Friday, 2 December 2011


Foolscap paper is one of those things that I've never really been sure about and to which I have never devoted even the idlest of my idle thoughts. I had never, for example, noticed that it's a contraction of fool's cap. But it is.

That's odd because foolscap is an old paper size. Whenever it's used in the news (and it often is) it's put there to evoke what editors like to call a bygone era filled with dial telephones, morality and rationing. Foolscap was a little bit larger than A4, and once upon a time it bore a watermark depicting a jester's headdress.

When it did this is a matter of fevered debate amongst those who care about paper sizes. The earliest known example in England dates from 1659. Indeed, there's an obscure story that during the Commonwealth the republican Parliament replaced the royal watermark that had once appeared on all the laws of England with a fool's hat. But like all the best stories that's probably tosh.

There are much earlier fool's caps in German printing, indeed they go back to 1479. This lends some credence to the idea that the fool's cap was introduced by Sir John Spielman who built England's first paper-mill, as the poor fellow was German.

Despite his teutonicness he still managed to get a legal monopoly on all paper production in England in 1581 and thus he achieved immortality. Not with his paper, not with his watermarks, but because he managed to be obliquely satirised by Shakespeare.

In Henry the Sixth part II, the ridiculous rebels capture a lord and their peasant leader, Jack Cade accuses him thus:

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.

As Shakespeare would have had to obtain his paper from Spielman's foolishly behatted mill one way or another, we can make a shrewd guess at who he had in mind.

Incidentally, despite the fact that it's probably about his fourth play, Henry VI part II contains Shakespeare's first truly memorable* line, and it's said by another of the peasant rebels when they're planning what to do once they've seized power:

CADE I thank you, good people: there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.

DICK The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

P.S. There's a lovely review of The Etymologicon over at Tom Cunliffe's excellent blog A Common Reader. Moreover, I shall be talking about the book tonight on Resonance FM on the show Little Atoms, which is also available as a podcast. Evenmoreover, I'm going to be on Loose Ends on Radio 4 tomorrow (Saturday) at a quarter past six.
Smithfield still feels like this on a Friday night.

*Incidentally, I once posted something along these lines before and was bombarded with impolite e-mails from people who assumed that I hadn't read Titus Andronicus. I have, and can even recite you a couple of speeches from it. However, neither Titus nor Love's Labours have any lines that are known to the man upon the Clapham omnibus.

1 comment:

  1. In this online book I found the following sentence: "Der Kardinalshut italienischer und französischer Papiere wird zur Zeit der Puritaner in England zum Freiheitshut, gelegentlich auch zur Narrenkappe." In translation that is "The cardinal hat in Italian and French papers becomes a "freedom-hat" and sometimes a fool's cap in puritan England." Now as old watermarks were mostly derived from local heraldry and a hat was an important bit of heraldic language and sometimes appeared in the form of a fool's cap it's not too far fetched (I hope) to assume it came from that source. There's a few pictures underneath here: You can see one wears something that looks like a fool's cap. The hat was a sign of power, though. I've also found that in Germany, it appeared more often in paper mills in the South, but was spread throughout Europe anyway. How it came to be a heraldic sign while being regarded as a thoroughly un-christian and detestable thing is beyond me.