Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Primary Source Education Modules > Gutenberg Bible > The Invention > Papermaking
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Papermaking

How and where was the paper in the Gutenberg Bible made?

How is the paper in the Gutenberg Bible different than the paper in modern-day books?

Woodcut by Jost Amman. From Piazza Universale by Tomaso Garzoni. 1641.
The worker pictured here is preparing these animal skins to produce parchment or vellum.

Woodcut by Jost Amman. From Piazza Universale by Tomaso Garzoni. 1641.

Paper: From East to West

Paper was first made in China during the second century BCE out of hemp, mulberry fibers, and rags. Knowledge of papermaking slowly spread throughout Asia and reached the Middle East by the middle of the eighth century CE. Papermaking finally arrived in Europe in 1150, when the first paper mill was established in Spain. Initially, paper's arrival in Europe went uncelebrated. In 1221, the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II decreed all official documents written on paper invalid. To the modern reader, such action might seem incredible. To better understand it, we must first examine the historical context.

Before the advent of paper, European manuscripts were written on animal skins called parchment or vellum. Parchment is a translucent or opaque material made from the skins of sheep, goats, or similarly small animals that were soaked, scraped, stretched, and treated with lime or chalk until they were smooth and pliable. Vellum was originally defined as a high quality parchment made from calves' skins. Today, however, some authorities use the terms vellum and parchment interchangeably. Parchment was more durable than paper, and the emperor's decree may be speaking to this quality. Eventually, however, the cheap price of paper production and its virtually limitless quantities outweighed any advantages vellum or parchment offered, and it became the dominant material for manuscripts.

Royalty Paper Mold. Handcrafted by W. Green Son & Waite. Mid 20th-century.
This is an example of a modern printing mold. Imagine how a papermaker might dip this large mold into the vat of pulp and shake it.

Detail of a Royalty Paper Mold. Handcrafted by W. Green Son & Waite. Mid 20th-century.
This is a close-up image of a paper mold. The design you see is made by bending pieces of wire and tying them onto the wire mesh of the bottom of the mold. As the paper pulp drained, the shape would be pressed into the paper along with the lines of the wire mesh. The resulting pattern on the paper is called a watermark.

These four designs are all examples of watermarks from the Ransom Center's Gutenberg Bible. Watermarks were used to identify paper produced from various mills.
Gutenberg scholars studied the different watermarks in the Ransom Center's Bible and determined that the paper was made in Northern Italy.

Paper: Evidence of a Production Process

Today, by closely examining the paper in the Gutenberg Bible, we discover watermarks, which are evidence of the papermaking process.

The paper used in the Ransom Center's Gutenberg Bible was produced in a paper mill. Production begins by pounding either wood or linen fibers in a vat to form a pulpy liquid. A craftsman then dips a mold into the liquid and shakes it, thus fusing the fibers together to form a sheet of paper. The sheet is then placed on a piece of felt and layered with other sheets until dry.

Today, paper factories typically use wood pulp instead of the cotton rags that were used to make linen paper. Wood pulp is far cheaper than cotton rags. Modern paper is also not as strong or flexible as its predecessors. To see a good example of linen paper, look at a dollar bill. If you examine a dollar bill closely, you can even see threads!

Today, most paper manufacturers no longer use paper molds. Instead, large factory rollers smooth the wooden paper pulp at great speed to create a less expensive product. This process for making paper makes watermarking increasingly rare.

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