Where older is better

On the beauty of medieval papers

Staff from the Library's Preservation Services Branch, with the assistance of two wonderful volunteers, are currently cleaning the books held in our Rare Books stack. For me, this is a thrilling activity, as I am fascinated by the European Middle Ages. When I open a book that was printed before 1650AD, the quality and condition of the paper never ceases to amaze me. It is not often that we associate the word 'old' with 'beautiful', 'perfect' and 'the best', but when it comes to paper, this is absolutely the case.

Paper today is all around us, and very few of us think anything of it. And with good reason, as almost all paper today is a combination of (most often) poor quality raw materials that have been made to serve by the addition of fillers and chemicals to cover up its inherent defects.  Modern papers have about as much in common with medieval papers as yesterday’s leftover fast food has in common with the best and freshest French cuisine.

Above: an example of an early paper in transmitted light, from a set of sample papers held in our Preservation Services labs. You can see the watermark, and chain and laid lines. In the lower left are traces of water droplets that fell on the sheet while the pulp was wet. The specks in the sheet are little lumps where the papermaking fibers were not completely separated.

Sample of undated early paper showing an elaborate watermark

Above: another example of an undated later paper in transmitted light, showing a more elaborate watermark. The more even appearance of the paper pulp indicates the likelihood that it was processed in a Hollander beater as opposed to the earlier stampers.

To me, the earliest European papers are objects of beauty, mystery and wonder.

They are objects of beauty because they are pretty much as fresh, strong and flexible today as they were the day they were made. They are not even, not completely flat, and not exactly square like most papers today would be. They are alive with clues as to how they were made. They are a window in time, a tangible connection with the past.

Early paper represents a happy marriage between the best raw materials (linen and cotton rags), and the gentlest method of creating the pulp (retting and stamping). This led to the creation of papers which were extremely strong and durable. Slow drying and sizing with gelatin was the perfect finale in the process, increasing their durability and ability to withstand adverse conditions even further. For a more detailed explanation of early papermaking processes see http://paper.lib.uiowa.edu/european.php

They are objects of mystery, because the skills and detailed know-how needed to create papers like this are long since lost. We know from historical sources the outlines of how they were made, but the detailed working knowledge of the craftsmen is gone.

And they are objects of wonder, because the qualities of the raw materials are such that all that was needed to create paper was linen and cotton pulp, and water. When the newly formed sheet was pressed and dried, new chemical bonds called H-bonds are created which cause the cellulose fibers to adhere to each other, creating a sheet of paper which is both strong and flexible.

With the invention of the printing press, demand for paper increased exponentially, and the pressure was on to speed production. In the later 17th century, the ‘Hollander beater’ started replacing the old stamping technology. Papers made from pulp created in a Hollander beater are also mostly still in great condition, as the raw materials stayed the same. The pulp is finer and the fibers are shorter, resulting in a sheet which is more even, but not quite as strong.  Also by the 17th century, watermarks were produced by professionals. They became more complex and intricate, and to my mind lost some of the naive simplicity which is so charming in the earliest papers.

Watermark in a book by German artist Albrecht Durer

Above: this is a photograph of a page from a book in the Library's Rare Books collection. You can see a distinctive watermark in the form of a white cross and a circle. This watermark can be found in an online watermark database Briquet online, enabling us to date the paper to approximately 1529AD. The book is by the famous German artist Albrecht Durer, Clariss: pictoris et geometrae Alberti Dureri De varietate figurarum et flexuris partium ac gestib, RB CLI 3956, described in the Library's online catalogue.

With the advent modern methods of production in the nineteenth century, everything went downhill as far as paper quality was concerned. Demand increased to such an extent that alternative sources of fibers had to be found. This problem was solved by the invention of technologies  and chemicals which allowed wood pulp to be used. Paper has never been the same since.

When I tell people that I am a paper conservator, I mostly get blank looks and/or polite silence. But I know that really, I have the best job in the world. For me, it is a privilege and a joy to work with materials such as some of the Rare Books in the Library’s collections.

Another example of a watermark in the shape of a circle and cross in the Durer rare book

Above: another watermark in the form of a white cross and circle in Albrecht Durer Clariss: pictoris et geometrae RB CLI 3956, described in our online catalogue.

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