Thursday July 12, 2007
The role of pants in the spread of western culture has been wrongly sidelined, according to medieval historians, who are starting to rank the underwear factor alongside the invention of printing.
Rags from discarded pants and knickers led to a 13th century breakthrough in the making of cheap paper, undercutting expensive parchment.
Research into fashion habits has shown that the use of underwear increased dramatically after 1200, both on the continent and in England, as more people moved into towns. The International Medieval Congress heard yesterday that the rural habit of wearing nothing under a rough smock or leggings was frowned on as peasants developed into tradesmen and found themselves running shops with customers of the opposite sex.
"As underwear became more popular, so the supply of rags increased significantly," Marco Mostert of Utrecht University told the conference in Leeds. "That in turn increased the amount of paper and brought knowledge within reach of a much wider audience.
"Parchment really was a luxury item. For a few sheets, you had to kill a sheep and cure its skin in the same way as leather, and for a complete book, you'd be talking about quite a few sheep. Now the papermakers found themselves with all the old pants, and they produced a product which has lasted remarkably well."
Cheap paper was available when William Caxton set up England's first printing press in 1476. His work has long been credited with the dramatic spread of learning, but Dr Mostert said: "Paper deserves a share of the credit. Its development through the increase of rags undoubtedly helped to increase literacy."