In the book The Hobbit, Bilbo was given a short contract that included “funeral expenses” and a right to one fourteenth percentage of the treasure.

Peter Jackson in his usual fashion did Tolkien one better, so Balin gives Bilbo a long intricate paper contract with a lot more details, written in a satire of legalese.

Wired magazine’s on line page has a lawyer parse the contract.

Bilbo was entitled to keep the ring, but probably wasn’t entitled to take the Arkenstone as his part of the stash, since that would have required the Dwarves’ approval.

So Gollum is right: Baggins is a thief.

I’m not sure how the movie will show the contract after being in Bilbo’s pockets during rainstorms, fires (including Dragon fire when Smaug tries to chase him) and riding on top of a barrel.

Presumably the paper was better quality than that we have here in the Philippines, where paper becomes limp and tears easily in the heat and 90 percent humidity.

Or maybe we are  missing a bigger question: Was Bilbo’s contract Paper or parchment?

The maps of Middle Earth are usually shown on a yellowish paper, suggesting parchment, but was the contract here and Bilbo’s book written on parchment or did they have the means to make paper in Middle Earth?

This isn’t just a theoretical question.

In the book, Gandalf mentions searching the scrolls for information, and flatly states that Isildur’s letter was on a “scroll”, which would mean papyrus paper which is stored in scrolls, but in the film he is searching flat paper, suggesting parchment or paper made in imitation of parchment.

Minus Tirith is in the south, so presumably they could have papyrus paper imported from far Harad or the delta region of Gondor. Papyrus grows mainly in hot, dry climates, and has a limited shelf life except in desert regions.

Exporting papyrus was a lucrative trade for Egypt in the ancient world, but as the western Roman empire fell and the Islamic Arabs took over, the Europeans had a paper shortage, and resorted to parchment, which could be made locally from calf or goat skins instead of imported. So  books morphed from scrolls to “codex”, meaning a flat book of sheets similar to that which is used in today’s world.

So did the dwarves in the Blue Mountains have access to imported papyrus, or did they use parchment, which would be available in that area? (Bilbo’s larder is full of cheese, suggesting a thriving local dairy industry, This would result in lots of calves which could be used for parchment manufacturing).

Or did they use paper?

You see, paper is manufactured from cloth or wood. But unlike parchment and papyrus, both of which were mentioned by Herodatus,  it was invented in China,

Centuries later, it spread to Europe, via the Silk Road. From History of paper website

Papermaking spread slowly throughout Asia to Nepal and later to India. It made its true push westward in 751AD when the Tang Dynasty was at war with the Islamic world. During a battle on the banks of the Tarus river, Islamic warriors captured a Chinese caravan which happened to include several papermakers. They spirited them away to Samarkand, which soon became a great centre for paper production.

Gradually papermakers made their way further west through the Muslim world – to Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo. Finally, when the Moors from North Africa invaded Spain and Portugal they brought the technology with them and so it was that papermaking entered Europe in the 12th century.

Printing and inventing mechanized machines to make it cheaper helped to popularize paper to replace parchment.

Wikipedia on parchment.

In the later Middle Ages, parchment was largely replaced by paper. New techniques in paper milling allowed it to be much cheaper and more abundant than parchment. With the advent of printing in the later fifteenth century, the demands of printers far exceeded the supply of animal skins for parchment.

Medieval papermaking. 

Paper was made from rags, usually linen. The rags were dampened and left to rot for four or five days. They were then placed in a stamping mill which transformed the rotting rags into a pulp of long fibers…..

and yes, the source of the rags was medieval underware.

Everyone thinks the printing press led to increased literacy among  the average man in the middle ages, but that just might not be the case.   Dr Marco Mostert a historian from Utrecht University is instead suggesting that the availability of cheap paper was the main reason more  reading material became available. While this isn’t surprising the  source of the new cheap paper is. It seems that, according to Dr. Mostert,

“These rags came from discarded clothes, which cost much  less than the very expensive parchment which was previously used for books. In the 13th century, so it is thought, as more people moved into urban centres, the use of underwear increased – which caused an increase  in the number of rags available for paper-making.”

Or maybe the end of the medieval warm period had something to do with the fact people needed two layers of clothing to stay warm?

So again we come to the question of Bilbo’s contract: paper or parchment?I guess it depends if Middle Earth learned how to make paper, which was invented in China…

Maybe the dwarves had contacts there to import silk and ideas from the Middle Earth version of the Celestial kingdom? Given the custom of Dwarves to travel around and trade with the locals, this is possible.

But Tolkien doesn’t bring up the point, although I am sure he was aware of the problem of paper making and parchment in the early medieval period of England, which is the basis for his fantasy world.

So my conclusion is that Bilbo’s contract was written on parchment, probably locally produced and manufactured in the northwest of Middle Earth.

However, if it actually turned out to be written on paper, this brings up all sorts of speculation about the economy of the Shire. It would mean that Hobbits wore underwear, of linen or cotton (probably linen, which would grow in the Shire, which was too far north for cotton to be grown) and that some local Hobbit entrepeneur collected the used underware and made it into paper.

Or maybe the paper was made from hemp, as was much of the paper of ancient China.

Well, that would explain all the pipeweed jokes by Jackson (Tolkien, a pipe smoker, called it a form of tobacco, but never explained how tobacco made it into Middle Earth from the Americas. Jackson, living in our less innocent time, always uses pipeweed as a joke, hinting that they are smoking something stronger than nicotine).


Comments and corrections are welcome, since I am a doctor, not a historian.

A shorter version of this was posted at my blog, Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

BBC  4 had a series about books that discusses these issues here.

Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

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