A lingering question about the production of white paper in sixteenth century England made me very attentive to the following description of vellum production in an earlier period. This description is from Stephen Greenblatt The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.
The finest parchment, the one that made life easier for scribes and must have figured in their sweetest dreams, was made of calfskin and called vellum. And the best of the lot was uterine vellum, from the skins of aborted calves. Brilliantly white, smooth, and durable, these skins were reserved for the most precious books, ones graced with elaborate, gemlike miniatures and occasionally encased in covers encrusted with actual gems
My lingering question arouse from having read Emily Smith’s “Genre’s “Phantastical Garb”: The Fashion of Form in Margaret Cavendish’s Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life” which appeared in Early Modern Literary Studies 11.3 (January, 2006). Smith argues that, in the text in question, female characters move from describing and displaying dress sense (as a mode of self-presentation) to writing as a form and venue for self-fashioning. Her argument holds well (the trajectory from fashion to discourse is indeed a motif and is fascinating in its recurrence). However I quibble with one point: Smith writes that Lady Deletia’s white gown is described as being “as white as paper” (“Through this gown, as white as paper and overwritten in silver embroidery with unintelligible yet divine signs, Lady Deletia’s body is written into being as something nearly divine in its spectacular beauty.”). This certainly adds credence to Smith’s account. In 2006, I emailed Smith at the address provided by the article but never received a reply. I asked “Is the simile yours or that of Margaret Cavendish?” I thought at the time that there might be an inadvertent anachronism since I wondered if bleached paper was available to the Duchess of Newcastle. I now realize, having consulted the text in question, that I was off track. There is mention of white paper in the text by Cavendish [and mention of white gowns but no mention of gowns as white as paper]. The link between attire and writing is implicit and passes via the figure of adornment. Cavendish has a character exhort:
Let me admonish you to be devout to the Name of great Fame, who is able to save or damn you: Wherefore be industrious in your Actions; let no opportunity slip you, neither in Schools, Courts, Cities, Camps, or several Climates, to gain the Favour of great Fame; offer up your several Conceptions upon her white Altars (I mean white Paper), sprinkling Golden Letters thereon; and let the Sense be as sweet Incense to her Deity.
For an impression of just how difficult it was to produce white paper from rags in the sixteenth century, one can consult Timothy Barrett, “European Papermaking Techniques 1300–1800“. I am particularly arrested by the factors that touch upon contact with the human body…
It is worth exploring the role washing soaps, diet, and personal hygiene may have played in affecting the nature of these old hempen and linen rags before they came to the paper mills. For instance, Fernand Braudel tells us that Europeans appear to have bathed less and less from the fifteenth and into the seventeenth century, and that public baths became less prevalent after the sixteenth century.
Unfortunately the historical traces are long gone but some speculative reconstruction and experimentation in paper making would be fascinating.
And so for day 810