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Paper’s Dawn

Parchment retained its dominance in Europe right into the high middle ages for a number of reason, not least because the production of books was largely the specialized activity of monks and most books were produced by monkish scribes who labored over religious texts. And the perfect medium for such exalted content was parchment. Concerning the quality and reputation of writing materials made of skins, the following quote sums up ancient and current wisdom:

Despite all that has been said above, even the strongest supporters of papyrus would not deny that parchment of good quality is the finest writing material ever devised by man. It is immensely strong, remains flexible indefinitely under normal conditions, does not deteriorate with age, and possesses a smooth, even surface which is both pleasant to the eye and provides unlimited scope for the finest writing and illumination. [Colin H. Roberts and T.C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex, Oxford University Press, 1983]

Paper—pulped fiber—is thought to have been first produced in China by Ts’ai Lun. He was a councilor at the court of Emperor Ho Ti around 110 AD. Lun produce paper by beating moistened hemp and cotton rags into a liquid slurry. He spread this pulp thinly over a screen and let it dry. Thus he produced even flat sheets very suitable to receive writing. The Italians were the first producers of paper in Europe, and it is temping to imagine that Marco Polo (1254-1324) introduced the technology from China. But no. It reached the Islamic world first and, before the Europeans picked it up, paper mills already operated in Baghdad. The transmission point appears to have been today’s Kyrgyzstan where the Islamic and Chinese cultures collided, specifically the Abbasid Caliphate and the Tang Dynasty in the battle of Talas, in 751. By the time Marco Polo returned from meetings with the Kublai Khan in 1269, Italy had already become Europe’s leading producer of paper made of cotton pulp, a position the region retained for a century. The region? Yes. Italy did not become a country until the days of Garibaldi in the nineteenth century. The French became producers in 1350. But it was the Germans who gave paper the big leg up when, around 1450, Johann Gutenberg introduced movable type to the world—and, in a manner of speaking, cotton first became king. Demand for paper then soared.

Modern, mechanical paper production using wood fibers emerged yesterday, as it were, in the nineteenth century. But by then the dawn of paper had become the daylight of modern life, and of that stage, later.

Picture credit: Wikipedia commons, here.


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