Omni Brain

i-f26f26fd1fbd6ea8da4b0bbb707f1efb-Cathar.jpgEveryone thinks the printing press led to increased literacy among the average man in the middle ages, but that just might not be the case. Dr Marco Mostert a historian from Utrecht University is instead suggesting that the availability of cheap paper was the main reason more reading material became available. While this isn’t surprising the source of the new cheap paper is. It seems that, according to Dr. Mostert,

“These rags came from discarded clothes, which cost much less than the very expensive parchment which was previously used for books. In the 13th century, so it is thought, as more people moved into urban centres, the use of underwear increased – which caused an increase in the number of rags available for paper-making.”

For more random medieval literacy facts (none as exiting as this though) check out the EurekAlerts press release.

In case you’re wondering what medieval underwear looks like here’s an example.
This is a reproduction created by copying paintings by Antonello Da Messina and Piero della Francesca

(HT: quixoticals)

According to HR Downs:

True enough that an overabundance of clothing triggered the massive surge in printed materials during the Middle Ages. However, the surplus was not limited to underwear, it was all manner of clothing. The Black Death killed so many people that enormous piles of clothing accumulated practically everywhere in Europe. Suddenly the raw material for rag paper became available to everyone left. This phenomenon is documented in Barbara Tuchman’s masterful history of the Black Death “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.


  1. #1 J-Dog
    July 10, 2007

    That’s Hawt…

  2. #2 Martin R
    July 10, 2007

    Speaking of rags, people were on them in the Middle Ages too. A lot of the Medieval textile found at excavations is rags re-used for a secondary purpose and preserved in waterlogged latrines.

  3. #3 djen
    July 10, 2007

    Academics studying the history of the book have been aware for quite awhile that the widespread availability of linen rags made cheap(er) paper possible. Most bibliophiles have probably heard the terms “linen rag paper” and “cotton rag paper” — in both cases the “rag” refers to the source of fiber for the paper — old clothes, particularly underwear as it was seldom dyed and thus was already closer to the desired final color of the paper. These rag papers were used all the way through the 19th century when they were replaced with still cheaper (and more fragile) paper made from wood pulp. You can read all about the role of underwear in paper production in the classic and still widely read 1950s academic work on the history of the book: L’apparition du livre by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin or in English translation in The Coming of the Book, 1450-1800 translated by David Gerard. Enjoy!

  4. #4 rob
    July 10, 2007

    is this really new news? james burke made this claim in Connections I, and that was like 25 years ago or something…

  5. #5 Blake Stacey, OM
    July 10, 2007

    Rob beat me to the James Burke reference. The relevant portion is in the fourth episode of Connections (1978), entitled “Faith in Numbers”.

  6. #6 nick
    July 10, 2007

    See Connections episode 4 at youtube:

    split into 5 parts. Part 3 contains the rags&underwear=paper connection.

    See/download them all before they’re gone 😉

  7. #7 Yuki
    July 10, 2007

    So, why is it that men persist in calling the article of clothing that covers his underparts “underwear” when underwear pertain to under panties and under shirts?

  8. #8 Brian X
    July 10, 2007


    Come again? Underwear is whatever goes between your clothes and you — thong, briefs, corsets, bras, t-shirts, that tank top with the domestically violent name, anything like that.

  9. #9 kittenpants
    July 10, 2007

    Dude, James Burke….Connections first aired in 1978 and has been re-run on PBS countless times. There are torrents of it somewhere I’m sure. There are at least 3 series.

  10. #10 Eve
    July 11, 2007

    So instead of wiping their bums with bad writing, it was the other way around.

  11. #11 RickD
    July 12, 2007

    Apparently this bit of history is “old news”? Unlike… everything else in history???

  12. #12 DDos Protection
    November 7, 2009

    Thanks! It seems to be a popular song for alternate lyrics.

  13. #13 fashion
    November 30, 2009

    So many of you discussed your love for vintage clothing in the comments section of my previous posts, which made me smile from ear to ear because I love history. I think it’s important to understand how fashion has evolved and why it has changed over the years. So I am going to go through the decades starting with the 1920s through 1990 and talk about what was popular in the world of fashion. We’re trying something new this week.

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