A hundred years after Charles-Moïse Briquet. How to study paper and watermarks today

A century has passed since the death of Charles-Moïse Briquet, who died on 24 January 1918, and 111 years since the publication in 1907 of his magnum opus, the four volumes of Les filigranes. Dictionnaire historique des marques de papier dès leur apparition vers 1282 jusqu’en 1600. A lot of things have happened in the last hundred years, but one thing that time has not touched is Briquet's pre-eminence on the shelves of rare-book rooms all over the world. The digital age has embraced his great repertory, which is now available through the impressive Bernstein Memory of Paper project. Semper aere perennius.

This course retraces Briquet's footsteps, since, from his base in Geneva, he made major use of the Municipal and Departmental archives in Lyon. In 2017 his Lyon watermarks were the object of extensive research by Ilaria Pastrolin, who chased Briquet's images back to their sources, and so identified nearly all his primary references. Ilaria will be collaborating with the course and sharing with us her exceptional knowledge of Lyon watermarks. The course will also be looking at the (necessary) defects of Briquet's method, in particular the fact that he ignored the twinship of watermarks and the almost frightening speed at which he worked. We shall therefore introduce students to a project, informally baptised “Briquet Reloaded”, that aims to recover Briquet's sources, including the twins, to catalogue them, and to make them available in an electronic medium in collaboration with the Bernstein project.

Lessons begin with an introduction to the techniques of Western hand paper-making and to how paper is exploited as bibliographical evidence in the study of manuscripts and printed books. They explain the historical background of the advent of paper-making in the Middle Ages, when in Italy the technology was revolutionised by contact with the native wool industry. The course will analyse in detail basic sheet-size ratios (in particular those on the Bologna stone, c. 1389), mould construction, the purposes of twin moulds, and the design and typologies of watermarks. Extensive reference will be made to Eighteenth-century published texts and copper-plate illustrations in French, in particular L’Art de faire le papier by Lalande (1761) and the entry ‘Papeterie’ by Jean-Louis Goussier in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert (1765).

 Practical sessions with a collection of unbound sheets, mainly from Eighteenth century Tuscany, will teach how to recognise the distinction between mould/felt side of the sheet and how to identify twin watermarks. Further practical sessions will take place at the Departmental Archives and at the Municipal Archives in Lyon, in order to look at Medieval paper and Renaissance paper in the collections. More specifically, manuscripts used by Briquet a century and half ago will be examined at first hand in order to find the marks he traced. In this process we shall be looking not only at the watermarks relating to Lyon published in Les filigranes, but also at unpublished tracings taken from the archive of his papers held at the Bibliothèque de Genève. Descriptive methods will involve learning how to write up long sequences of watermarks, as well as the significance of the “runs and remnants” rule formulated by another great watermark scholar, Allan Stevenson.

Where feasible, sessions will also be held at the Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon and at the Musée de l'Imprimerie, in order to look at the watermarks in early printed books, some of them cited by Briquet, in order to understand to understand the different methodological approach required by the typographical medium.

If enough people are interested, a fifth day will be arranged, consisting in a visit to the Bibliothèque de Genève, in order to view the materials in the Briquet archive at first hand. Please note that the said visit will involve a train journey to a non-EEC country, so passports and visas might be required.

The course will be conducted in French, but paper historians are necessarily polyglot, so knowledge of any other language, even American, could prove invaluable. A modicum of palaeography and of bibliography might also be helpful.


Paper is an intricate subject and very few scholars who have tackled its immensity have provided any sort of overview. Over the past decade or so, actually more like two decades, I have taken a great deal of time and trouble to assemble a rough guide entitled Paper and Watermarks as Bibliographical Evidence. It should be understood that it is a bibliographical synopsis, i.e. it does not tell you how, why and wherefore paper is made, but it does tell you where to look in order to find out. This text has gone through a number of versions, as well as being included in the workbooks for the courses at the IHL in 2009, 2010, and 2015. A first edition was put on line on the IHL website in 2010; after extensive revision and rewriting, which almost doubled the length of the text, in 2017 a “second edition” has been put on line. A copy will be included in the course workbook, but it would be useful if you could look at it beforehand, or even read it thoroughly. Note that it is also available as a downloadable pdf.

The other text to read, browse, or just look at the pictures, is Charles-Moïse Briquet, Les filigranes. Dictionnaire historique des marques de papier dès leur apparition vers 1282 jusqu’en 1600, published in his home city of Geneva in 1907. Here it is necessary to pay attention. Although people frequently talk about the different editions, in rigorously bibliographical terms there is only one, since all the subsequent impressions are photographic reprints of the 1907 original. Nevertheless the reprints cannot be ignored. The so-called “second edition”, published in Leipzig in 1923, adds a ‘Notice sur la vie et les travaux’ of the author, written by his nephew, John Isaac Briquet. Likewise the “Jubilee edition”, published for the fiftieth anniversary of Briquet’s death and edited by Allan Stevenson, Amsterdam, The Paper Publications Society, 1968, includes important additional material. The whole of Briquet's magnum opus (in its 1907 version) is now available on line as part of the “Bernstein Memory of Paper” project hosted by the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Just throw “Briquet online” into Google and it will pop up.

As for Briquet's other writings, his most important articles are collected in: Briquet’s Opuscula. The Complete Works of Dr. C.M. Briquet without “Les filigranes”, Hilversum, the Paper Publications Society, 1955. See in particular the important trial run for what became Les filigranes, or his famous article on the watermarks of Genoa: ‘Papiers et filigranes des Archives de Gênes 1154 à 1700’, Atti della Società ligure di storia patria, vol. 19/2 (1887), pp. 269-394, better known from the substantial repaged offprint, Genève, H. Georg, Libraire-éditeur, 1888, available on line or in Briquet’s Opuscula, pp. 171-218, planches I-LXXV.

The other place I should like people to browse is in the Bernstein ‘Memory of Papers’ Consortium. A word of warning, however. It is large and complicated and not very good at explaining itself, so understanding requires patience.