Material culture can prove beneficial, if not essential, to help us understand historical events, literature, science and art. Throughout the history of mankind, the materiality of day-to-day life has had a direct effect on intellectual production and its manifestations. A group of students from St Andrews had a glimpse of this over the last two days of October, while attending a two-day workshop with Professor Neil Harris (University of Udine), a scholar of material bibliography and paper studies.
Earlier this year, members of the Universal Short Title Catalogue were awarded funding by CAPOD towards the organisation of a hands-on workshop on the theme: “Paper as Evidence”. The funding scheme “GRADskills Innovation Grant” sponsored by CAPOD aims to provide training in research and transferable skills for graduate students. And so we thought: “What better skill to provide scholars of the humanities with, than a broader awareness about the physical support on which written texts have been impressed for centuries?”
In a way, it can be argued that paper represented the real boost towards the mass production of printed material. When printing with movable types was first invented, books still looked a lot like manuscripts – often produced on parchment, illuminated, and certainly very expensive. It was the substitution of parchment with paper that made books more affordable, and thus we owe to paper a great deal indeed. It seems natural that a good understanding of such material would be necessary to many historical investigations.
Many examples were examined in the course of four meetings with Professor Harris – two seminars, and two hands-on sessions in the New Park Seminar Room of Special Collections in the Martyrs Kirk Research Library. In the mornings we learned about the history of papermaking, and how evidence in paper can be interpreted by scholars and used as an aid to their research. In the afternoons we tried to put all of this into practice, as our participants had a chance to engage first-hand with a large selection of printed items from the Special Collections of the University Library.
Particular focus was placed over the materiality of papermaking from the East to the West. We learned about the collection of rags (i.e. what gave such good quality to early-produced European paper), the importance of fresh water for the production process, and the transformation from paste to sheet.
Hand-made paper was obtained by dipping a mould into a watery paste; the mould would then be lifted, shaken in order to distribute the paste and pressed onto a felt. What was left on this felt was a sheet of paper. This was a heavy, tiresome process, and it is not surprising that producers would want to leave a trace of their effort in a high-quality product. That is why today we can often notice a slight transparency where a mark was impressed on paper, in order to define its origin and quality. This is what is called a “watermark”, a mark impressed in the water.
After this rough explanation of the papermaking process, our reader will understand our delight as a special delivery made its way to St Andrews the evening before our workshop. Rare Books Librarian Daryl Green made his appearance to our first session, half-hidden behind a bulky parcel. As this was uncovered, we had the privilege of seeing – and using for the next two days – a couple of twin moulds for the production of paper (These original objects were purchased by St Andrews University Library from the now retired papermaker, Simon Barcham Green, who is also featured in the video above). This gave us the opportunity of handling original moulds, visualising their watermarks, and understanding the tiresome process that transformed paste into paper. Paper then is folded and becomes books… objects that we tend to take for granted, but actually result of a very complex manufacturing process.
The study of the materiality of paper can be extremely insightful in the understanding of the production, diffusion and destruction of the written word. Our workshop was concluded by a case in point – that of the literary history of the Promessi Sposi, the most important novel in Italian literature. Textual modifications remained uncovered until very recently, when a detailed study was carried out to prepare the national critical edition of the text, and still these modifications remained invisible to the most meticulous philological effort. It was the evidence provided through the study of paper which threw light on the material process that brought this text to the great public.
“Paper as Evidence” has been a mix of historiography and material culture, always focused on understanding the details of papermaking – something which, it is hoped, our readers will recognise to be one of the staples of modern Europe. We are immensely grateful to those who have been supporting this project, and most of all to our students who participated and supported this initiative.