The Spread of Papermaking Technology into Europe

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The Spread of Papermaking Technology into Europe


While technology has significantly altered the equipment used to manufacture paper, the basic operations remain the same. Papermaking involves a five-step process where suspended cellulose fibers are filtered onto a screen to form a sheet of fiber. The sheet is pressed, dehydrated, and then modified based on the intended use. After its invention, probably sometime before 100 b.c., knowledge of the papermaking processes slowly spread throughout the world. As more and more cultures discovered it, paper quickly became the medium of choice for recording written information.

Prior to the invention of paper, various kinds of materials were used as a means of recording written information. Different cultures used clay, wood, bark, leaves, stone, metal, papyrus, parchment, vellum, and cloth as recording mediums at one time or another. The Sumerians first developed early cuneiform writing in the form of pictographs on clay tablets before 4000 b.c. Other cultures from around the world adopted tree bark for record-keeping use in one way or another. Extensive use of bark for written records has been found in Pacific Rim cultures, Indonesia, America, and the Himalayas. Large tree leaves were used to record information in India and Asia, while rice pith paper was traditionally used in China.

The invention of papyrus has played an important role in history. The word paper itself was originally derived from the Greek and Latin words for papyrus. The oldest documented papyrus rolls that have writing on them are over 5,000 years old. Papyrus helped to shape and strengthen Egyptian society. It was an important symbol in Egyptian architecture and religion, and the availability of papyrus sheets for recording information was an important asset to Egyptian rulers. Without papyrus, the course of Mediterranean history and literature would have been vastly different. The same is true for the effect that paper had on European history.


While a.d. 105 is often sited as the year papermaking was invented, historical records indicate that paper was used at least 200 years prior to that and archaeological evidence places papermaking perhaps even 200 years before that (300 b.c.). Early Chinese paper appears to have been made by from a suspension of hemp, mulberry, and bamboo. Eventually other fibers and dye were added to the paper to improve quality and longevity. The first reported use of paper for toilet purposes comes from sixth century China where it was made from rice straw.

From China, papermaking technology slowly spread throughout Asia. Records indicate that Korea produced paper in the sixth century. The pulp used to make paper was prepared by pounding fibers of hemp, rattan, mulberry, bamboo, rice straw, and even seaweed. According to tradition, a Korean monk introduced Japan to papermaking by presenting it to the emperor in 610. The Japanese first used paper only for official records and documentation, but with the rise of Buddhism the demand for paper grew rapidly.

Taught by Chinese papermakers, Tibetans began to make their own paper as a replacement for their traditional writing materials, a large palm leaf. Even though they adopted paper, Tibetan books traditionally still reflect the long, narrow format of the original palm-leaf books. Papermaking spread to other cultures as well. The process was introduced to central Asia, Persia, and India through the trade routes. The first recorded use of paper in central Asia dates from 751. Skilled Chinese papermakers were captured in battle in Turkestan, and forced to make paper during their imprisonment.

The arrival of paper in Samarkand is significant because paper could now be distributed as a commodity through the Arab world. The first paper manufacturing facility in Baghdad was established in 793. Waterpower was used in this factory to pound the pulp, which led to the widespread use of paper throughout the Arab culture by the beginning of the eleventh century. Paper was used not only for books, but as wrapping material and napkins as well. As the Islamic culture spread throughout Europe, papermaking techniques followed.

Paper first penetrated Europe as a commodity in the tenth century from the Islamic world. Certainly as Muslim armies ventured further into European countries such as Spain, the technology was brought with them. In addition, trade routes involving Italian seaports that had active commercial relations with the Arab world and overland routes from Spain to France were vehicles that spread papermaking techniques throughout Europe. Papermaking centers were originally established in Italy by 1275 and later came to other nations. However, paper came slowly to the rest of Europe and it was not until the fifteenth century that it came into widespread use.

Western Europeans were initially suspicious of paper. The Christian world more than likely thought of it as a manifestation of Muslim culture and rejected it. In fact, in 1221 Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II declared all official documents written on paper to be invalid. This decree also helped to protect the interests of powerful European landowners who monopolized the markets for parchment and vellum. It would not be until the introduction of the printing press in the fifteenth century that Western Europeans would fully embrace paper.

While paper was not fully accepted by European society, it was almost immediately recognized that the water mill would be quite useful in processing of pulp to make paper. By the time papermaking technology reached Europe, there were over 6,000 water mills in England alone and many others spread throughout Europe. It is believed that many of these mills had multiple purposes, and were able to perform a variety of tasks, one of which may have been papermaking.

The early papermaking process involved a number of different steps. The material chosen by European papermakers was most often rags made from cotton or linen fiber. These were cleaned and then heated in an alkali solution. The rags were then washed and pounded to pulp by the mill. Most paper mills at that time used water to power them. The flow of water would spin a wheel and the energy from this would be transferred to a hammer that would pulverize the rags. Once a pulp had been obtained, bleach would be added to whiten the suspension. The papermaker would then dip a paper mold into the suspension and lift it out horizontally to trap the fibers against the screen mold. After the sheet had formed, it was couched (removed) from the mold and readied for pressing. A stack of paper sheets would be placed on a large wooden press, and all of the mill workers would tighten the press. Typically, a stack of sheets could be pressed into two-thirds of its original height. After pressing, the sheets could be hung out to dry in the upper reaches of the mill away from the dusty conditions near the bottom. The final processing steps involved dipping the paper in gelatin to make it less absorbent and then finishing each sheet by hand rubbing it with a smooth stone. Eventually, technology advanced to such a level that even the final finishing could be accomplished by water-driven smoothers.


The invention of paper had a significant impact on Asian and Middle Eastern societies. Both China and Japan used paper extensively to the benefit of their society. Paper was used for both official and religious documents as well as in art. In many early cultures, only nobility was allowed to own paper. Paper was also used for sanitary purposes as toilet paper and napkins. Surprisingly, paper initially had little impact on Western Europe when it was first introduced.

There were quite a few factors that impeded the acceptance and common usage of paper. First, paper was seen as an invention of hated Islamic society, and many felt that by accepting paper they were also accepting that society. In fact, as previously mentioned, documentation of laws and events on paper was declared illegal in early thirteenth century by the church. Another factor that also played a role was the influence of wealthy landowners. They raised sheep and cattle for the purposes of making the writing medium commonly used at that time, parchment and vellum. Thus, they stood to lose a large amount of money if paper was readily accepted. Paper was not accepted until the influence of the Islamic culture began to wane in Europe and the utility of paper was made readily apparent with the invention of the printing press.

Once accepted, paper quickly became the preferred recording medium. It could be mass-produced for a fraction of the cost of other materials, so it was available to everyone. With the advent of the printing press, written words and their power were obtainable by all segments of society.

With paper becoming so readily available, a greater emphasis was put on education so that more people could read and write. Ideas could be recorded and disseminated much more easily than they had in the past. Thus, society on the whole had an increase in the level of education. Literature, as well as religious and scientific works was available to everyone so that their lives could be enriched. Communication between people was also made much easier, now that everyone had access to paper. So while it took some time for paper to be utilized, once it had been adopted it changed society in significant and positive ways.


Further Reading

Hunter, D. Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft. Dover, N.H.: Dover Publications, 1978.

Hunter, D.Paper-Making through Eighteen Centuries. New York: Reprint Services Corporation, 1930.

Limousin, O.The Story of Paper: What Is Paper Made Of? New York: Young Discovery Library, 1989.

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The Spread of Papermaking Technology into Europe

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