Produced by Robert W. Allison
Assoc. Prof of Religion, Bates College, Lewiston, Maine and
Research Fellow Ektaktos of the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, Thessaloniki

© 1996 Robert W. Allison. All rights reserved.

Watermarks, Paper and Paper Making

Contents of this page:

Paper manufacture

The earliest papers used in Greek manuscripts were unwatermarked. These were papers of Arabic manufacture, which were gradually replaced by the earliest Italian papers and in some places paper of Catalan manufacture. All of these early papers were unwatermarked; they are recognizable from other physical characteristics such as color, consistency and characteristic patterns of the lines visible in the paper. (Read on, for more information about these lines.) While this archive includes prints of some examples of Arabic paper, it is primarily watermarked papers which will be found here.

European paper was made in a rectangular mold something like a tray, consisting of a frame (deckle) which determined the size of the paper, and a bottom made of a wire mesh. These molds were dipped into large vats of liquid pulp, lifted out, and shaken to cause the fibers in the pulp to become interwoven as the excess pulp drained off. (This could be back-breaking work for the laborer in the paper factory, for the mold full of paper pulp was heavy, and the larger the sheet of paper, the heavier.) As the remaining liquid in the pulp drained out through wire mesh, the pattern of the mesh was imprinted in the paper as thin spots which remain visible today when the paper is held up to the light.

| Return to Contents of This Page |


From the thirteenth century on, Greek manuscripts were written increasingly on watermarked paper imported from Italy, and soon from other sources in Western Europe. Watermarks were developed by Italian papermakers. They may originally have served to identify papers produced by different workmen within a factory (who were paid by the piece).
Picture a number of workmen working at adjacent workstations in a factory, all producing paper of the same size and appearance. It is easy to imagine a workman suffering from backache, getting behind in his work, and being tempted to steal from another who had produced a larger pile of paper.
However the watermark originated, this new development in papermaking technology was quickly adapted to new functions by the paper factories, which began using them as "trademarks" and to distinguish different grades or batches of paper.

Watermarks were made by bending pieces of wire into filigree designs (French: filigrane) and tying them onto the wire mesh which served as the bottom of the paper mold. As the paper pulp drained, this device would be imprinted in the paper along with the lines of the wire mesh. An example is shown in the header of this page. The watermark in this example is the head of a bull, which is evident here even though the paper has been badly waterdamaged.

| Return to Contents of This Page |

Chain and Wire Lines

The numerous horizontal lines visible in this paper are called wire lines. They reproduce the pattern of the strands of the fine wire which ran lengthwise across the bottom of the paper mold. The thicker, vertical lines in the paper are called chain lines. An example may be seen in the watermark print of a bull's head in the header of this page. In this watermark, a chain line runs vertically through the center of the bull's head and the staff which rises above it. Chain lines were made by thicker, more widely spaced wires which ran across the narrower dimension of the mold, crosswise to the finer strands of wire which they supported.

Watermarks took many different shapes, such as natural things (e.g., birds, hands, flowers, mountains); tools and weapons (e.g., anvils, hammers, arrows, rifles); household implements and clothing (e.g., vases and pots, scissors, hats, gloves or gauntlets); mythological beings (e.g. dragons, mermaids, unicorns); religious symbols (e.g., angels, crosses, paschal lambs, chalices); and heraldic symbols (e.g., crests, monograms, crowns, trophies). As the use of watermarks became standardized, so did their location in the sheet of paper. The watermark was normally situated in the center of one half of the sheet, so that when the sheet was folded to form two folios, the watermark would appear approximately in the center of one of the folios. Sometimes this usage was varied; for example, papers were sometimes made with double watermarks so that when the sheet of paper was folded, each folio showed a watermark in the center.

| Return to Contents of This Page |


Beginning in the sixteenth century, in addition to these watermarks, many papers also were given smaller, secondary marks called countermarks. Countermarks were usually small letters or numbers or simple shapes such as flowers or shields. Countermarks were situated in a corner of the sheet of paper, usually on the opposite half of the sheet from the watermark. In codices, they usually appear on one of the outer corners of the folio, if they have not been trimmed off in the course of binding and rebinding the codex.

| Return to Contents of This Page |

The Filigree Twins: Matched (and Unmatched) Pairs of Watermarks

Papermakers usually worked with pairs of matched molds, so that the mold most recently dipped into the pulp could be draining while the newly formed paper was being removed from the other. Hence, filigree twins, one on each mold. Consequently, watermarks are usually found in matched pairs, identified in this archive by the suffixes a and b in the paper reference numbers. Frequently the two matched watermarks will occur in each gathering of a codex in alternation, just as they were made by the papermaker.

