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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

March 2015



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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

What is paper?

I’m not being facetious. We think of paper as a timeless commodity. We’ve all heard the story that the word was derived from the Greek name of a plant called Cyperus papyrus, and if you are like me, you probably figured that was what they made paper out of in ancient times. After all, we have ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, and Greek writings that date back close to two millennia BCE. Paper must have been one of the earliest inventions of mankind.

It ain’t necessarily so. Papyros was used as a substrate for writing in ancient times, but its relationship to paper is really in name only. The substrate was made of woven strands of the the plant fiber and was probably almost as hard to make as to write on. More common for the writings of the Bible, the ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights, and government lackeys was animal skins. We commonly refer to the scraped and treated hides of animals used for writing as vellum or parchment. This substrate was so commonly used that even at the time of Gutenberg, 45 of the copies of his famous Bible were printed on vellum. That’s 5,000 or so calfskins!

Paper as we know it wasn’t really invented until about the 2nd century BCE in China. It made its way slowly westward by way of the Islamic world to Europe in the 13th century CE. The paper-making process had advantages over using animal skin as nearly any fibrous plant could be used to make the paper. The plant was ground and mashed up with water, then shaken out into sheets and dried. At our home, we went through a long period when my daughter was about 8-9 where slurry was made in the blender out of various types of scrap paper, was shaken out on a hand screen, and then plastered against a window to dry. She used the homemade paper to make holiday cards, books, and school demonstrations.

Some of the contemporary terms we use to describe paper come from the process. For example, “laid” refers to the imprint of the drying screen on one side of the paper (the side on which it was laid). “Deckle” refers to the raw, uneven edge of the finished sheet, now neatly trimmed off the paper we put through our inkjet printers. And “watermark” is the subtle logo of the paper manufacturer that was a part of the drying screen and left a faint trace on the paper that you can usually only see on fine papers by holding them up to the light. Even the term “ream” is derived from the Arabic word rizmah that translates as “a bundle.”

The 135 copies of the Gutenberg Bible that were not printed on vellum were printed on fine paper imported from Italy. Even though Mainz, Germany had paper-making mills a hundred years before the printing press, Italy had the reputation of the finest papers made, largely through the monopoly held and preserved by the Fabriano family in Ancona Mills. Heavy fines were imposed upon anyone who taught people outside the area the art of paper-making.

One of the key elements in the thriller The Gutenberg Rubric is how manuscript and book dating is done. Determining the location of the manufacture of the paper can lead a long ways toward identifying the time and place of the printing. The carbon breakdown in organic matter is traceable and can lead to relatively accurate dating of a substrate.

For more information about the history of paper, Neather Batsell Fuller, Instructor of Anthropology at St. Louis Community College, has written an excellent paper that can be found at A Brief History Of Paper.

(The Gutenberg Rubric, a novel by Nathan Everett, will be released on July 28. Order your copy today!)