Introduction (Or a Shot Across the Bows)

A knowledge of the processes by which paper is manufactured and of the substances of which it is composed has never, I think, been regarded as necessary to the bibliographer, however important it may be to the librarian, and it is no part of my intention to deal with such matters here. Of late, however, in consequence partly of the prominence which has been given to watermarks in certain bibliographical arguments, the subject of paper has received a little more attention, and it will probably receive still more in future.

Ronald B. McKerrow, An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students (1927)

Me, I prefer the world of Bull’s heads and Heraldic Shields, of Basilisks, Mermaids, Dolphins, and Unicorns, especially when they are willing to go on the stand and testify for or against a bibliographic hypothesis.

Allan Stevenson, Paper as Bibliographical Evidence (1961)


Paper evidence is good evidence.

That’s worth saying again.

Paper evidence is good evidence.

It does not require costly instruments or complex laboratory facilities.

This last fact happens to be important.

Serious bibliographers, especially those who understand and produce paper evidence, more often than not are impoverished, undernourished, and conduct their research on shoestring budgets. So, if paper evidence can be acquired at a cost that amounts to one’s own time and effort, that is an advantage.

It is not however easy evidence to put together or to interpret and make sense of.

It calls for an extraordinary amount of patience, an excellent visual memory, an ability to assemble coherent information over long periods of time, and an inexhaustible love for the material object.

You have to work hard and long to make such evidence work for you. If you list the studies that spring immediately to mind for the way paper has furnished the key to the bibliographical demonstration, Greg on the Pavier quartos, Stevenson on the Missale speciale, ... well, the list is not so long that there is any difficulty in remembering it.

On the other hand there is nothing quite like paper and watermark evidence, or the scholar who is able to gather it in and make it say something.

It is a superior quality of hand and eye.

It comes punctuated with enigmatic, idiosyncratic phrases, symptomatic of a blandly unimpugnable one-upmanship, along the lines of “nice tail, shame about the face” (of some poor sweet little mermaid) or “it’s never a dragon; look at the toes, it’s a basilisk”, knowing that only Harry Potter aficionados will be able appreciate the difference. It also means that obscure phrases in a novel such as The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenberger (2003), in which the artist heroine couches paper, will become entirely clear.

And there are the cunning, crafty little tricks of the trade that reveal the true expert.

For instance, using a raking light to distinguish the mould or felt sides of the sheet as a preliminary to recognising and classifying the twin watermarks. For a further instance, knowing that there are twin watermarks. And for an even further instance, knowing that one of the twins is in the left-hand half of its respective mould and that the other is in the right-hand half, and knowing how to identify them on this basis.

And making it look so ever so easy-peasy.

All this seems horrendously abstruse and intricate to the neophyte, but in fact it is all ridiculously simple and unsubtle and straightforward, once someone has shown the hows, whys, and wherefores of everything. In the end it becomes a matter of habit, though it is never uninteresting, since even the most textually boring of books, printed on the hand-press without the slightest variant being introduced at any point, might be illuminated by grossly obese unicorns galloping down the chain-lines.

How does one acquire these very simple skills?

(Not for money, certainly. Love, especially of the stickier, smackier kind, on the other hand might … ?)

The first and most important thing to have is a deeply enviable knowledge of the paper-making process. This knowledge has to be acquired from writings about paper-making, from the analysis of surviving sheets of paper, and, whenever possible, from watching someone actually doing it at the vat with a pair of moulds and a deckle. (Be wary however of the demonstrations in the various paper museums scattered across the globe, since, as well as filling the vat with a porridge-like sludge, often a single mould is used at the vat, instead of alternating twin moulds, and various other sillinesses.)

The second (and even more important) thing, especially when you are trying to bring paper evidence into codicology or bibliography, and thus are attempting to apply it to to manuscripts or to multiple, printed artefacts, is to accumulate as much evidence as possible. (Think for a long time before you set off down this particular primrose path: there is nothing more annoying and less titillating than partial, incomplete, unexciting, unconvincing paper evidence. You either give it the Full Monty or you keep your duffle coat tightly buttoned up.) In other words, first you look at all the copies that you can go and afford to see, and next you find ways of getting someone else to pay for you to go and see the ones you can’t afford to go and see. Paper research, even more than bibliography, in the words of Jean-François Gilmont, is always “une longue patience”, so don’t be in a hurry.

The third (and yet more important) thing is that paper evidence must never ever be taken in isolation. It has to be conjoined and dovetailed into the other sorts of evidence taken from the physical artefact, whether it is handwriting or the impressions from inked type, binding evidence, annotations by readers and all the miscellaneous, strange little snippets of evidence that a codicologist or a bibliographer learns how to observe, measure and record.

And this is the most tremendous fun.