The paper-making process was hard on the molds, and especially on the filigrees that produced watermarks. In order to remove the newly-formed paper from the mold, the papermaker had to turn the mold over on his workbench, dislodging the web of damp paper fibers onto a mat which facilitated its drying. This process was called "couching." The mats also served as dividers between the damp sheets of new paper as the papermaker piled up the products of his labor, and the weight of the growing pile in turn served to press the paper flat. The repeated shaking of the heavy mold and bumping of the mold onto the hard surface of the workbench caused the filigree motif to slide back and forth along the wires to which it was sewn, gradually becoming bent and mis-shapen, and sometimes broken. The filigrees did not usually survive more than a year or two of such constant use in the paper factories - or with lighter use perhaps four years at the most - before one or both had to be replaced. And then - judgoing from the papers being produced at this point in time they appeared to be triplets....

These vicissitudes in the lives of the filigree twins resulted in some variations in the normal pattern of matched pairs of watermarks in lots of paper or in gatherings of codices. When one of the matching filigrees or molds (A or B) broke while the other was still in good condition, a replacement mold or filigree might be made (C), so that the pair A-B became the pair A-C or B-C. Occasionally, when a mold would break, papermakers would begin using another readily available tray of the same size with an unmatched filigree, apparently in order not to avoid losing any time and pay, or perhaps to meet a production deadline. In such cases, two unlike watermarks might appear as an unmatched pair, typically alternating in the gatherings of a codex in the same fashion as watermarks made by legitimate filigree twins, but neither one having a twin mark.

| Return to Contents of This Page |

Significance of Watermarks & Countermarks

When enough examples of a particular watermark are documented - which is the purpose of the present watermark archive - it is possible to establish a relative dating of the paper on the basis of the gradual deterioration of the watermark and the chain of replacement watermarks. The relative date of the paper does not guarantee that the manuscripts in which the paper was used were written in the same order. Stockpiling of papers has to be factored into the equasion, since an earlier paper might be used in a later book. Nevertheless, it does give a close approximate dating of the manuscripts in question. Writing materials were not cheap, and paper did not normally stay on the shelf very long before it was used.

When a codex is composed of multiple types of paper -- again a product of stockpiling of papers in a monastery or center of book production, or by the paper wholesaler -- the profile of papers used will be unique to the center of book production. In these cases, several codices exhibiting the same profile of papers, even when unsigned, can be attributed to the same center of book production, or can lead to the recognition of an anonymous scribe. Likewise, as one type of paper is used up and others replace it, a chain of profiles is produced, analogous to the chain of watermark pairs mentioned above, which can establish a relative dating of codices produced in that scriptorium.

| Return to Contents of This Page |

Significance of Other Physical Features of Paper

Establishing that one paper matches another is not easy, given the intentional similarity among watermarks, the short life-span of any one filigree, the the liklihood that it would be replaced by a new one made to look like the first. For these reasons, therefore, when attempting to match one paper with another, it is necessary to compare the other physical features of the two papers in question to confirm that a match has been found. In addition, it is necessary to remember that papers may be altered in the course of production of manuscripts. The sixteenth-century Philotheite scribe, Gabriel of Kallioupolis (Gallipoli), for example, brushed a glaze onto the papers he used before he assembled his books, in order to prepare the pages for his extensive illumination. (The streaky brush marks are very evident in the glazed surface of the paper in his codices.) The same papers were used by some of his contemporaries at Philotheou, but not all of them glazed the paper first. In cases like this, the physical features other than watermarks and the chain and wire lines may be the result of how papers were treated prior to their use by a scribe or a center of book production.



Created by Robert W. Allison
Dept. of Philosophy & Religion, and
Program of Classical and Medieval Studies Bates College, Lewiston, Maine 04240

Updated February 7, 2001

© 1996 Robert W. Allison. All rights reserved.