, that is: four bales of royal with the sign of the griffon in five reams per bale and two bales of small fine paper with the sign of the half deer in ten reams per bale.’ A bale was five thousand sheets. To make the equivalent amount of parchment you needed several villages’ worth of sheep.

These bales were imported to England with ever greater frequency during Chaucer’s lifetime. In 1392, a ship belonging to Antonio Bembo brought 4090 reams of paper (a quarter of a million sheets), valued by the customs controllers at £93. That sounds like a lot of money, and it was, but it works out at more than ten sheets per penny. Economy of scale made possible huge profits: the retail price for writing paper was at least three times higher. A register of accounts – on paper, of course – kept by the French notary Denys de Collors, who was living in London in 1359, shows that he paid one or two shillings for two or three quires every month or so, at a price of three sheets per penny. He also bought even cheaper paper for wrapping and to make sachets for spices. As early as 1400, paper cost an eighth of the price of parchment; by the middle of the 15th century its cost had halved, and by 1500 it had halved again.

These low prices are one reason paper has long been characterised by medievalists as a cheap alternative to parchment, a parvenu material that made possible the printing press and the textual profusion of modernity. Da Rold is keen to revise this narrative. As she points out, paper and parchment were not ‘competing’, but used in ways that showed a recognition of their distinctive qualities. From the hundreds of medieval manuscript books held in Cambridge University Library, 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. But books represented a minuscule proportion of medieval textual production. Bureaucrats were also learning to work with paper. Writs – the formal legal instructions sent by the king’s clerks – had been written on parchment since the Conquest, but during the reign of Richard II there was a brief experiment to write them on paper. There may have been doubts about their longevity, however, as each one was carefully stitched, with green and white thread, onto a parchment backing.

Paper’s supposed ephemerality didn’t make it useless for official purposes; on the contrary, its disposability offered bureaucrats new ways of marking the relative importance of different kinds of text. In 1389 the fraternity of St Peter in the Norfolk village of Oxburgh sent off two pieces of writing in response to a government inquiry into religious guilds. A square of parchment listed rules about when the brothers and sisters should congregate, and how much candlewax they should offer at evensong. A small paper ‘bill’ had a brief account of the guild’s goods – five quarters of barley – and the names of its alderman and beadle. These two documents were stitched together: parchment for law, for permanence; paper for quick calculations, for temporary states of affairs.

Parchment is thicker, stronger, harder to tear. It wasn’t just tradition that led to its continued use for legal records – deeds, court rolls, final settlements – well beyond the end of the Middle Ages. It can be spooled up into a tough little roll, protecting what’s written on it without the need for a cover, needle or thread; very convenient if you simply want to throw some documents into your deed chest and forget about them. In 1490, the bibliophile Johannes Trithemius wrote that ‘handwriting placed on skin will be able to endure a thousand years’ – and counting. Acts of Parliament were recorded on vellum until 2017, when the switch was made to archival paper to cut costs.

Parchment’s most significant flaw turned out to be that it wasn’t particularly good for printing. Although Gutenberg printed many of his early Bibles on vellum, such attempts were soon abandoned. Print required new kinds of ink that would adhere to metal type, and these did not easily penetrate parchment’s oily surface. Paper made for manuscript production was usually sized with a glutinous liquid (made by boiling leather trimmings) that replicated parchment’s finish and prevented ink from bleeding into the fibres; the printing press made a virtue of paper’s porosity. The use of paper had resulted in a proliferation of text even when manuscript remained dominant, but print changed the game. It is estimated that eight million books were printed in Europe before 1500, as well as countless more single sheets – broadsides, pamphlets, proclamations, and the indulgences spewed out by the late medieval church.

The print revolution can all too easily distract from the more subtly momentous cultural change embodied in paper’s rise over the preceding centuries. Da Rold’s monograph – the first on medieval English paper – makes the point that not all paper was cheap and disposable. On the contrary, some of it, like the thick white sheets of imperiale sold in Bologna, 74 cm long, was prized and expensive. But in drawing more attention to these exceptionally fine kinds of paper, Da Rold may understate the significance of paper’s ephemerality and affordability. As medieval Europeans grew used to this endlessly available material, they began to experiment with the possibilities of expendable texts. Single-use texts such as handbills, pamphlets and posters became increasingly popular in the later 14th century and were ubiquitous in the 15th. During a parade through London to mark the end of a visit to England in 1416, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund had his servants scatter ballads in the streets, praising ‘Blessid Inglond, ful of melody … whech we schul evir sey and sing.’ The chronicler doesn’t say what the bills were made from, but it must have been paper. Parchment doesn’t flutter.

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