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Paper-Folding-art - 9/1/14


"Paper Folding in 15th Century Europe" by Donna Serena da Riva.


NOTE: See also the files: papermaking-msg, paper-msg, glues-msg, hand-crafts-lnks, Pennsic-gifts-msg, Yule-msg, gifts-4-staff-msg, Easy-Gilding-art, parchment-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Paper Folding in 15th Century Europe

by Donna Serena da Riva


            Ephemera - From the Greek work ephemeron; meaning a short-lived thing or thing of no lasting significance.


      Our day to day lives are filled with ephemera, from a daily newspaper to the bag into which the clerk bags our most recent purchase. They are disposable items that may even be enticing or beautiful, like candy wrappers or wrapping paper, but they are ultimately not intended to last beyond their basic purpose for creation.  The people in period must have been surrounded by ephemera in much the same way we are today. These disposable items lent texture to their daily existence, but due to their very nature little if any evidence of them has survived to this day. Even in the artwork that we have from the past, very few artists felt it necessary to depict the common and disposable. The search for ephemera is like a treasure hunt, but the few gems unearthed can be worth the trouble.


      The inspiration for this project came from a marginal in The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. A Flemish manuscript dating from approximately1440, The Hours of Catherine of Cleves is a masterwork of illumination and miniature painting. (Plummer 16) One of the distinctive aspects of the manuscript is the artist's decision to include a vast array of interesting and unique illustrations in the margins of many of the miniature pages. To engage his patroness he explored many items and activities not commonly represented in fine art. From fishing to baking, rosaries to communion wafer, the manuscript is a treasure trove of fascinating depictions. The specific depiction being examined today is included on the page dedicated to Saint Agatha, the patron Saint of forging, casting and weaving. Depicted at the bottom of the page are several pieces of jewelry wrapped prettily in gift boxes. And it is these boxes that cried out to be reproduced.


      The illuminator has gone to great lengths to depict the boxes in various stages of completion, so that one is provided with a set of instructions on creating a box of one's own. But first one must decide what material to use to construct the box. The two primary materials in consideration for this purpose would be animal hide parchment, as was used in the production of manuscripts, or paper. At this time, paper was a relatively new and possibly exciting material. Considering the context of the illustration and the presentation of a precious gift (jewelry, in one box a trio of buttons and in the other a heart) the contents implying a gift of a lover; I believe the box itself to be part of the gift. It is a puzzle to open and a novel way to present a gift, and paper would add to that aspect of the package.


      It can be equally reasoned to be made of parchment, there is no doubt that it was an available commodity at the time and that manuscripts were made of the stuff. I have been unable to secure a reasonably priced supply of parchment to experiment with. Hopefully this avenue can be more fully explored in the future, but for now the substrate of choice is paper. But this is not merely a situation of substituting a modern item for convenience sake. I believe that a strong argument can be made that the box would be made of paper.


Concerning Paper


      In 1150 El-Edrisi said of the Spanish city of Xativa "Paper is there manufactured, such as cannot be found anywhere else in the civilized world, and is sent to the East and the West."  This mention predates the establishment of the first of the Fabriano paper mills in Italy in 1276 but not the first usage of paper in that same local in 1154. It is unknown if the Italian paper of 1154 was made in Italy or imported from the East. (Hunter, 472) This sets the stage for an ongoing debate regarding the actual origins of papermaking in Europe, but establishes the manufacture of paper in Europe well prior to the 1440 date of Catherine of Cleves. Add to this the facts that in Holland, the oldest surviving paper found in the archives is dated 1346 and the earliest mention of paper manufacture in Flanders is dated to 1405 (474, 475) and the evidence points to readily available paper source in the time and location of the production of the illustration.


      Evidence for the proliferation of the usage of paper can be found by examining a parallel form of ephemera; the early printed woodcut. Beginning in early 15th century Germany, the production of block printed broadsheets (single pages of printed materials) began it's ascent to a thriving industry. I was fortunate enough to visit the National Gallery in Washington D.C. during the special exhibit Origins of European Printmaking and view many of remaining extant examples of this art form. Among the essays in the voluminous catalog can be found the following observation:


Fifteenth-century woodcuts comprise a small but special corner of the history of printmaking, as they were the very first images printed on paper in the Western world. A fairly precise count of the eight volumes of Wilhelm Ludwig Schreiber's Handbuch der Holz – und Metallschnitte des XV, Jahrunderts (1926 – 1930) totals close to 4,735 different prints (meaning different blocks), of which perhaps 7 percent exist in more than a single impression. Since 1930, at least another five hundred single-sheet prints have been discovered. Assuming that the average woodblock yielded at least one hundred impressions (smaller block could print more than one thousand impressions each), we might estimate that we have lost over half a million fifteenth-century relief prints; that calculation omits those prints that did not survive in even one impression. (Field, 19)


      Which serves to provide evidence that not only was paper widely available, but it was also widely used to produce items to be sold and used on a daily basis. The collection displayed at the National Gallery consists of a large number of depictions of Saints and other religious figures as well as more common place items such as a bill to be posted notifying the public of counterfeited coins. There is even the earliest example of a "transformable picture" dating from 1450 called Apes Performing on Horseback. In this picture there is a small ovoid piece of paper affixed to the printed image with a small string. The ovoid can be rotated to create the appearance of the monkeys changing position on the horse. This profane conceit draws an excellent parallel with our folded box as an example of using paper to create a toy or puzzle to amuse the owner.


