Paper Past and Paper Future

Paper Past and Paper Future 

A series of three lectures by Orietta Da Rold

Given at Cambridge University in November 2021

Paper is so common in our everyday life that we sometimes fail to notice it. It is available in all sorts of shapes, degrees of quality and colour. We rely on paper for the quotidian and the extraordinary. We think with paper, we write with paper, we create with paper, we imagine with paper and we feel through paper. It is both ephemeral and long lasting. The digital revolution, heralding the demise of paper, turned out to be a technological evolution, and we have discovered, or perhaps are still discovering, that these two technologies can accommodate rather than compete against one another.

The arrival of paper in medieval Europe also heralded an era of technological innovation and evolution. Drawing on extensive research in Cambridge collections and beyond, Orietta Da Rold will consider the significance of this material as a commodity and particularly as the stuff of which books are made. These lectures are about the stories that medieval paper can tell. Looking differently at the books on the shelves of our libraries, paper unfolds fascinating stories of technological innovation, transnational interactions and human ingenuity.


Lecture 1: Paper in Time

This year’s first lecture tells the story of paper’s relation to time. Only tentatively can we date the majority of medieval books produced in Britain. Such ambiguity hinders how we can contextualise and discuss the texts written in them and the social interactions that medieval books enjoyed. The lecture will discuss how the study of paper can contribute to a chronology of medieval British books, it will consider some of the principles of such chronology and propose that ‘sequencing paper’ can be as distinctive and exciting as sequencing the human genome.

Lecture 2: Paper in Space

This second Sandars lecture of 2021 considers the use of paper in several places, analysing what it can tell us about the places and networks of book production. It will also focus on the space that paper came to inhabit more broadly within medieval culture and society. It is well-known that paper flourished in mercantile communities, because it was both a tool and merchandise, and, ultimately, a desirable object. The lecture, however, will look further afield, discussing the space paper occupied within diverse writing environments in the medieval world.

Lecture 3: Paper Futures

This year’s third and final Sandars Lecture will explore the relevance and future of paper studies. The technological tension between parchment and paper is a common ground of debate amongst medieval book and archival historians. We can see similar considerations in the discussion around paper and new technologies. Rather than focusing on what can be perceived as tensions, imagining future technological scenarios offers renewed possibilities for collaborative thinking centred on the study of medieval paper. How can we bring the study of medieval paper into the future and how can two technologies, one of the past and one of the future, work together to enhance and share knowledge and tell new stories?


Dr Orietta Da Rold is an Associate Professor at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of St John’s College. She has published widely on medieval textual cultures and manuscript studies. She has recently published Paper in Medieval Britain: From Pulp to Fiction. Click here to view her university webpage or follow Orietta on Twitter @orietta_darold

Top Image: Bodleian Library MS. Ashmole 33. Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford


Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!