The Early History of Paper

Paper is so plentiful today that we waste tons of it daily. Yet without it there would be few books, no newspapers or magazines, nor cheques or stamps for us to do business. Though it is such a valuable material, it came into use very slowly in the history of civilization.

The Egyptian first made a sort of paper called papyrus from a reed growing on the banks of the Nile. They were fortunate because this plant does not grow everywhere. Most messages still had to be sent on more clumsy materials such as sun-baked clay or wax tablets, and sometimes on a notched stick or knotted rope.

About the year ad 105, Cai Lun, an important Chinese official discovered the art of pulping vegetable fibre and so made paper. Slowly the knowledge spread, westwards along the caravan routes, half way across Asia to the trading city of Samarkand. Then the Arabs captured Samarkand, captured some paper makers, learned from them the art and brought it to Spain. The rest of Europe was slow to appreciate the value of paper and it was not until 1120 that the first paper mill was built in Xativa (now Jativa) near Valencia, Spain. Later, as the desire for knowledge grew, its value became more obvious and it was produced more increasingly. The material for books was here then.

The scribes of Alexandria had plenty of papyrus so they mass produced books as one reader dictated to many writers. For this reason many scribes were needed and mistakes would be made even with care. The answer to the problem was to print. For hundreds of years men had learned to use their signet rings to make marks on the wax which sealed their letters. They had also branded and stamped their cattle to mark them. Yet it was not until 1450 a German named Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press.

The new art soon spread to London by William Caxton in 1476. New books became cheap and easy to make, carrying knowledge and ideas from every part of the world. Now more people began to read and more began to learn. New discoveries in science or geography were brought to the public more easily, but more important than all was the spread of ideas.

People began to feel more strongly that they were members of a nation and less that they were members of an international Church. Writers began to use their own languages like Italian, French or English instead of Church Latin for their poems and stories. The uneducated could understand books reprinted in these languages more because they would not have to learn Latin to do so. Men began to see that there were points of view other than those spoken by the Church and they began to discuss the new books as they sat over their wine.