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Paper Stocks in Western Medieval Manuscripts

And thus we see, that a single Leaf of Paper, tho‘ not valuable in its self; yet when come to be part of a Collection, may be of good use, not only in respect of the Matter it Treats of, but as to the Mark of the Paper, the Date, Printer’s Name, Countrey, Title, Faculty, &c." Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726)


This collection presents evidence of the physical features of medieval paper from manuscripts of English provenance datable up to the end of the fifteenth century. From this corpus of more than a hundred manuscripts, those with sheets folded in folio have been selected for ease of examination. The data, comprising images and explanatory material, focus on the description of morphological attributes of paper resulting from both the mechanical and the handmade features of its manufacture.

Paper Stocks in Western Medieval Manuscripts

Made with rag pulp and shaped using a wire mould, medieval paper bears discrete imprints such as horizontal laidlines, vertical chainlines, and watermarks. Akin to fingerprints, these unique, distinctive elements enable analysis of the production of a sheet of paper at a higher level than parchment, its contemporary writing surface derived from animal skin. Papermakers alternated between two moulds at the vat to streamline the process. Usually highly similar without being identical, these pairs of moulds or ‘twins’ can be recovered from the paper in books using various methods: for instance, by focusing on the position and the shape of twinned watermarks or discerning possible damage to other constituent elements of the mould, such as chainlines. Medieval twin-mould makers often attached watermarks on opposing sides of the mould, and each design may differ in subtle ways. Sometimes, papermakers would just use two different moulds altogether. Identifying these patterns on sheets of paper allows scholars to detect paper stocks, defined as all the sheets that were made with a pair of twin moulds. By considering the sum of the features created by the moulds, a study of paper stocks offers a broader comparative context beyond watermark analysis. The documentation of specific paper stocks holds significant potential for tracing the movement of books and people, as well as establishing a chronology of paper use in Britain— especially given that all paper was imported through the end of the medieval period. It is already well-established that paper played a substantial role in medieval English written culture, but what types of paper stocks were in circulation? Can they be quantified? What were their morphological characteristics? 

A significant challenge lies in defining the parameters for cataloguing paper stocks beyond their watermarks. In a previous project, Da Rold proposed a low-tech approach for analysing paper based on visual inspection (‘Fingerprinting Paper in West Midlands Medieval Manuscripts’ in Essays in Manuscript Geography, ed. W. Scase (2007), 257-71). It set out the essential and desirable characteristics to record when describing paper produced by twin moulds in a way that would enable researchers to identify with confidence sheets from the same stock. These include folio range, sheet size, folding format, watermark dimensions and position, number of chainlines, sheet thickness, and laidline density, as well as the condition of the chainlines and laidlines, variant states of watermarks, and an indication of whether the folio has been trimmed. Additionally, data on dates and comparative materials from watermark albums and databases can augment this analysis if a match can be found. There is no doubt that many similar watermarks appear in watermark albums and in The Bernstein Project, which now electronically aggregates many databases of watermarks. However, exact matches are difficult to come by. In this collection, we provide descriptive data and a visual representation of watermarks, and we indicate possible matches when they have been found; otherwise, we do not include comparative datasets. The description of the paper stocks in this collection follows these main guidelines and includes a summary description of the salient features of the paper stocks in each manuscript. This information expands previous published material in Da Rold, Paper in Medieval England (Cambridge 2020)

The Cultural Heritage Imaging Laboratory (CHIL) at CUL provided the multispectral images illustrating the paper stocks in this collection. CHIL’s specialist camera system, funded by AHRC’s Capability for Collections (CapCo) Fund, can capture narrow bands of the light spectrum. The isolation of specific wavelengths allows us to learn more about an object and its medium, minimizing interference from ink. Working closely with Maciej Pawlikowski, Head of CHIL, we discovered that, surprisingly, the optimal lighting for capturing images of the mould imprints on paper is the bands of light which are invisible to the human eye, necessitating a completely dark room for optimal results. We also observed that most of the ink fades to some degree with infrared (IR) light. If that light can be placed under the page, it will also show the structure of paper clearly. Furthermore, the combination of images with different types of IR illumination (reflective and transmissive) produces images with no or minimal ink obstruction. Some of these experimental approaches will be evident in the images accompanying the descriptions of the paper stocks.

In general, this collection publishes images that illustrate a half sheet of paper with the watermark in evidence. In some cases, images show a full sheet of paper, when such reconstruction is possible. The accompanying metadata serve as a trial of the descriptive system applied to various paper stocks using the Text Encoding Initiative and Extensible Mark-Up Language (TEI/XML), developed in collaboration with James Freeman and Huw Jones. Its objective is to enable scholars to visualise paper stocks across multiple manuscripts. As such, these descriptions do not include a full textual, codicological and palaeographical description of the manuscript nor a digital colour facsimile of the whole book, but a link is provided to those manuscripts already digitized and catalogued in full. Some of the examples given are drawn from composite manuscripts, which comprise two or more constituent parts of separate production. The paper stocks shown for a composite manuscript are therefore representative for the folio ranges indicated in the descriptive data.

We will upload this material in phases, and this collection will grow over the coming months. Do come back and visit again!

Orietta Da Rold (Principal Investigator) and Logan Rivers (Research Associate), with Carlotta Barranu (Research Associate) and Suzanne Paul (Co-Principal Investigator)

This research was funded by the University of Cambridge Research & Collections Programme as part of the ‘Thinking Paper’ project directed by Orietta Da Rold and Suzanne Paul, and through the generosity of the Sandars Readership in Bibliography.