The tour at the Ozark Medieval Fortress our first year of 2010 only mentioned the significance of paper making to the Medieval world, but in 2011 we are adding a paper making factory and have a complete model of a water wheel powered paper making factory of the Middle Ages. As a guide, I think this is very worthwhile. We tend to forget the importance of the little things in our lives. Paper was as important an innovation during the Medieval as smart phones have been to us.
This development at the Ozark Medieval Fortress is the result of the efforts of Jean Marc Mirat. In fact, he is one of the founding investors and man, together with his wife Solange, who invited the French to come to Arkansas with this project. Pictured is Jean Marc with the detailed historical model of the Medieval paper factory that he meticulously built. This is the type of living history that is a valued aspect of the Ozark Medieval Fortress.
In Europe before the Middle Ages and the introduction of paper, documents were on parchment, which is thin animal skin. That made it expensive and time consuming and manuscripts are rare. With the coming of paper, historians have the benefit of a much more complete look at life in the Medieval. Instead of an occasional legal or religious document, there are thousands of surviving papers from the Middle Ages. This includes financial legers, correspondence, poems, literary writings, instructions on such common things as the way to best spread manure and even love letters.
Papermaking began in China and spread to the East. It came to Europe in the 10th Century through the Muslim world. This early paper was made from crushed linen rags. The first confirmed paper in Western Europe was a deed dated 1102 in Sicily. Papermaking spread from Italy to Burgundy to France and then England. One of the earliest paper factories was in the Herault district of France in 1189.
Paper started out as being crushed linen rags, but the Europeans found that it was more practical to crush bark or wood pulp. The fibers are mashed into a vat of water to form a slurry like a vanilla milk shake. The pulp is transferred from the vats to flat molds made of a wooden frame and a fine screen. A press is used to flatten the fibers, cause them to stick together like felt and drain moisture. As the sheets dry they can be placed in stacks with felt between or they can be directly hung to dry like clothes on a line. This sounds like a very involved process, but once the equipment is in place and running, it can be very efficient. It was definitely an improvement over processing parchment animal skin!
In addition to the details of the paper making itself, it is important to consider the resulting impact on life in the Middle Ages. We now have email, cell phones and texting, but the people of the Medieval witnessed the beginning of the widespread written word . Remember, however, that it was still handwritten. The movable Gutenberg press did not appear until 1451, late in the Middle Ages. The addition of a papermaking factory is an exciting expansion at the Ozark Medieval Fortress.