Current obsession: watermarks! Watermarks are created by the papermaker’s mould, which is used to pull wet pulp out of the vat to form sheets of handmade paper. The raised wire impression on the mould creates a place where the paper is thinner/less dense and therefore more translucent when held up to light [above left: papermaker’s mould from U.Iowa Center for the Book papermaking facility; above right: the resulting sheet of handmade paper with backlit watermark visible].

If you are not familiar with the process of hand papermaking, here is a look at a paper production at a mill in Maidstone, Kent, England [Hayle Mill, run by Barcham Green and family]. It’s a video from 1976 – oldie but a goodie by Anglia TV – when the mill was still operational. The video describes the papermaker’s mould, watermarks and goes through the steps involved in handmade paper production. For more on the history of this mill, check out this forthcoming publication by the Legacy Press, The Hayle Mill: The History of How a Handmade Paper Manufacturer Survived the Age of the Machine, by Maureen Green.
Hayle Mill Video: https://youtu.be/Xs3PfwOItto

Another video poetically describes a papermaking mill in Puymoyen [southwest France, the region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine]. The mill has been revived by Jacques Bréjoux and is equipped with both medieval-style stampers and a Hollander-style beater [I don’t think the stampers are shown in this particular video]. Video by Victor Ede, ‘Vingt grammes par mètre carré’, 2003 – click on the video image to play:

Watermarks were the papermakers’ logo and calling card. If I were a scribe in 15th-c. Italy, I might recognize that – oh that paper with the crossed arrows is the good stuff from Fabriano – and look for it again at the stationer’s shop. Though an individual mould only lasted about a year [in full production], a watermark symbol was remade again and again on new moulds associated with a given paper mill. Watermarks also wore out over the course of a year, changing slightly in shape and definition. This provides a unique fingerprint that one day may be used to more closely identify production from a single mill [even if we don’t have the name of that mill] and maybe even trace paper specimens to an individual mould.

Unfortunately, studies of watermarks generally do not connect watermarked paper to specific paper mills [Sylvia Albro’s 2016 book on Fabriano is one exception – since it looks at paper production from the perspective of the mill in Fabriano, Italy, using its extensive archive. It’s a fantastic read – Fabriano: City of Medieval and Renaissance Papermaking. More on the book in a future post!] For example, Briquet’s study on watermarks provides tracings of watermarks found in selected archives throughout Europe [largely in France and Italy], and lists the date and archive info of the related document, if known. So, if I find a watermark in a manuscript on paper, and locate it in Briquet, it will tell me what other documents and books on paper contain that watermark and what archives in Europe hold these – and provide a date if possible [but cannot specify the mill or location the paper came from]. Watermarks can be helpful in supporting or denying other evidence about the manuscript in question – and providing a general date for undated manuscripts. It can also provide important evidence about the movement of paper across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. For example, an early printed book from Spain, may contain Italian paper – not because Spain didn’t have paper [it was among the earliest places in Europe to have Islamic papermaking, for example], but because by the late fifteenth century, Italians were making some very high quality paper and shipping it across Europe. This is the case with one of the earliest printed book from Seville,  Spain – a Dominican processional from 1494 – which contains Italian paper. The University of Iowa Special Collections holds a copy of this book, in an early blind tooled binding [more on UI xBX2049 D6C371494 cop.1 in a future post].

Watermark of a deer/cerf in a shield in the gutter of U.Iowa MS xMMs.Misc2. Sanctorum et virorum Dei atque sapientium astrologorum vaticinia de pontificibus et prophetiae de statu regnorum mundi. Below, corresponding watermark from Briquet [close but not exact] from mid 16th-c. Germany – where the UI manuscript is from.

Most of the four-volume set of Briquet is now online. Print publication is: Charles Moïse Briquet. 1907. Les filigranes: Dictionnaire historique des marques du papier dès leur apparition vers 1282 jusqu’en 1600 avec 39 figures dans le texte et 16 112 fac-similés de filigranes. Briquet’s watermark symbols are categorized by subject [in French – agneau/  lamb, armoiries/ shield, cerf/ deer, couronne/ crown, licorne/ unicorn, ours/ bear, etc.]. More about the pros and cons of this system and the fascinating connections between Briquet and his late 19th-century contemporaries in Italy, the Zonghi bros. in a future post!

In the meantime, check out this expanded resource that compiles over 260,000 digitized watermarks from 35 collections [including Briquet] – Bernstein The Memory of Paper. The site is based in Germany and takes inspiration for its name from the German word for ‘amber’, a substance that traps evidence inside it – information that can be revealed by being held up to the light [similar to how scholars hold up a sheet to look for watermarks]. This site is a great leap forward in compiling tools for the study of watermarks. The basic data is provided for each watermark [image, archives that hold paper with that watermark, date when possible]. The possibilities of mining this newly compiled data are vast. As a basic test exercise working with the Bernstein database, one of my Center for the Book/ Library Science graduate students [Chris Taylor] is working on a project mapping the spread of unicorn watermarks across medieval Europe. A spreadsheet and a little geo-mapping will go a long way in understanding how papermaking spread across Europe. If watermark info can be connected to a number of archive location, this info can be used to help pinpoint the location and period of operation of paper mills. The U. Iowa’s Atlas of Early Printing is a valuable resource for information on the physical proximity of paper mills to printing presses in incunable-era Europe [1450-1500]. It’s time now to bring it to the next level! This is the history of technology and it will be interesting to see how paper production intersects with with the history of ideas and textual production.

