Manuscript on Cotton Paper, Yale, Beinecke Marston MS 259 .jpeg

L'Acerba, by Cecco d'Ascoli, 1269-1327. New Haven, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Marston MS 259, fols. 50v-51r

1 libro sichiama troiano in volghare lighato in asse

1 libro di dante lighato in asse

1 libro detto ciecho dascholi leghato in asse in volghare

tutti i detti libri sono scritti in charte banbagine

1 libro di pistole dovidio volghare leghato in asse

The Florentine dyer Papi di Benichase died on June 8, 1420 at his home in the neighborhood of San Niccolò, on the south bank of the Arno River. Shortly after his death, Ser Christofano di Nicholaio, a notary from the office of the orphans, examined Papi’s property and compiled an inventory of movable goods to be handed over to the newly widowed Lady Sandra. Among the reported household items were a certain number of books written on charte banbagine (cotton paper). The cotton paper might have been a familiar object in the eyes of the notary who handled a great variety of writing supports in his professional life and who therefore may have recognized it at a quick glance, without thinking what it was or where it originated. Indeed, other inventories in the Florentine Wards Collection suggest that cotton paper was commonly used to produce the type of books read or collected by wealthy merchants of Papi’s time. But the quaint combination of “cotton” and “paper” provides a clue to how medieval global history unfolded from the perspective of this one particular household in this one city.

The description of Papi’s books demonstrates the contexts in which cotton paper was used for book production. Christofano records four books owned by Papi: one called “Trojan,” another composed by Dante, one by Cecco d’Ascoli, and the final one containing the letters of Ovid. It is difficult to determine precisely which books are referred to in the notary’s quick notes, but the recorded names suggest that Papi was interested in the history of antiquity, in a popular classical author known for his writings about love, and in two contemporary intellectuals whose works disagreed on certain aspects of natural philosophy. Papi’s books were written in the vernacular and were bound with wooden boards, with cotton paper as the writing support for the first three of the four books. It is unclear if the letters of Ovid were an exception, but the notary did not bother to note whether other materials were used along with the cotton paper in Papi’s collection. The use of cotton paper in turn invites thoughts on the material culture of merchants who participated in the cultural formation of late medieval and early modern Italy.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, paper mills in Europe mostly relied on cloth rags to prepare paper pulp, and cotton was only infrequently used for papermaking. Studies on rag paper used in European books before 1800 have found that flax and hemp were the predominant fibers in the specimens. Therefore, the “cotton” paper known to the Florentine notaries was unlikely to be made from cotton, even if cotton fiber was at times found in recycled textile waste. Rather, the Italian name carta bambagina for cotton paper came into use in part because the histories of paper and cotton overlap. Both materials originated in the East; one came from China and the other from India, and Europe eventually established its own industries to produce these imported goods. Despite the similar circumstances of their arrival in the West, the cultural connotations of paper and cotton differed. While cotton had been conventionally perceived as an exotic luxury, paper was seen as a cheap alternative for parchment. The word “cotton” in “cotton paper” thereby indicated a high grade of paper made in imitation of parchment for book production. The value of cotton paper might derive from its cotton-like properties that also reminded one of the qualities of parchment appreciated by scribes: it was whiter, smoother, and more durable than lower grades of paper. Cotton paper was chosen to produce books for well-off merchants like Papi who may have wanted to avoid the cost of commissioning codices on parchment, but still preferred to have his books made to resemble a typical medieval codex bound with boards. A linguistic hypothesis is in place to explain why cotton paper became known by this name, even though it was not made of cotton. “Bambagina (cotton)” could derive from an erroneous reading of the word “bambycina,” a name associated with the Syrian papermaking town known as “Bambyce.” This plausible hypothesis underscores the role of Arabs in the transmission of papermaking technologies from China to Europe during the Middle Ages. By Papi’s time, Italian paper mills had improved the techniques of papermaking and exported their various products to not only other parts of Europe, but also the Arab world.

Although it remains difficult to pinpoint or verify the origins of cotton paper, the charte banbagine in the dossier of Papi di Benichase most likely refers to the high-end paper locally produced in Italy, where papermaking started in the thirteenth century. Today, “cotton paper” often refers to the Amalfi paper bearing the name and symbol of the Amatruda family that first produced paper during the Angevin rule of southern Italy, and calligraphers still praise the Amalfi paper for its handmade quality. Charte banbagine was only one physical component of the four books that the notary Christofano found among many movable goods in Papi’s home but it provides a thread to think of “the Global Middle Ages” at the most intimate of scale.

Further Readings

Barrett, T., et al. "European Papermaking Techniques 1300-1800." Paper through Time: Nondestructive Analysis of 14th- through 19th-Century Papers. University of Iowa. Last modified May 20, 2022.

Bloom, Jonathan. Paper before Print: the History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Hunter, Dard. Papermaking: the History and Technique of an Ancient Craft. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.

Mazzaoui, Maureen Fennell. The Italian Cotton Industry in the Later Middle Ages, 1100-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.