Paper was invented by the Chinese in the 2nd century. The secret of paper pulp, which they made from flax fibre, was divulged to the Mongols in the 8th century, then to the Persians of Samarkand who in turn passed it on to the Arab traders. It was the Arabs who introduced pulp into Spain and Sicily in the 12th century.
It was thinner than parchment, looked like gauze and tore easily. In the beginning it was used mainly as a substitute. Although it was popular among the chanceries of Europe, many sovereigns proscribed it for official treaties and charters. For example, in 1231, Frederick II, King of Sicily and German Emperor, banned the use of paper for public registers and official documents.
Nonetheless, paper manufacturing started in Italy and spread rapidly to all of Western Europe.
By the end of the Middle Ages, as hemp and flax crops grew, rag pulp gained ground. It was cheaper to process and, as a result, paper gradually replaced parchment.
The first paper manufacturers and traders settled in Fabriano (Italy) during the 14th century. Many paper mills were built in Italy, and at the end of the century they appeared as well in France, England, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany and Switzerland. By the beginning of the 15th century, paper had won the upper hand!
Had it not been for paper, a writing material that was cheaper and more flexible than parchment, printing would never have developed the way it did.
The Chinese were the first to use xylography, a wood engraving technique that had some bearing on Gutenberg’s invention. Already in the 11th century the Chinese were familiar with movable type and researchers believe they produced the first printed book using movable metal characters in 1390. Did Europe know about this? And if so, how?