The banality of paper

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A paper manuscript from around 1464 made in Bruges and containing a French version of a 12th-century classic, Honorius Augustodunensis’s encyclopaedic work ‘Imago mundi’, British Library, Royal MS 19 A IX 

It’s always hard to dislodge established technologies and replace them with new ones. In hindsight, the advantages of newer technologies appear clear and unmistaken. But in the fray, things are never like this. Newer isn’t always better, it might be exciting, but at the end of the day, you may want to stick with the devil you know.

The success of Gutenberg’s printing press wasn’t due only to the invention of the mechanical press. In fact, the press wasn’t that much of an innovation any way. Europeans had been transferring moulded designs unto soft materials by means of imprints for centuries. The printing press was not essentially different from engraving in metal, stamping in silver and sealing in wax. The really innovative technology which goes farther in explaining the success of the press was the development of paper. But, as we all know, it is not always enough to develop a new technology, the real challenge is to secure its adoption by the appropriate groups.

Paper appears to have arrived in Europe through contact with the Arabs, which had been using it since the 8th century. The town of Fabriano in the Italian Marche established itself as early as the 12th century as one of the earliest centres of paper-making in Europe. By the 15th century, rag-cloth-based paper was successfully competing with parchment. Although far less durable than parchment, paper was cheaper to make and also more lightweight. Using paper instead of parchment significantly cut the cost of production, making manuscripts a lot more affordable.

The parchment manuscript of the Middle Ages was arguably the most costly type of book to make. Parchment was hugely expensive to produce, and so was the manual labour involved in writing the book. Together, these two factors would never have allowed the book to become an object that most people could afford. For that to happen, paper had to replace parchment and the press had to take over from the toil of the copyist.

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