Too Good To Pass Up

The Time: The 13th Century A.D.

The Place: Western Europe The Government: The Holy Roman Empire

The Legacy Technology: Vellum and Parchment

The New (well, to Europe, anyway) Technology: Paper

The Law: No Document on Paper May Be Considered An Official Document

89_too goodWhile it may be true that I have — to put it charitably – a tendency to imagine facts and events that never actually occurred, even I couldn’t make this one up. While conducting some background research, I stumbled on this incredible factoid:

In 1221, in response to the recent (to Europe) introduction of paper, which threatened to upend more than a few apple carts, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick the Second declared that paper could not be used for the “official” rendering of a document and that documents on paper were therefore of no legal force and effect.

Yep. You could USE paper; but to make it official, you had to copy it to vellum or parchment. I mean, let’s face it, paper just doesn’t smell right. For that, you need animal carcasses. (Not coincidentally, the wealthy European landowners with herds of sheep and cattle had a considerable stake in this policy. Is this ironic? Take a look at “Who Is That Lurking in the Shadows and take a wild guess what I think.)

One can only imagine the work-arounds. Paper, being cheaper to make, easier to handle and transport, more readily available, more easily stored and accessed, and much less environmentally sensitive, was undoubtedly being used whenever possible. However, at the last step, some monk or another would need to copy the content onto vellum or parchment. Doubtless a paper copy was also retained so it could be more easily and safely stored, accessed and used long after the parchment copy had reverted to rawhide from humidity or crumbled into dust or both.

And so, it appears, the world of dual systems persisted in Europe for awhile. Everyone is familiar with the great technological, cultural, artistic and social strides in Europe over the next couple hundred years – namely, not much to speak of. They aren’t called “The Dark Ages” for nothing. Anyway, operating with dual, redundant, inefficient record maintenance systems seems like it fit right in.

Eventually, the alarm clock went off: The printing press was invented. And guess what: Animal skins didn’t work too well in printing presses. Rules or no rules, paper took over in very short order, and Europe woke up with the Renaissance.

Now, far be it from me to blame The Dark Ages on regressive policies inhibiting the adoption of technological improvements in document management. After all, the Dark Ages started hundreds of years earlier (except, of course, in Asia, where paper had already been introduced; but I swear I’m not trying to make a connection). And banning paper was hardly the only reactionary restriction erected at the first sign of change. But still, let’s face it, it couldn’t have helped.

Here is my real point: I’m sure Fred II had some very intelligent, and possibly well-meaning people urging him to stop the dangerous trend toward unproven paper technology when, after all, writing on parchment and vellum had been going on for generations at least. But seen from today’s vantage point, it looks really silly.

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that current requirements to maintain a paper or microfiche (“machine-readable”) copy of an “official” document is going to look pretty silly to our descendants; and a lot sooner than eight hundred years in the future. In fact, it’s an increasingly tough case to make with a straight face today.

2 thoughts on “Too Good To Pass Up

  1. Follow up questions for us nerds. It takes around 220 years for Gutenberg to make paper popular.
    -who else besides shepards and monks were opposed to paper? How formidable was that opposition? Who benefitted?
    -what technological barriers to paper existied before Gutenberg? (e.g did paper back then rot faster? Was it harder to make paper than now?)
    -what were the advantages to paper and (more importantly) how did people find out about those advantages? (e.g. did lots of people including noblemen just simply not know paper existed?)

    Interesting that we still live today (575 years after Gutenberg) with reminants of parchment. (e.g. raised seals).

    The underlying question is “what can we learn from the centuries long political struggle between paper and parchment?”


  2. Apparently parchment lingered on til at least 1768: A court of record is that where the acts and judicial proceedings are enrolled in parchment for a perpetual memorial and testimony: which rolls are called the records of the court, and are of such high and supereminent authority, that their truth is not to be called in question. For it is a settled rule and maxim that nothing shall be averred against a record, nor shall any plea, or even proof, be admitted to the contrary. And if the existence of a record be denied, it shall be tried by nothing but itself; that is, upon bare inspection whether there be any such record or no; else there would be no end of disputes. But if there appear any mistake of the clerk in making up such record, the court will direct him to amend it. All courts of record are the king’s courts, in right of his crown and royal dignity, and therefore no other court hath authority to fine or imprison. (emphasis added) Sir William Blackstone, “Commentaries,” 3:23 (1768)

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