An Inquiry into the History of European Papermaking in the Early Renaissance


I have been re-reading Christina Olsen’s Doctoral Dissertation from 1994 entitled Carte da Trionfi: The Development of Tarot in Fifteenth-Century Italy 1, and I’m struck by sections in Chapter 3 that explore whether the tarot was a game that became popular from low society-upwards to the nobility, or whether it was popularized because the nobility were enthralled with it and it thus was adopted (moving downward) through lower social class systems.


I tend to agree with Olsen on the point that the game had a more “upwards” migration through society, or that at least the game was pervasive society- and social-class-wide. One of the factors we have to think about was the prevalence of paper—a newly produced medium in Europe in the Early Renaissance. Previously it had been imported, but local resources of paper and block printing obviously change the dynamic. As Arthur M. Hind relates in his book, An Introduction to a History of the Woodcut, Vol. 1 (Dover Publications, 1963)2:


“The importation of oriental paper into Europe is first found in Spain about the yea 950, but it waa not until two centuries later that any European manufacturing was established, the first known being at Xativa, near Valencia, in Spain. France followed before the end of the XII century, and Italy, which founded its earliest factory at Fabriano about 1276, remained the most important source of supply in Europe throughout the XIV century. The manufacture was introduced in Germany in the last decade of the XIV century, in England at the end of the XV, but in the Netherlands apparently not before the XVI century.

“During the XV century Germany as well as France gradually became self-supporting in paper; South Austria would turn more to Italy for supplies; England would receive her supplies from France and Italy by sea, and the Netherlands would be supplied chiefly from France and from Germany.

“Watermarks may be a great aid to the student, but the transport of paper during the early period will show that the local origin of woodcuts cannot be determined thereby with confidence. Moerover, the uncertain period during which stocks of paper might be kept adds a further limitation in regard to the conjectured dating of woodcuts on the same basis.

“It seems unlikely that any large supplies of paper were available before the latter part of the XIV century, and this was probably an important factor in determining the period at which the printing of pictures was introduced. Judged from the style of their design, the woodcuts which appear to be the earliest printed on paper [which would include playing cards] should be dated about 1400, hardly later, and hardly more than ten or twenty years earlier.” (pp. 78-79)


Paper mills, Universities, and Trade routes between 1400 and 1500

Paper mills, Universities, and Trade routes between 1400 and 1500


There are several facets of the quandary to note…


First and foremost, although we have ledger, inventory, and receipt evidence that points towards extremely popular distribution of playing cards presumably throughout all class systems, we don’t have much hard evidence of the cards themselves. The Triumph of Time has not been so durable towards the items that would solve so many riddles for us. Also, presumably, this is because the medium—the paper material on which the subject was printed—was not of a grade sufficient to withstand the elements, even in instances of minimal protection, it seems. (In other words, if people considered their gambling and game-time revelries so essential to a vibrant leisure-time, wouldn’t they have minimally protected the investment of their decks of cards—necessary for playing the games upon which their gambling was based—wrapped in a cloth or placed in a box or contained in a satchel, or something? Evidence points to an answer of, “no.”)


But hold on… my presumption that paper quality was a significant factor in the disappearance of these extremely popular printed materials might not be so spot on…


“Paper made from the Fabriano area, beginning in the fourteenth century, is remarkable for its exceptional quality and permanence. Twentieth century research of these well-preserved old papers has indicated their high calcium content was an important factor in their appearance and their survival. This had to do with the high quality furnish of hemp and linen rags used in making the pulp and the purity of the water used in the mills. Gelatin sizing provided the added advantage of protection against oxidation of the formed sheet.”

—(abstract of a lecture presented in the Library of Congress given by
Professor Sylvia Rodgers Albro under the title, Printed on Fabriano Paper: History and Use of Fabriano Handmade Paper by Printers, Artists and Mapmakers in Renaissance Italy, April 28, 2009.) ( last accessed 4/20/2016 )3


But, but, but…. WHERE are the evidential pieces that support this “exceptional permanence?” It sounds like Ms. Rodgers Albro has a keen contemporary scientific analysis understanding of the chemical composition of sample Renaissance papers that would support a greater archival sampling. (She was paper conservationist at the U.S. Library of Congress.) She must have had access to SOME archival sampling or she wouldn’t have the chemical analytical support for her presentation.


Another paper, this one presented through the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the University of Iowa, has Timothy Barrett conjecturing on early Renaissance papermaking techniques… A study analysis by the University of Iowa from 2007-2010 using 1,578 paper specimens found that “the oldest papers are often in the best condition, in part, we believe, because they contain high levels of gelatin and calcium.”


