On Monday this week I popped in to the Methodologies for Material Culture: Literary Culture workshop in the Senate House Library.  It’s the second of a series of workshops investigating material culture in all its myriad forms.  The first looked at museum objects at MOLA (Museum of London), including pottery, shoes, porcelain, and metals.  This one looked at the materiality of early modern printed books. In this blog post I’ll share just a few thoughts from the morning session.

Papermaking in Early Modern Britain

I’ve always wanted to have a go at making my own paper.  One day I might actually get around to it.  Dr Karen Attar (Rare Books Librarian, Senate House) explained that paper used in books in the early modern period might come from the same mill, but in many cases it might be sourced from a variety of places.  She also noted that a book could be dated from the quality of printing.  If the printer is known but the date of the book isn’t, one method for identifying a date range is to compare the book with others known from that printer.  Over a period of time the condition of each letter will begin to physically diminish, thus it’s possible to place the book within a ‘timeline’ or collection of books according to the condition of each letter within it.

The process of making paper in this period was quite intensive and involved.  Indeed, not much changed until the nineteenth century.  This short video on YouTube shows the process.  Although it is talking about papermaking in the 1970s, this is a mill that still made paper in the traditional ways.  Hayle Mill is in Kent (near Maidstone). Unsurprisingly the mill ceased production in 1987 and fell into complete disuse.  However, recently the building and its surrounding have been restored to their former glory.

YouTube Video: Papermaking by hand at Hayle Mill, England 1976  (click on link to view in another window)

Karen Attar continued by talking about the whole process of printing in this period.  First the letters are placed together and hyphenation, spacing, spelling variation used to justify the text (there was no way of doing this automatically).  Then a copy is made and sent to proof readers, who would then send the copy back with annotations.  Corrections were made for a second proof before production proper could begin.

That wasn’t necessarily the end of the process however, authors were allowed to come into the print house and make last minute changes to the text.  Going back to my usual example, John Foxe did this all the time.  He pretty much lived in John Day’s print house during the publication of the second edition of his Acts and Monuments.

There are more details about this series of workshops on the Institute of Historical Research website.  Both workshops thus far have been very interesting and, I believe, there are still two more to come.  In addition an online training course is planned for release sometime next year.


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