Skip to content Skip to navigation

Medieval Papermaking & Printing

Madison Nikole Kist's picture

From ancient China to today, papermaking has become a cornerstone of academics and scholarship. The first paper dates back to 105 A.D., when an eunuch from the Eastern Han Dynasty named Cai Lun invented paper with worn fishnet, bark and cloth. The Chinese continued to experiment with different materials in an effort to develop a durable and inexpensive paper. The developing technologies diffused into medieval Europe over the next several hundred years through the Arab trade route on the silk road.

The Europeans mastered their method of papermaking by the 14th century. They improved upon the Arabian and Chinese tradition by utilizing water-mills to power the machines inside the papermill, including the large stamping mill that used large wood hammers to pound the pulp more efficiently.

The basic process of producing medieval paper consists of several steps. First, materials such as cotton would be soaked in warm water and mashed into a wet pulp. Then, papermakers would dip a wire screen held by a wood frame into the pulp and pull it out, draining out all the excess water. The result is a sheet of thin, wet material, which is dried between sheets of felt and hung to dry.  We tried this method out ourselves when we visited the Basler Papiermühle on our trip to Switzerland!


With the invention of paper, and its introduction into medieval society came the creation of manuscripts and books. Parchment or vellum replaced papyrus as the popular media. Parchment made from calf or sheep skin was most popular in Northern Europe. These medieval manuscripts would be hand written with a quill and ink. Ink was typically made from different kinds of plants, especially hawthorn branches cut during springtime. Hand written manuscripts, despite an arduous production, were symbolic of wealth and status even after books were mass produced with the printing press.

At around the year 1455, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany invented the modern printing press. Gutenberg created a printing press operated by hand. He experimented with different materials and eventually made an alloy of lead, tin and antimony to use for the lettering. High quality books were now able to be printed. The overall design of the press was based on existing screw pressures and incorporated various technologies. However, Gutenberg’s technology enabled a fast way to produce very precise moulds. He even developed an oil-based ink, which was far more resilient than the water-based ink of the time. 
Gutenberg’s method was the first example of mass producing books. On average, a total of 3,500 pages could be produced every day. This new and speedy dissemination was critical in the dispersion of ideas throughout all of Europe. With this method, important books and ideas, including the Bible and the ideas of the Reformation, could reach far away places very quickly. Most historians say that the massive popularity of the Reformation was due to the efficiency of Gutenberg’s printing press. Furthermore, the printing press helped stimulate the economy of Europe as books became more and more desired. This, overtime, opened the gate for greater industrial and technological developments in Europe, making Europe a leading world power and soon ushering in the age of enlightenment.