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, sensible footwear 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.