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Q&A Wednesday: Pulp Fiction or Pulp Fact? Genizah paper, with Nick Posegay

T-S K9.17
Detail of T-S K9.17, with a mermaid watermark (15th-century France)
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Nick Posegay
Wed 9 Feb 2022

Nick, you’ve just finished working on a project examining different types of paper in the Genizah. Can you tell us about the project and about your role in it?

My work was part of a larger project called “Thinking Paper” that is led by Dr. Suzanne Paul here in the library and Dr. Orietta Da Rold in the Cambridge Faculty of English. The goal of the project is to understand the transition from parchment to paper usage in late medieval manuscript production, roughly 1350 to 1600 CE. The focus is on European paper, and my role was to examine the Cambridge Genizah Collections for manuscripts written on paper produced in Europe, to help us reconstruct the transition from Islamicate to European paper in Egypt specifically and the Mediterranean basin broadly.

Did you focus on a particular part of the collection? How did you identify and select relevant fragments?

I started by trawling through catalogues and metadata for dates between 1350 and 1600. This is, unfortunately, a period of reduced activity in the Genizah, with comparatively fewer manuscripts than the earlier medieval period. I still found more than 100 fragments that we used to create a timeline of paper in Cairo. The other thing I searched for was any Genizah manuscript with “watermark” in its metadata. We know watermarked paper must have come from Europe, and I did find a few dozen manuscripts like this in the T-S Collections. Based on comparisons with watermarks already known from Europe, we can say that the people of Cairo had paper from Italy, France, Germany, and Spain, and possibly even farther destinations, during the 15th and 16th centuries.

What kinds of paper do we find in the Genizah?

There are three main types of paper found in the Genizah. The most common is known as “Eastern” or “Islamicate” paper, which was the main paper type used in the Islamic world during the medieval period. It includes most paper produced in the Middle East and North Africa. The method for creating this paper was imported to the Middle East from Central Asia in approximately the 8th century. It spread to Egypt by the 10th century and, as a cheaper material, it replaced parchment relatively quickly. Islamicate paper was made by suspending rag pulp from old linen and clothes in a vat of water, then straining the pulp out using a rectangular wooden mould with mesh framing. This process would coat the mesh in a thin layer of pulp that would dry into a sheet of paper. The rag pulp was crushed by hand, so large strands of fibres are often still visible in this type of paper.

T-S Ar.30.184

T-S Ar.30.184 (P3, verso): Islamicate paper with fibrous strands visible.

The second type is what’s called “European” paper, and it is the next most common type in the Genizah. The method for producing this paper developed in Italy in the middle of the 14th century. It is similar to Islamicate paper in that it also consists of rag fibres, but there are two key differences. The first is that the rags used for European paper were crushed by water-powered machinery, resulting in a much finer pulp and consequently fewer large fibres in the final paper product. The other difference is the use of metallic wire mesh in European paper moulds, rather than the silk or plant-based meshes used in the Middle East. These wire frames allowed papermakers to attach their own unique “watermarks,” essentially small patterns made from wire that would press onto each sheet of paper after sifting the pulp. The resulting marks identified the source of the paper, essentially the “brand,” helping papermakers build up their professional reputations. They are also very useful for researchers interested in paper, as they can tell us where and when a particular piece of paper was made.

Detail of T-S K9.17

Detail of T-S K9.17, 15th-century France. 

The third type of paper is “industrial” paper made with wood pulp. It appears only in a few of the latest Genizah fragments from the nineteenth century. This paper was first produced in steam-powered paper mills and is more or less the same technology we see in paper today, although modern paper is now “acid-free” and thus has a much longer life.

T-S NS 165.62

T-S NS 165.62 (f. 2r), a title page of Genesis printed on industrial paper by Josef Schlessinger in Vienna in 1882.

If you’re a Genizah researcher but a paper novice, where should you start? What kinds of things should you look out for?

There are a few easy features that you can look for to help identify paper. The moulds used to strain paper pulp imprinted unique patterns of lines onto both Islamicate and European paper. These lines come in two types, and it is possible to detect them by shining light through the back of a piece of paper. “Laid lines” come from close-set rows of wire or other mesh material that spanned the entire mould. These are always visible (with a backlight) in European paper, but only sometimes visible in Islamicate paper. European laid lines are also much closer together than Islamicate laid lines, as the metallic mesh moulds had a higher density of wires. “Chain lines” run perpendicular to laid lines, and they are created by the thicker wires used to hold all the wires in a mould together. They are usually thicker than laid lines and are always visible in European paper. They are rarely visible in Islamicate paper. The reason for the difference in visibility is that the metallic European moulds left a heavier impression on the paper than the organic (often silk) strands of Islamicate moulds.

For the same reason, watermarks are only ever found in European paper produced after about 1350. These are also visible with a backlight, although not every sheet of paper will have them, since most manuscripts are made with small paper that has been cut from a larger sheet.

T-S K14.19

Watermark of a pair of scissors on T-S K14.19, datable to late 15th-century Italy, probably Venice. Note the clear, close-set laid lines typical of European paper.

Additionally, typical European paper has fewer large rag fibres than Islamicate paper. These fibres are visible with the naked eye. European paper also tends to be a lighter colour due to the use of bleaching agents in some European paper mills.

Were there any particular patterns or discrepancies you noticed?

One pattern we noticed, although we are still examining the data, is that a lot of European paper came to Cairo in the aftermath of the 1492 Spanish expulsion of Jews. This isn’t that surprising, since we know many Spanish Jews fled to Cairo and the Middle East, but it is an interesting pattern, that may help us reconstruct other routes where paper travelled.

Is the Genizah an unusual or unique source for a project like this?

The Genizah is a unique source for this type of project for the same reason it’s a unique source in general. The T-S collections contain manuscripts from people and genres of all types, not just the nicest or most important documents that were intentionally preserved in archives. This helps us see how paper influenced the lives of ordinary people. If you'd like to learn more, the Genizah is mentioned in one of Cambridge University Library's 2021 Sandars Lectures.

Thanks, Nick!

Nick Posegay is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge. 



The Geniza is an inexhaustible source of knowledge and the interview is interesting, but some information about the differences between Islamic and European paper is incorrect. Water-power machinary are used in both, but earlier in Islamic paper. The differences, in my opinion, are in the preparation of the fibres, the sizing and colouring materils and techniques, and the polishing methods.

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