Cambridgeshire

Cambridge University maps paper use in medieval England

Medieval manuscript. Image copyright Cambridge University Library
Image caption A distinctive watermark, in the shape of a dragon, can be seen on the fold between the sheets of this medieval manuscript

The people of 14th Century Norwich were among the early adopters of paper, a "pivotal technology" that has parallels with the 21st Century emergence of the iPad, researchers say.

Cambridge University is investigating how paper spread in popularity after its arrival in England in about 1300.

Large stocks have also been found in thriving merchant communities in King's Lynn, London and Lincoln.

Paper had a "huge impact" on the way knowledge was shared, they said.

Parchment, made from stretched animal skins, continued to be extensively used until the first successful paper mills were established in England in the 17th Century, but the team found "significant stocks" of paper in parts of the south and east, dating from medieval times.

The Mapping Paper in Medieval England team, lead by Orietta Da Rold, began by trying to discover how many paper documents, dating from 1300 until 1475 (when William Caxton set up his first printing press), were still in existence - and where.

Paper-based culture

A trawl of university, library and local authority archives have so far uncovered nearly 6,000 manuscripts, of which 736 were paper.

This includes Norfolk's The Red Register of Lynn, begun in 1307, considered to be the first example of paper in Britain.

Image copyright St John's College Library
Image caption Part of a late 15th Century Grammatica (left) and early South English Legendary, probably from the late 14th Century

Dr Da Rold does not believe this is the final number, but is enough to set up a database she described as "the most comprehensive of its kind".

Paper "became a pivotal technology for the subsequent explosion in the transmission of knowledge", she said.

"It was lighter, more portable and allowed you to write more."

'New fashions'

Dr Da Rold said it was a time of technological transition - and compared it to people today who have tablets such as iPads, but continue to take notes and write on paper.

The popularity of paper in the eastern region could be because the established merchant communities there were "more exposed to new fashions which they adopted earlier than most".

Image copyright PA/BBC
Image caption Paper began to replace parchment in the same way as tablets today have replaced the humble notepad and pen for many people

"There are capillaries that go out across the country, but they don't go everywhere," said the St John's College fellow.

"[But] we have more evidence for the south and east of England that we do for the north and west.

"We are now studying other potential ports of entry, such as Hull, to see if a similar thing happened there."

The Cambridge University team hopes to eventually discover how and why paper arrived later in the UK than elsewhere in Europe.

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