Table of Contents
Main Sections
I. Function of Books
II. Book Production
      1. Parchment
      2. Papyrus 
      3. Paper 
      4. Ruling
      5. Pen 
      6. Ink 
      7. Gilding 
      8. Pigments 
      9. Bookbinding
III. Book Structure
IV. Typology of Books
V. Book Illumination
Back to the previous subchapter                II. Materials and Techniques of Manuscript    Production  Credits
3. Paper
There are indeed very many medieval manuscripts written on paper. Cheap little books made for clerics and students were probably more often on paper than on parchment by the fifteenth century. Even major aristocratic libraries had manuscripts on paper. Some paper manuscripts survive with the inner and outer pairs of leaves in each gatherings  made of parchment, presumably because parchment is stronger and these were the most vulnerable pages. Paper was a Chinese invention probably of the second century and the technique of paper-making spent a thousand years slowly working its way through the Arab world to the West. By the thirteenth century there were established paper mills in Spain and Italy, and in France by about 1340, Germany by 1390, but probably not in England until the later fifteenth century. Paper was exported from its place of manufacture into all parts of Europe (see the Map).

By about 1400 it become a relatively common medium for little volumes of sermons, cheap textbooks, popular tracts, and so on. As late as 1480 a ruling of the University of Cambridge stipulated that only books on parchment could be accepted as security for loans. Paper  was evidently thought to be too insignificant. It was the invention of printing in the I450s which transformed the need for paper, and by the later fifteenth century it had become so infinitely cheaper than parchment that it was used for all but the most luxurious books.

Medieval paper was made from linen rags. It is much stronger and more durable than modern wood-pulp paper, and fifteenth-century scribes were wrong if they believed that it would not survive. Rag paper is manufactured as follows. White rags are sorted and washed thoroughly in a tub pierced with drainage holes and they are then allowed to ferment for four or five days. Then the wet disintegrating pieces are cut into scraps and beaten for some hours in clean running water, left to fester for a week, beaten again, and so on, several times over, until the mixture disintegrates into a runny water-logged pulp. It is then tipped into a huge vat. A wire frame is scooped into the vat, picking up a film of wet fibres, and it is shaken free of drips and emptied onto a sheet of felt. Another layer of felt is laid over it. As the soggy sheets emerge and are tipped out, they are stacked in a pile of multiple sandwiches of interleaved felt and paper. Then the stack is squeezed in a press to remove excess water and the damp paper can be taken out and hung up to dry. When ready, the sheet is 'sized' by lowering it into an animal glue made from boiling scraps of vellum or other offcuts. The size makes the paper less absorbent and allows it to take ink without running. The sheets may have to be pressed again to make them completely flat. Sometimes, especially in north-east Italy (doubtless under the influence of Islamic paper manufacture) the paper was polished with a smooth stone to give it a luxurious sheen.

It happens that the wire frame leaves lines where the soft paper pulp is thinner, and by at least 1300 European paper-makers began twisting little patterns out of wire and attaching them to the grid so that amusing or emblematic pictures were coincidentally transferred into the thickness of the paper, invisible when the paper was stacked or folded in a book but quite clear when held up to the light. Thus watermarks came into being as a means of distinguishing paper stocks and their makers.

Click on the image to view full-size!

Before a late medieval scribe could begin to write out a manuscript, a decision had to be made whether to use paper or parchment. Paper was cheaper and lighter and had the advantage of being supplied in sheets of an exact format. Parchment was thought to be stronger and has a slightly springy writing surface which gives an agreeable flexibility to pen strokes as compared with the unyielding flatness of writing on paper. The most beautiful and elaborate manuscripts were always on parchment, which was used for Books of Hours and other traditional books intended for a long life.

Parchment and paper as finished by the parchmenter or paper-maker are supplied in large rectangular sheets. A book is not made up of single pages, but of pairs of leaves or bifolia. Several pairs of leaves are assembled one inside another, folded vertically down the middle and they can be stitched through the middle of the central fold to make a book in its simplest form. Each clutch of folded bifolia is called a gathering or quire. All standard medieval manuscripts are made up of gatherings. A manuscript is a unit formed by assembling in sequence a series of smaller units. Scribes and illuminators worked on a gathering at a time. If one is examining a medieval manuscript carefully today, the first task will often be to peer into the centre of the folded pages looking for the sewing threads and sketching out a physical plan of where each gathering begins and ends. A gathering is usually of eight leaves, or four bifolia. In early Irish manuscripts and in fifteenth-century Italian books a gathering was often of ten leaves. Little thirteenth-century Bibles, which used exceedingly thin parchment, were often made of gatherings of twelve, sixteen, or even twenty-four leaves. Sometimes a book was made up mostly of gatherings of eight leaves but ended with a gathering of six or ten leaves because the conclusion of the text fitted more neatly. Sometimes even within a manuscript there were gatherings of irregular length, and these can be clues as to how the maker put the book together.

As we remember, there are the subtle differences between what had been the hair side and what had been the flesh side of a sheet of parchment. In handmade paper too, if one can peer closely enough, one can defect from which side the wire lines and watermark  were indented. Almost without a single exception in over a thousand years of book production in every conceivable circumstance all over Europe, facing pages match. Hair side faces hair side, flesh side faces flesh side, and in paper manuscripts watermark side faces watermark side. This is quite extraordinarily consistent, and yet no medieval manuals of craftsmanship mention the fact. A break in the sequence of hair to hair, flesh to flesh, is so rare that it is often the first indication that a leaf is missing from the manuscript.

If we take an ordinary-shaped oblong sheet of paper coloured or somehow marked on one side, lay the paper horizontally on the table with the colour side upwards, and now fold it over once with a vertical crease in the middle -- this shape is called folio. Now if we fold it in half again and crease it along the middle horizontally, it is oblong but a bit squatter in shape and this format is called quarto, because four thicknesses are folded. Now if we fold it in half yet again, the wad is now an eighth of the original size and the shape is called octavo. Imagine this as a gathering in a book, with a central fold and uncut edges. Take a knife or a finger and open it up page by page as if you were reading it. Page I is white. Pages 2 and 3 facing each other are coloured. Pages 4 and 5 facing each other are white. Pages 6 and 7 are coloured, and so on. If this were vellum, in other words, no matter how many times you fold the sheet, flesh side will automatically face flesh side and hair side automatically face hair side. Presumably, then, this is more-or-less how gatherings were folded in the Middle Ages. In the earlier Middle Ages scribes probably assembled their gatherings and wrote in them as they worked through the transcription of a book. By the fifteenth century, at the latest, stationers  were certainly selling paper and parchment already made up into gatherings.

Top of the page Home Table of Contents Next