Parchment vs. Paper

When you see some sheep outside in the fields you do not automatically think about reading a book, nor do you instantly think about sheep when you look at a bookshelf. But in the Middle Ages the relations between book and sheep (calf, goat, or other animals) was much closer than nowadays. Not only were their hides turned into leather for the covers, but also into parchment for the leaves.

Parchment was first used in Asia Minor in the second century BC, deriving its name from the ancient Greek town of Pergamon (now in Turkey). In the following centuries it replaced papyrus as the main writing support. The physical qualities of parchment made it possible to be put to use differently than papyrus. Since the former did not break when folded, it could be used to make gatherings (?) and as a result for codices.

Parchment was a valuable material. Leaves from worn out manuscripts could be recycled as supports in bookbindings, or could be used as glue. But also leftovers after cutting sheets from animal skins (since animals are not square) could still be put to use as is shown in this video. In the Middle Ages people did not throw away things as easy as we do.

Paper may have been invented about the same time as parchment, approximately at the other side of the world: in China. Slowly the knowledge of paper making spread over the world. Via trade routes connecting the Chinese, Arabic and European worlds paper first appeared in Europe in the eleventh century. Spain, still under Muslim rule, was the first European country where a paper mill was opened. The first Italian paper mill was established about 1270 in Fabriano (where they are still making paper!). For a long time Europe north of the Alps, imported paper, but after the fourteenth century in France, Germany, the Low Countries and England more and more paper mills appeared.

Paper was cheaper than parchment, and in a continent that seemed to have become addicted to writing, this enabled more and more people to read, write, and buy books. From the late fourteenth century onwards paper became the most used writing support for ‘literary’ texts, and in the administration.

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Medieval Inventions

The very first codices had little in common with modern books. Of course, they already consisted of two boards with many pages between them (which is still the same principle today, except for paperbacks). But they lacked all sorts of things we take for granted in a book. It was still during the Middle Ages, however, that people worked hard to improve the user friendliness and came up with some inventions we have come to associate with a book and which we even need to be able to use a book today.

Titles. If there are several texts in a book, how would you manage to find one of them if they had no titles?!? People in the Middle Ages obviously did not care about that, at first. There are many examples of multi text codices (?) in which there is just one text after the other. Sometimes there is a little space between them, sometimes they are just marked by a somewhat larger initial (?), but sometimes they just seem glued to each other. The reason for this is quite obvious: Parchment was expensive, and free space was considered a waste. Perhaps you were not supposed to look for one text specifically, but to read one item after the other, in which case you would hopefully notice the beginning of something new.
Of course, there are examples of headings already in very early books. Over time, scribes started to use them more and more often: The rubrics (?) could contain information on the content of the following story, even if they were not always very specific (‘About the knight and the woman’). Sometimes they just told you that another story of the same kind was to follow (‘Another one’ or ‘More of the same’). And sometimes, they contained titles in a modern sense (‘The Belt’ or ‘The Emperor with the Long Beard’).

Tables of Contents. The invention of titles was the basis for tables of contents, obviously. It is only in the 13th century that the first tables in vernacular mauscripts appear (latin manuscripts being earlier, as is often the case). They helped with gaining an overview of the texts contained in one book or of finding a specific text. And who knows which other purpose the tables of contents might have served? Perhaps people used them to show off to their friends (‘look at all the texts I have got’). They might also have come in useful when you had borrowed a book to copy the texts you had not already got in your library. Like one 16th century reader did when he marked some texts as already being in his library (see post on comparing Minnereden).

Foliation. If you wanted to be able to find a text quicker through your table of contents, it sure made sense to have page numbers to refer to. This seems evident to us, but the majority of medieval manuscripts did not use numbers, neither to count its leaves (lat. folia, from which the term foliation) nor the items contained in it. All the more important this invention has to be considered. After all, it can tell us something about the medieval users: The moment there is foliation in a medieval book, we can assume that the envisaged reader did not simply want to read one text after the other, but to be able to jump to specific texts.

Paper. One of the most important medieval inventions is without any doubt the invention of paper. Once people started to use this much cheaper (albeit much less durable) material, they were much freer to add information to a text, use larger scripts, work with blank space if they wanted to (e.g. in order to leave room for possible additions). Now, it did not matter any longer if your text was precious enough to be copied down; people just copied more and more things. The book production exploded. (For more detail see Parchment vs. Paper).

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