On Paper Folding


      The early evidence for European paper folding is scanty at best. After much research I made contact with a gentleman associated with the British Origami Society named David Lister. He has been recognized as one of the foremost sources of information regarding the history and culture of paper-folding and is currently working on a book on the subject. All of the references to early European paper folding that I was able to locate cited a woodcut in a Venetian text by Johannes de Sacrobosco called the Tractatus de Sphera Mundi dating from 1490.



File written by Adobe Photoshop® 5.0    File written by Adobe Photoshop® 5.0


Figure A              Figure A (detail)


      By all appearances this demonstrates the childhood mainstay of a simple folded paper boat can be dated as far back as the late 15th century. But as the earliest known example of paper folding it is 50 years younger than the Catherine of Cleves manuscript. In my correspondence Mr. Lister had the following to say in reference to the Catherine of Cleves image:


The box from the Book of Hours is unusually clear, showing both the method of construction and the completed box. This is a design that often occurs in modern books of recreations dating from the 19th Century, such as, for instance, "Cassell's Book of Indoor Amusements" which was published in 1881. It still occurs from time-to-time in modern books of recreations or crafts. However, because the paper is cut, it doesn't find much favour with modern paperfolders. Mush[sic] the same effect can, in fact be obtained by methods which avoid cutting the paper.

Nevertheless, this example from 1440 is an enormously important find and I am most grateful for it. May I have permission to make it available in the Origami World?


      Considering this response, it seems that the world of Origami and the world of manuscript Illumination had not crossed paths in the past. Confident that this illumination depicted a form of paper folding I ordered the recommended book Cassell's Book of Indoor Amusements through my local library. While waiting for that book to arrive I attempted to devise my own method of creating the box.


      During further research an article written for Tournaments Illuminated number 89 by Clare de Crecy was unearthed. Using this article I attempted to make my own box. I did not care for the 8 x 8 size and decided to do a great deal of complicated math to create the box. I was able to produce a box that looked remarkably like the box in the illustration by using what I will call the measure and cut technique supplied by the article. By measuring out the square and drawing out your grid with a ruler and a pencil you can establish your basic shape. I then used an X-acto knife with the ruler to remove all of the unnecessary portions of the paper. The black areas in Figure B designate all of the paper that has to be removed.


File written by Adobe Photoshop® 5.0

Figure B


      When using a heavy weight paper it is necessary to score all of the fold lines with a scriber so that you do not get wrinkly creases. It is also necessary to elongate the vertical walls of the outer two flaps to compensate for the thickness of the paper. If you do not do this, the panels do not meet in the center. This technique of measuring, scoring and cutting is fairly time consuming, but the result is a lovely box that looks very much like the images in the illumination.


      Then the copy of Cassell's Book of In-Door Amusements, Card Games and Fireside Fun 1881 arrived. While it is so far out of period as to almost be modern, it is the earliest set of instructions written in English for this particular box fold according to Mr. Lister. It is full of fascinating information, including instructions on making a paper boat very similar to the one depicted in Tractatus de Sphera Mundi. Included       are very specific instructions on how to create a folding box.


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Figure C


      These instructions are drastically different from what I had already done. Beginning with a square piece of paper the box is created utilizing a series of folds, just as in origami. The immediate difference is the way the box is oriented on the square piece of paper. When measuring out the lines for folding it is necessary to measure along the straight edges. This positions the points of the cross in the center of the edges of each edge. With the folding technique the points of the cross are located in the corners of the square, providing the natural points to the edges. When all of the folds are completed as described in Cassell's one simply has to cut away a few small triangles of paper along the edges. The only significant difference between the box in Catherine of Cleves and the one in Cassel's is that there are additional points cut into the folded in tabs that end up in the interior of the box. In Figure C the black areas designate where paper is cut away.


      When the box is folded as instructed in Cassell's the proportions appear to be visually identical to the proportions in the illuminations. The one issue clouding my conclusion is the apparent lack of crease lines in the illustrated boxes. If you look very closely at the open box on the right you can see a vertical line bisecting the front panel.


File written by Adobe Photoshop® 5.0   File written by Adobe Photoshop® 5.0


      Also, if you look closely at the top of the completed box in the center you can also see what appears to be a center fold.


      The folds on either side of the center, that we know must be there, to allow the tab to fit through the slit are not illustrated. This suggests selective representation by the artist as is frequently seen with the omission of seams in depictions of clothing.


