What Lies Beneath: The Reliability of Watermarks as a Method for Telling Time

Rijksarchief te Gent K91 1r.

As a child of the 1990s, I remember well when US currency turned into a magic trick to show your other classmates in school: hold a bill up to the light and a president’s face would stare back at you. This “trick” was simply a watermark. In the late 1990s, American bills began to be printed with watermarks, those presidents’ faces, to deter counterfeiters. The watermark is not a modern innovation, nor was it created to prevent counterfeiting. It was a medieval creation, one used primarily to show the maker of the paper, but also the place in which the paper was made, and (less often) when the paper was made.

For this blog, I would like to discuss the risks of this third purpose of medieval watermarking- using watermarking as a means to date paper. I will rely upon two manuscript collections of the Rijksarchief te Gent, numbers K91 and K98, to demonstrate the uncertainty of watermark dating. Holding K98 is a “verzameling watermerken”- a collection of medieval watermarks beginning in 1386 and ending around 1500. The watermarks come from the Abbey of Saint Bavo’s in Gent, a prominent and powerful abbey within the medieval city.

The watermark collection is indeed just that- a bundle of loose leaves of paper, that for the most part, are not medieval at all. In examining the bundle of paper, one sees watermarks with an assigned date of the mark in the top left corner of the page, ranging from the late fourteenth to the late fifteenth century. However, most of the paper upon which these watermarks are imprinted or drawn are from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with some drawings added later on carbon paper in the twentieth century.

Rijksarchief te Gent K98 1386.

As one can see below, the watermarks have been impressed on the paper, with the top sheet having an outline of the watermark done in pencil, and later sheets having only the watermark itself.

Rijksarchief te Gent 1389.
Rijksarchief te Gent 1389-1.
Rijksarchief te Gent 1390.
Rijksarchief te Gent 1390-1.


The archival inventory reads as if this collection of watermarks has been consistently compiled from the late fourteenth century by St. Bavo’s monks as a means to keep up with the numerous watermarks employed by the abbey.  Instead, the collection is a later, early modern creation used a means of dating the watermarks used in earlier centuries. But how effective and accurate are these watermark dates? Thankfully for our purpose here, the manuscript K91 helps to answer this issue. K91 contains the yearly accounts of St. Bavo’s from the late 1300s to the late 1400s, allowing us to see how well these watermarks, dated by year, correspond to yearly entries in other documents from St. Bavo’s in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Rijksarchief te Gent 1480.

Above, I have included the watermark for the year from 1480. It is the letter “P,” with a cross attached to the top of the letter and a bifurcated descender. According to the watermarking dating system of St. Bavo’s, this letter should only appear after 1480. However, in consulting the K91 account book (1384-1417), I found something quite different. The “P” first arises in the year 1402 of the accounts, a whole 78 years before it appears in the watermark compilation.

Rijksarchief te Gent K91 32r.
Rijksarchief te Gent K91 35r.

The clearest example is the “P” on the opening page of the account for the year 1403, the image K91 35r. just above. Perhaps this “P” is an exception? A dating oversight by the monks? In fact, it is the rule. Throughout the years for which account books survive, (1384-1417 & 1461-1498), very rarely do the accounts line up with the prescribed watermarks for that year. One watermark nearly hits the collection date, the watermark of 1395, the bow. The bow does not occur in 1395, but it does show up three years later in 1398, a much more reasonable margin of error.

Rijksarchief te Gent K98 1395.
Rijksarchief te Gent K91 23r.

The explanation for the inconsistency of the bow watermark is quite simple and known to many medievalists already. The monks of St. Bavo’s bought paper from a particular paper maker and they used that paper for many years. This is evident in the appearance of multiple watermarks in the same year of accounts (see the year 1403 in K91). The problematic example of the letter “P” presents a larger issue because the watermark appears far earlier than it should. It is not the only example of this phenomenon either- the watermark of 1410, a crown with a cross, first appears in the account books in 1407.

Rijksarchief te Gent K98 1410.
Rijksarchief te Gent K91 60r.

Based on the examples above, the efforts of the monks of St. Bavo’s were misguided in their attempt to coherently construct a means of dating their earlier documents. We know the monks were not papermakers themselves, so they did not have access to the wire frames with watermark outlines. These monks used their own watermarked documents to create their dating system, but they certainly did not rely upon the account books. If they had done so, they could not have drawn the conclusions they did. Perhaps they used a no-longer extant corpus of charters, but even in that case, the medieval monks of St. Bavo’s did not use watermarked paper in such a systematic and chronologically coherent way. They used the paper when they needed it- sometimes this was paper from decades earlier, sometimes this was new paper.