In short, the field of watermark research is really wide open. Very little scholarship has been done on analyzing these marks – categorizing them into thematic genres [papal, animal, plant, etc.] and studying how they were developed and adopted across Europe. For example, the Benedictine monasteries in central Italy [Umbria], who were making paper in the Middle Age, adopted the 3-hilled mount topped with a cross as their symbol [for obvious reasons]. Are the Benedictines connected to this symbol across Europe? Who is buying their paper and how far from the monastery is it used? What sizes are they producing [smaller sizes or large – what is their production capacity]? In the early modern period, the French and Venetians developed/adopted the tre lune / three crescent moons watermark – to sell to the Ottoman market with the logic that Muslims were more likely to buy paper with a familiar symbol on it than paper with a Christian cross or other imagery. After a 16th-century fatwa was issued, speaking out against the scribing of the Qu’ran on to Christian paper, the European Christian papermakers had to change their watermark symbols in order to fill this niche Ottoman market. When does this shift occur? How else have watermarks been changed to adapt to shifting market forces? To date there is no comprehensive study of the development and spread of European watermarks. This is a rich field for potential research with far-reaching implications for understanding the economic, cultural, religious and intellectual history of the paper-using world [and I haven’t even mentioned paper imports into New World markets!].

Islamic paper generally did not have watermarks, because of the method in which it was made, which did not use a rigid wire mould [and therefore one could not sew a metal watermark into it]. However, Islamic paper does have a specific quality [seen when backlit], depending on where and when it was made across the vast territories of the Islamic world. Paper mould lines, fiber distribution, color, texture, could be quantitatively cataloged across the Islamic world in order to place production geographically. This is another completely understudied field – and anyone with an interest, some funding, a bunch of time [a decade, to start] and some skills could undertake this exciting project. PhD dissertation/ Fulbright scholarship project, anyone? Another exciting avenue in study of paper history is coming from the field of science. Research is being done to isolate the physical properties of the water molecules used to make individual sheets of paper, in order to locate the longitude and latitude of the place where that paper was made. Mind blown. This won’t provide a date, but would go a long way toward locating centers for paper production – especially on paper made in the Islamic world. Islamic manuscripts often contain colophons, which may date them and provide the name of the scribe, but they generally do not provide the place of production. It is always possible that paper is made in one place and made into a manuscript in another place – but having this information on paper production sites would add greatly to our knowledge about the production of documents and manuscripts in the Islamic world – and provide more accurate information about the spread of paper from China outward to the west and east.



Students in my Material Analysis course at the Center for the Book [University of Iowa, Fall 2017] spent a class session in Special Collections searching for watermarks in some fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts and early printed books. This is always an eye-opening exercise, especially if you’ve never seen a backlit watermark suddenly appear out of nowhere. One student commented that it felt like opening presents as a kid on their birthday – who knew what would be inside the next book! There is that moment when the watermark is illuminated – it is like magic, every time.

The smart phone has revolutionized the search for watermarks. Archives and libraries often do not have a light sheet and it can be difficult to see the watermark without a good light source from behind – enter iPhone flashlight function!


But you also need another smart phone or camera to take a photo of the watermark in order to match it to Briquet. Unless you have a folio paper format manuscript, you will need to piece together 2 or 4 parts of a watermark [if your book is in quarto or octavo format]. A sketch from the photo/s can be very helpful. I usually upload the images to my computer and copy them by putting a piece of paper on my computer screen and tracing them directly from my screen. Don’t forget to copy the chain lines [widely spaced lines running vertically on the sheet, made from the mould, seen with backlighting] and a few of the laid lines [smaller horizontal lines made by the mould], since these help identify them in Briquet. A good codicologist will also measure the distance between chain lines, since that information can also be helpful in differentiating one paper from another [if watermarks are similar]. A mill, like Fabriano, produced moulds with a characteristic quality to the laid and chains lines – to the point where a paper scholar familiar with a particular production style, like Sylvia Albro, can take one look at a sheet from Fabriano and [probably before she even sees the watermark] have a good sense that the paper was made there.

The students found all sorts of interesting watermarks in their books – crossed arrows [Fabriano’s dardi decussati], and cross bow in a circle – both present in 15th-c. Italian papers [below, from U.Iowa Super FOLIO BX1935 .C55 1479], as well as fleur de lis, and an elk in a shield [see earlier images, Germany mid-16th c.].



They also found a curious 5-leaf clover[?] watermark in the lower outer corner of a quarto format Bible from Munich – yet to be identified – printed in Venice in 1484 [U.Iowa BS75 1484]. Some paper moulds had watermarks [countermarks] in each corner of the mould, as well as central watermarks and corresponding countermarks, but I’d have to spend more time with this paper to see what’s going on.

watermark with coutermarks
Diagram of a sheet with a central watermark and countermarks in all four corners. Churchill, 1990.

Next week we’ll be making our own sheets of handmade paper – both European style and Indo-Islamic at the University of Iowa Center for the Book’s papermaking studio. We’ll also be burnishing some of these sheets [polishing them to a shine with a hard stone] – a technique historically used to make the paper smoother and easier to write on. Burnishing also gave paper the sheen of a fine parchment sheet [that must have been a bonus]. Check back for the new blog post!

Melissa Moreton