     Taking into consideration the excessive waste of the measure and cut method as well as the evidence in the illumination I believe that the folding pattern represented in Cassell's is the correct method of construction. I was originally concerned with using a lighter weight paper, but when folded across the grain it has considerably more strength than I had thought it would. Also considering that the contents appear to be very small and light, I do not think a heavier weight is necessary. When experimenting with folding of a heavier weight paper the creasing techniques produce an unattractive result that is less noticeable in the lighter weight papers.


Paper Choice


      "Until the latter part of the eighteenth century practically all papers of Occidental origin had been made from linen or cotton rags or a mixture of these fibers. (Hunter, 309)" While I have been unable to locate a source for paper with a linen content, it is still possible to purchase paper with 100% rag content; this rag being exclusively cotton in modern times. The specific moulds used during the 15th century produced what are known as laid lines as an artifact of the paper making process (114). When viewing the printed pieces on display in the Origins of European Printmaking exhibit these laid lines were clearly visible on nearly every piece. This manufacture technique continues in usage to modern times, albeit on a machine and no longer by hand except by paper making Artisans. Unfortunately these Artisans are more concerned with the "homemade" or rustic look, which would be much too rough for my purposes. After hunting through many paper sources I have chosen to use Strathmore Charcoal Paper as my period substitute. It is made of 100% cotton and has a traditional laid finish. Even the white is not a bright white and is therefore more reflective of the non-bleached aspect of period papers.


The Folding


      The following is a paraphrased transcription of the instructions from Cassell's with additional instructions from this author


      First Cut a piece of paper into a square. Then fold A to C and B to D to create guiding folds shaped in an 'X'.


File written by Adobe Photoshop® 5.0


Figure 1: Fold A, B, C and D to E in succession. Unfold to flat.


Figure 2: Fold and unfold alternately A to H, B to F, C to I, and D to G.


Figure 3: Fold and unfold alternately A to N, B to M, C to L, and D to K.


Figure 4: Cut away triangular areas colored black. Cut lines are indicated by solid (as opposed to dotted) lines, these are necessary to create the sides of the box that will fold into the structure – they must be on opposing sides.


File written by Adobe Photoshop® 5.0


      On Points A & D you will cut the slits to create the tabs to be folded to go through the Slits. Measure the width across the fold and divide by three. Cut the slits from the edge of the paper in approximately one third – leaving one third of the paper intact in the center. Fold the points in, overlapping, to create your tabs.


      On points B & C you will cut slits for the tabs to go through. These need to be slightly wider than the tabs themselves, one third of the width plus extra on both ends will be fine.


File written by Adobe Photoshop® 5.0


Figure 4


Final Assembly


      To create the box, keep the triangular flaps on points A and D folded in. Next fold in the flaps on arms A and C so that they are tucked in. Bring arms A and C together, passing tab A through slot C. Once the tab is through, gently fold A back so that you can unfold the triangular flaps to secure the join.


      Bring arms B and D together over top of the joined A & C arms and pass tab D through slot B. Join together as above. Ta Dah! A box.




      If you desire to decorate as shown on the finished box in the illumination I suggest you use traditional illumination techniques. Work with the paint considerably thinner than typically used in manuscript illumination and there will not be as great a chance of cracking in the paint. It also helps to add a bit more Gum Arabic to the binder to help with the same issue. For the red I chose to use Cadmium Red as a substitute for vermillion. And as a substitute for shell gold I use Gold Gouache. When painting the box the swoops should appear to jump from one panel to the next, furthering the illusion of a solid box and enhancing the puzzle aspect of the piece. I have found it easiest to completely cut and fold the box up to the point just before final assembly and then paint it flat. Allow the paint to dry at least overnight and then fold the box at a later date.




      Attempting to reproduce an ephemeral item poses a great many challenges. As far as I can determine, there are no extant examples of 15th century paper boxes. Frankly, I do not expect any to be discovered. In all of the manuscripts and works of art I have examined, this is the only illustration of such a thing. If it were not for the meticulous detail in which it was depicted it probably would not have caught my eye. Even with this detail one could dismiss it as a fancy of the artist, if it were not for the subsequent discovery of the exact folding technique in a later source. I believe the illumination to be a faithful depiction of a piece of disposable packaging, designed to delight and amuse its recipient. It is a beautiful and useful item and I believe its further use could enhance the recreation experience within our Society.




Cassell & Company Ltd. Cassell's Book of In-Door Amusements, Card Games and Fireside Fun 1881. Hazell Watson & Viney Ltd., Lodon. 1973.


Field, Richard S. "Early Woodcuts: The Known and The Unknown". Origins of European Printmaking. Ed. Peter Parshall and Rainer Schoch. Yale University Press, New Haven and London. 2005.


Hunter, Dard. Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft. Dover, New York. 1978.


Justis, Tracy. "A Fifteenth Century Gift Box". Tournaments Illumiated No. 89. Winter A.S. XXIII. 36.


Plummer, John. The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. George Braziller, New York. 1966.


Copyright 2006 by Barbara Benson, 2942 Old Norcross Road, Tucker, GA  30084. voxeight at gmail.com. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org