Paper World: The Materialities of Loss in the Premodern Age

When:18 Mar 2014, 12:30pm - 1:45pm
Venue:Morven Brown 310 (map ref C20)
Who:Dr John Gagné, History, University of Sydney
Rosamond Purcell, photograph from Bookworm (New York: Quantuck Lane Press, 2006)

History Seminar Series

Abstract: When paper became the preferred writing medium of Europe’s urbanizing late middle ages, new opportunities opened up: notaries, lawyers, and scholars could work with and communicate through a cheap and plentiful information technology. States could maintain records of unprecedented detail and volume. However, challenges came along with paper as well. Its proliferation and its delicacy made it susceptible. It was easy to lose (by accident) and it was easy to destroy (on purpose).

The ‘age of paper’ forced generations of Europeans to confront the fragility of the materials that supported their intellectual culture. As paper became more integral to systems of documentation and literacy, the specter of loss and destruction loomed. The instinct to preserve, one of the hallmarks of the European Renaissance, accompanied paper’s rise to prominence. This presentation, focusing mostly on the period before 1600, investigates how medieval and Renaissance culture imagined destruction as a cultural phenomenon. It examines how those traditions informed paper’s reception during the age of print and of archives, and concludes with some case studies of obliteration in action.

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