Great galloping Agamemnon, we forgot paper! Why didn’t you guys say something?
Those monks hand-wrote their bibles on parchment or vellum, remember? Parchment isn’t cheap. It was Gutenberg’s mission to make bibles affordable, so most of them he printed on paper (just a few he printed on vellum) because paper was way less expensive.
Paper was another one of those Chinese inventions that came to the West along the Silk Road. They started making it around ad 100 (a guy named Ts’ai Lun is credited with paper’s invention). China’s first paper was made from bamboo, which is a reed—like papyrus in Egypt. Just like the Egyptians, they soaked the bamboo after splitting it into strips, then criss-crossed the softened strips into a sheet, pressed and dried it.
This kind of paper is not so good for printing. A printing surface needs to be perfectly smooth, and papyrus-style has ridges from the reed’s strips. To make high-quality paper—the good stuff—takes more work. Chinese papermakers figured out that you can soak the bamboo and other fibrous plants like flax in a vat of water and alkalei to break down their fibers more quickly. Alkalei is an acid you get from wood ash. They also beat the soaking bamboo (maybe like churning butter?) until the whole mess disintegrated into a slurry of plant fibers and water.
Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.
Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.