Further Reading-

Brown, Michelle P. Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 1994.

Briquest Online- http://www.ksbm.oeaw.ac.at/_scripts/php/BR.php




What’s in a name?

Titular Confusion in the Economic Records of Late Medieval Burgundy

Queen Elizabeth II. The Earl of Grantham. The King in the North. Rank and titles from popular television shows like The Crown, Downton Abbey, and Game of Thrones capture the modern imagination with images of conniving courts, opulent balls, and fancy dinners. But what did rank and title signify to the medieval mind? This question has provided the backdrop for some of the most prominent works of medieval scholarship, and the question has continued to interest and influence current work. One medieval society, in particular, had a healthy respect for, and perhaps an unhealthy obsession with, titles and status: late medieval Burgundy, the Grand Duchy of the West.

Burgundy earned its name of “Grand Duchy,” by the power of its statecraft and economy. At any given point, the Duke had a massive entourage of counselors. For major affairs of state, such as making peace with France, the numbers could go into the hundreds of men (Russell, Congress of Arras). The Duke kept very careful economic records of his payments to his subordinates at court, in what is called the Recette Générale. In studying the Recette, one is immediately struck by the length and structure of the titles of each person receiving payment. Titles mattered to the people of Burgundy. The order in which their titles were listed mattered too:

Archives départementales du Nord série B 1945, f. 330v.

The picture above is a standard entry in the Recette Générale. It reads (translated from middle French) “to the Reverend father in God, the bishop of Bethlehem, counselor and confessor to monseigneur the duke.” The order of the confessor’s titles here is consistent with the economic records in Lille: first came the appellation, here “reverend father in God,” but it could also be something like “sir,” or “my lord.” Following next generally was the name of the individual, which is omitted in this instance. Luckily we do know the name of this confessor was Friar Laurens Pignon from payments in earlier records. After the name came the confirmation of any title held by the payee and the place it was held. Here it is “the bishop of Bethlehem.” Lastly, the record includes the position (if any) the person in the entry held at court: “counselor and confessor of monseigneur the duke.”

With such careful attention placed on the titles, it is especially interesting when the accounts strayed from their standard formula. One mild variation is the exclusion of the episcopal title in payment to the confessor Pignon from two years earlier:

Archives départementales du Nord série B 1942, f. 56r.

As one can see, the expected “reverend father in God, the bishop” is missing. The receiver general has replaced the longer title with an abbreviated “monseigneur of Bethlehem.” Such a title does not indicate his episcopal role, although the normal positions at court are included, “counselor and confessor.” The omission of the first half of the bishop’s title is not especially surprising here. The confessor had appeared multiple times earlier in the accounts with his full title included (f. 27v-29r). In all likelihood, the explanation here is an instance of rushed record keeping. There was only one monsieur of Bethlehem, after all.

A more interesting “error” in the accounts concerning the confessor occurs in only one year of the Burgundian accounts: 1432, the same year that Pignon transferred from his old diocese of Bethlehem to the more prestigious diocese of Auxerre.

Archives départementales du Nord série B 1945, f. 60v.

Here, the title proceeds according to the expected formula: “to the Reverend father in god, the bishop of Auxerre, counselor and confessor of monseigneur the duke.” According to the careful naming conventions of the Recette Générale, the title of Auxerre should be found throughout the rest of the year. In fact, the opposite is true. The title of Auxerre appears one additional time in the accounts of 1432. However, the Duke of Burgundy pays Pignon ten more times in the year, always with the title of “Reverend father in god, the bishop of BETHLEHEM, counselor and confessor of monseigneur the duke.”

Archives départementales du Nord série B 1945, f. 103r.

The reversion by the Recette Générale to Pignon’s old title is undoubtedly an aberration- in the following years until his death in 1449, Pignon is identified as the Bishop of Auxerre. More importantly, the title of Bishop of Bethlehem no longer correctly referred to him- A fellow Dominican by the name of Dominic filled the post in 1433 (Eubel, Hierarchia Catholica vol. 2, 118).

There are a number of explanations for the oversight. The easiest one to dismiss would be the intentional disrespect of Friar Pignon by the Recette Générale by referring to him in a less prestigious way. No surviving evidence suggests that Pignon ever had issues with the Duke’s accountants. Indeed, he even helped them perform their duties in rare instances. Another explanation is that the members of the Recette Générale did not know of Pignon’s promotion- there were many members of the accounting body, sometimes with multiple receiver generals in a year. Perhaps the lower levels of the administration simply did not know of Pignon’s advancement to a higher bishopric. A third possibility is that the Recette Générale knew Pignon too well- again, Pignon shows up in the economic records every year he was in the Duke’s service, from 1412-1449. In 1432, he had been at court for 20 years and had been the Bishop of Bethlehem for almost a decade. To my mind, this is the most sensible and likely explanation.

