July 08, 2007

The Relationship Between Underwear and Literacy

Although the invention of printing with movable type is often taken to be the technology that led to greatly increased literacy, a recent paper argues that a key step took place earlier, namely the development of rag paper. Until then, in Europe books were all written on parchment, which was very expensive though very durable. (The archival copies of British Acts of Parliament are still printed on vellum.) Owning a book was doubly expensive because not only did it require many hours of skilled labor to copy but the material of which the copy was made was expensive. Rag paper provided a suitable material at much lower cost, and its development therefore led to an increase in literacy.

The interesting thing is, where did the rags come from? In mediaeval Europe, most clothing was made of wool, which is ill-suited to making paper. The key development came in the 13th century when more people began to wear linen underclothing. This practice led to a significant increase in the supply of linen rags, from which paper was made.

Posted by Bill Poser at July 8, 2007 02:38 PM