Graph chart of paper specimen analysis

Graph chart of paper specimen analysis 4


So that jives with Rodgers Albro’s findings, but it MAKES NO COMMON SENSE in terms of the found and available paper items (other than books) that were produced from the early part of the 15th-century. According to these researchers, the earlier paper should have held up much better under duress than other, later paper manufactured in Europe.


Unless… printers used second (or third or fourth…) grade “reject” paper…those manufactured items that didn’t make the “grade” for the high quality of paper reserved for the high honor of book production. My guess is that manufacturers used the throw-away paper for printing more common items like souvenirs and playing cards, considered “cheap” resources for the masses. Think of it like a tenderloin and other fancy cuts of meat that the butcher sells for a premium as opposed to the marbled and cut-away meats that end up as cheaper processed hamburger…or even sent to the factory to make pet food. Waste not, want not…and neither butchers nor early Renaissance paper makers wanted to waste materials that could be used to turn at least a minimal profit.


Various paper grades with different iron-water content

Paper grade variations of color dependent on iron levels in the water used in the paper manufacturing process.


If we apply this hypothesis to the manufacture of playing cards—that they were printed on second-rate or throw-away papers… then we have to assume that they were things that were sold cheaply for the masses…for all classes of society…which is what other research has shown, namely, that gaming and gambling were not restricted to a particular social class, but were rather pervasive through all social and economic groups.


Another facet would seem to be that these analyses did provide rather succinct particulate constitution levels and identification in the paper products. In fact, in this day and age, my presumption is that chemical and spectrometer analyses ought to allow us to geographically identify water sources and particulate material (alum, for instance, or linen content and other fibrous material) based on the preferences or usage of specific manufacturers/producers as well as on the materials available geographically in the production of paper. Perhaps no one has undertaken such a study yet or determined to make a compendium of where particular paper specimens originated.


This is my presumption, because despite the extensive multi-year specimen analysis that he oversaw, Bennett seems to indicate that scientific attribution would still be a mystery too speculative to confirm…


“The literature of papermaking is sparse until the mid-eighteenth century, when the French writers Jérôme Lalande, Louis-Jacques Goussier, and Nicolas Desmarest began documenting the craft in their country. The absence of details from earlier periods is no doubt a result of trade secrecy, the habit of passing skills directly to family members or in-laws rather than to outsiders, and the lack of ability, time, or need to document the craft in writing.

“As a result, what follows [in his analyses] is in part generalization and in part hypothesis. Generalizations are dangerous. Attempting to describe the methods used to make paper in Europe between 1300 and 1800 in a short essay such as this is like trying to describe the methods used to make cheese throughout the continent during the same period. The raw materials, local conditions, routines, and traditions were almost certainly very diverse…”

—( dated August 2011 by Timothy Barrett,
last accessed 4/20/2016 )


Whether Bennett’s dodginess is because of the complexities presented by importation or distribution, or changes in water supplies since the era in which the antique papers were made, I cannot say. But it seems odd.


Bennett does, however, leave clues that various grades of paper were used for different purposes:


“Lalande tells us that Roman alum was the preferred material, rock alum being reserved for ordinary papers (the chemical difference between the two is not clear).” 5


Well, it’s rather difficult for we tarot enthusiasts to think about our precious playing cards being printed on “ordinary” papers (historically), but this seems as though it may have been the case. It’s rather ironic when one considers how tarot deck collectors today are so fussy and particular when it comes to card stock grade and superiority of the paper on which our tarot cards are printed!






1          Olsen, Christina. Carte da Trionfi: The Development of Tarot in Fifteenth-Century Italy. A Dissertation in the History of Art. (University of Pennsylvania, 1994).


2          Further points from Rodgers Albro’s presentation can undoubtedly be found in her contributions to a print publication cited here: Colbourne, Jane, and Reba Fishman Snyder, eds. Printed on paper: the techniques, history, and conservation of printed media. (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Arts and Social Sciences Academic Press, Northumbria University, 2009). Rodgers Albro’s contribution can be found under the chapter heading “Printed on Fabiano Paper,” pp. 2-13.
Unfortunately, I was not able to find a copy available, and the closest library holding is too distant for convenient reference.


3          Hind, Arthur M. An Introduction to a History of the Woodcut, Vol. 1 (New York: Dover Publications, 1963).


4          Barrett, T., et al. Paper through Time: Nondestructive Analysis of 14th- through 19th-Century Papers. The University of Iowa. Last modified January 17, 2012. /.


5          Barrett references LaLande, The Art of Making Paper (Loughborough, England: Plough Press, 1978) (translation of original French by Richard Atkinson).





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