This example of Laurens Pignon is meant to show something simple about the use of titles in the medieval period. Even a culture highly cognizant of standing, title, and rank made mistakes in this regard. The members of the Recette Générale knew Laurens Pignon, and had known him for many years. To them, he was the Bishop of Bethlehem, the counselor and confessor to the Duke. The promotion to Auxerre undoubtedly felt real to the confessor, but to the rest of court, it perhaps took more time to register.

Further Reading-

Blockmans, Wim, Antheun Janse (eds.). Showing Status: Representation of Social Positions in the Late Middle Ages. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999.

Duby, Georges. The Three Orders: Feudal Society Reimagined. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Eubel, Konrad. Hierarchia Catholica medii aevi vol. 2. Regensburg: Monasterii Sumptibus et typis librariae Regensbergianae, 1913.

Russell, Joycelyne Gledhill. The Congress of Arras, 1435: A Study in Medieval Diplomacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.


In Defense of Chaucer’s Astrolabe

Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe has not, historically, won the hearts of many academics—much less the hearts of undergraduates making their first forays into medieval literature. The text is a manual supposedly meant to explain the construction and use of the astronomical tool known as the astrolabe. Most interest in Chaucer’s Astrolabe has focused on its preface, where the author professes to write for his ten-year-old son “Lyte Lowys” (“little Lewis,” l. 1) but also speaks to a much more highly educated audience. In this preface, Chaucer makes claims about medieval education, science, and languages that help us piece together a medieval worldview. Few have ventured beyond these opening lines, however, to understand the mechanics of the astrolabe itself. The task is well worth the effort—Chaucer’s Astrolabe, for all of its technicality, can help us understand the role of science in more traditionally “literary” works like The Canterbury Tales.

The “Chaucer” Astrolabe, England, c. 1326 © The British Museum
The “Chaucer” Astrolabe, England, c. 1326 © The British Museum

The medieval astrolabe was used by teachers, students, travelers, and astrologers to locate themselves in time and space. The legendary (but likely spurious) story goes that Ptolemy’s camel stepped on his celestial globe and, seeing it flattened on the ground, the Greco-Egyptian polymath was struck with the idea that the celestial sphere could be mapped in two-dimensional terms (Hayton 4). In actuality, the astrolabe developed gradually over the course of centuries—it is a testament to the mixture of ancient Greek, Jewish, and Islamic thought that created the intricate texture of medieval Western science. The astrolabe made particular strides under the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, for instance, where it was used to schedule Islam’s five daily prayers. Using geometric principles, it can calculate the time, the date, the position of the sun, and the spread of constellations that the user can expect to see on any given night.

The last of these functions, I like to think, contributed to the intricate sequence of astrological references that threads through The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer frequently matches up a point in time he mentions in his text with the location of the corresponding zodiac sign. The most famous example comes in the initial lines of the Tales’ “General Prologue”: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote” (“At the time that April’s sweet showers have pierced March’s drought to the root,” l. 1-2). Chaucer gives us the approximate date, and follows up soon after with the time of day and the corresponding sign: “and the yonge sonne/ Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne” (“and the young sun has traveled halfway through the Ram [that is, Aries],” l. 7-8). One can imagine Chaucer using his astrolabe to map out the astrological scenes that matched up with the settings of his text.

The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS. Rawl. D. 913, fol. 29r
The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS. Rawl. D. 913, fol. 29r

The surviving manuscripts of Chaucer’s Astrolabe show that its early readers experienced it alongside not only scientific texts by astronomers like Abu’Mashar, but also intermingled with poems like the popular French Romance of the Rose—the Astrolabe therefore challenges us to reconsider the divide between the “literary” and the “technical.” In a future post, I will walk step-by-step through my students’ saga to build and use astrolabes this semester. In the meantime, suffice it to say that the experience helps the modern reader to imagine medieval texts within the spatial, visual, and cosmological terms with which their initial audiences would have understood them.

My thanks to Amanda Bohne and Juliette Vuille for their stellar insights and advice.

Erica Machulak
PhD Candidate
English Department
University of Notre Dame


Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Curry, Walter Clyde. Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1926.

Hayton, Darin. An Introduction to the Astrolabe. © 2012

Lindberg, David. The Beginnings of Western Science. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

North, J.D. Chaucer’s Universe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.