We sometimes speak of someone or something’s humble origins, which on reflection is a snobbish and near-meaningless phrase. Nevertheless it now seems apt to speak of the humble origins of the book, and of reading itself, in the light of a recent academic paper.
The Institute for Medieval Studies, based at the University of Leeds, held its 15th International Medieval Congress this month (July). The IMC is billed as the largest conference of its kind in Europe, and one of the papers presented was by a prof from Utrecht U. This made the newspapers in a few places like The Guardian, which ran an article titled ‘How Discarded Pants Helped To Boost Literacy’. It said - and I’ll quote, lest you think I’m making this up as a joke - “Rags from discarded pants and knickers led to a 13th century breakthrough in the making of cheap paper.” (For the benefit of any Americans reading this, ‘pants’ in British parlance always means underpants, not trousers as in US usage, and knickers - short for knickerbockers - are the British female equivalent of the US ‘panties’.) Apparently people started wearing underwear more in the 13th C. The professor’s thesis is that people adopted underwear as “peasants developed into tradesmen and found themselves running shops with customers of the opposite sex.” Before this, men would supposedly, to use the modern laddish phrase, “go commando” i.e. go without underpants. My Dictionary Of British Social History says this is not true: the Saxons wore breeches called braies under their tunics.
I myself would advance an alternative reason for adopting purpose-made underwear: the climate downturn in Europe, the 13th C. being the start of what historians call the Little Ice Age. Glass windows would be a similar innovation inspired by the declining climate. And as you can see in many a film and TV drama, old-fashioned drawers for both men and women typically reached down to the knees for warmth. In western films in fact, where the characters are sleeping rough on the prairie, we often see them in one-piece red-woollen outfits that cover the body from neck to ankle. These outfits are still sold today in camping shops, usually under the heading of thermal underwear, the American term for full-length drawers being long johns.
Dr. Mostert argues the manufacture of rags or cloth offcuts, the start of what they called in England “the rag trade”, led to a spinoff industry, the production of a crude form of paper from recycled underwear (“the papermakers found themselves with all the old pants”). This offered a cheaper alternative to vellum parchment made by scraping the wool from sheep hides. I remember hearing, at a literary talk, the late travel writer Eric Newby use the phrase “the rag trade” when discussing his early career in what Americans would call the garment industry. I hadn’t realised it was a literal description of the industry’s origins, though when I was growing up, there were still what they called “rag’n bone” merchants who went around on a horse and cart, trading trinkets for unwanted household items (TV’s Steptoe & Son being examples of this).
I’m not sure I buy the idea paper was mainly made from recycled underpants. Presumably these were taken from corpses where family members did not inherit them, for one would have needed to keep one’s underwear throughout one’s life, and I doubt most people had the money to be buying new replacements. (‘One on, one in the wash, one ready to go’ was the old adage defining a complete wardrobe-set for a given item – shirts, shorts, whatever.) The wealthy of course were soon wearing silk and other fine fabrics as the Crusades opened up the trade routes to the East. The Crusades are credited with introducing the idea of using linen or cotton paper, when the knights and clerics saw Arab scholars using it. I imagine also that one pilgrimage to the Holy Lands wearing heavy woollen underwear would have been enough to inspire the switch to lighter underwear as well.
There may also have been a more direct connection between underwear and manuscript creation, where the items did double duty rather than being recycled. When I was researching my “on the trail of England's last Templar” feature, I came across a reference in Helen Nicholson’s 2001 history of the Templars to a possibly related incident. The wife of the owner of a castle where some Templars were staying testified at the Templar trials that she found, in the garderobe (what passed for a toilet in those days), a pair of lambskin underpants with some writing on them. Among the inner order, this could have been a way of transporting secret message texts while on Crusade etc. Classical writers tell us that such messages were sometime sent inscribed on the scalps of slaves, who were head-shaved to reveal the message, so it’s possible this was a less elaborate alternative – though rather desperate due to the hygiene aspect. (Templars, as part of their strict regime, were not allowed to remove their underwear completely, and to sleep partly dressed, to discourage homosexuality.)
Prof. Mostert has the invention of printing by Caxton contingent on a supply of cheap paper made from recycled underwear and associated rags. This sounds to me more a way to spread contagion rather than literacy. (Underpants belonging to plague victims, anyone?) When word got out what these early books were made of, the upper class who were the intended market for manuscripts would have likely refused to go near them. To use the standard English nanny’s don’t-touch idiom re items that may be germ-ridden, “After all, dear, you don’t know where it’s been.”
I think it would have been more practical to have produced paper direct from the original spun cloth – an ancient trade in Flanders, imported into England by Flemish, and later Huguenot, weavers fleeing persecution. Paper manufacture at source would have nearly three centuries to develop between the dates the Professor gives, 1200 (as start of the underpants-wearing trend) and 1476 (when Caxton introduced printing). For those reading this who think books and newspapers are printed from tracts of felled Amazon rainforest (as in the phrase “the dead tree industry”), this is not at all practical. Such hardwood trees are no good to make paper from, and although softwood wood-pulp (from Forestry Commission plantations etc) is used for today’s cheap newsprint-type papers, early printed books had more cloth in them. (When I worked in publishing, the trade announcements referred to a hardcover book as in ‘cloth binding.’) This linen paper is more durable than modern wood-pulp newsprint-style paper, and doesn’t turn yellow so quickly, and thus can be recycled into later books.
Still, in the centuries before printed books, we had what we call codexes or codices, meaning bound-manuscript books where the text (Arthurian romances etc) was inscribed by hand (hence manu-script), by clerics skilled in calligraphy. It’s more likely these codexes were made from recycled cotton and linen rags than later printed books, when the printing-paper industry was more established. There’s a line in the 1973 film of The Three Musketeers, scripted by the Scots novelist of the Flashman series, George Macdonald Fraser, where the Duke of Buckingham sees some barefoot washerwomen at work the way you trample grapes to make wine, and remarks in future he will wear his shirts with renewed respect. I think in future I will do the same when picking up one of my old clothbound storybooks.