Dr. Megan K. Williams is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. She received her PhD from Columbia University in 2009 for her work on mobility regimes in sixteenth-century diplomacy. This paper is inspired by her current research project, which is funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), and which examines paper’s role in the transformation of Renaissance diplomacy, ca. 1460-1560. Her recent publications (http://paperprinces.org) focus on paper as artifact of late medieval and early modern statecraft.
Recycled Rags and the Politics of Paper in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe
Towards the end of von Grimmelshausen’s picaresque Der abenteuerliche SIMPLICISSIMUS Teutsch (1668/69) — a novel of constant vicissitude and metamorphosis — a piece of toiletpaper protests the indignity of its current incarnation. The toiletpaper’s autobiography of its repurposing from shirt to diaper to paper to book to toiletpaper can be read as a veritable catalogue of late medieval and early modern recycling.
Paper provided a malleable medium for many late medieval and early modern era masterpieces of literature, art, finance, diplomacy, and statecraft. Chancelleries, printers and artists became rabid consumers of the new medium soon after its arrival in twelfth-century Europe. This soaring demand led to the rapid expansion of papermills in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The rag-collectors who supplied these mills with the raw materials for papermaking became a regular sight in the late-medieval and early-modern landscape.
Yet very little work has examined the late medieval and early modern rag trade. Marx’s depiction of rag-collectors as among the vilest and most degenerate of social outcasts (Lumpenproletariat) has deeply colored the profession’s image. That rag-collection was, however, a critical industry is amply demonstrated by repeated political attempts to regulate it. This paper aims to explore the political economy of rag-recycling in the early sixteenth-century Holy Roman Empire through the rag-collection strategies of Frankfurt papermaker Anstett Leutholt (†1546/48) and his heirs. Leutholt, whose paper was widely used in chancelleries and printing houses, left a rich archival record of the politics of rag-recycling in late medieval and early modern Central Europe.