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2. Transitional Phases in the Form and Function of the Book before Gutenberg

2.E. Loss of Information from Late Antiquity to the Thirteenth Century

Beyond provenance, or chain of ownership, or when gaps exist in the line of ownership, the causes of survival of specific documents produced from Late Antiquity through the Middle Ages, and even later, may be a matter of inference or mystery, to be researched on a case by case basis. Nor can surviving texts adequately explain the extent or causes of what we lost. For example, Pliny's Historia naturalis, a text which remained in circulation, though usually not in "complete" form, through the Middle Ages, refers to a great many Roman authors whose texts did not survive, and it might be tempting to investigate why certain texts survived rather than others. But as much as we might seek causes specific to a certain text or library, the gradual overall deterioration of institutions, and of traditional education in the classics during the decline of the Roman Empire and the Early Middle Ages was a primary cause of the loss of many ancient manuscripts, and a cause of the fragmentary nature of so much of our knowledge of ancient civilization and literature. We know that an enormous amount was lost, but we cannot quantify the loss accurately or qualitatively. Estimates of the percentage of classical literature that is thought to have survived to the present vary; one widely used estimate is only ten percent. 2.E.1. See Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes & Scholars. A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature, 3rd ed (1991). For studies of the impact of these losses and the challenges of reconstructing classical texts see Reynolds (ed) Texts and Transmission. A Survey of the Latin Classics (1983).

The problem was not so much large-scale physical destruction, though there was enough of that from fires, and from repeated sackings during the Barbarian Invasions, but as the Roman army, government officials, and business classes assumed the styles and customs of the conquering Ostrogoths and later the Lombards, Roman civilization faded, Roman education slowly diminished, and the body of literature studied and revered by the educated in Antiquity ceased to be read, cherished, and most of all, ceased to be copied, distributed and preserved. With the dwindling of the senatorial class, which had been the traditional Roman audience for books, the market for new books diminished, and the production of new books ceased. Scribes and artisans who had previously created new books, and the booksellers who hired them, had to look elsewhere for work. Gradually, and at varying rates in different regions, many of the functions of writing lost importance in society or disappeared altogether, especially in the use of writing for governmental purposes. Religious practice was the great exception. Though Christianity did not require ordinary believers to read, and it may have had a negative effect overall on literacy of the general populations with which it was concerned at this time, 2.E.2 Harris, Ancient Literacy (1989) 326., it did make reading the sacred texts central to the lives of men and women who were dedicated to the faith.

Over time the Roman senatorial class, diminished in size, recycled itself into a Christian ecclesiastical class based in monasteries with their own scriptoria for the production of the relatively small number of primarily religious manuscripts needed by the early monastic communities. 2.E.3 "Lack of production, of course, does not equal lack of use—in many respects, quite the opposite. The newly emerging societies cherished Roman coins, and clipped them to make the smaller denominations appropriate to their greatly reduced money economy, since they did not mint large quantities of precious metals of their own. In similar fashion, Roman books whether papyrus or parchment continued to serve the needs of the shrinking literate class—not new books, but the enormous residue of the antique book trade that reposed in public and private libraries. These slowly gravitated to ecclesiastical libraries (locus of the new literate class), to be sent north with the missionaries. Benedict Biscop, for example, had no difficulty finding books to carry north to Norhumbria when he visited Rome in the 670s; but these were old books, already a century or two older than he. "What is remarkable is the length of time that Christian Rome and its infrastructure endured. As we have suggested, Roman civilization, centred on the city, the forum, and the public baths, which was once thought to have been destroyed by the Visigoths and Ostrogoths who sacked Rome in the course of the fifth century, is now generally recognized as having remained, though undeniably altered, reasonably intact until the middle of the sixth century; indeed, the external trapping of this civilization were gladly appropriated by the Ostrogothic kindom of Theodoric (475-527), whom both Boethius and Cassiodorus served. The physical devastation of Roman Italy occurred, ironically, through the reassertion of imperial power—the reappearance in 540 of Byzantine armies in Italy under the emperor Justinian's general Belisarius. Rome changed hands five times in these campaigns. "What survived Belisarius' legions fell to the Lombards, the last of the tribal groups to move into Italy. Any city, such as Milan, that opposed the Lombard advance was razed; those like Verona that opened their gates survived unharmed. It is no wonder, then, that little of ancient Milan, city of Ambrose, survived—or, conversely, that Petrarch in the fourteenth century could find what was probably a late antique manuscript of Cicero's letters to Atticus in Verona. Remarkably, the Roman aqueducts still functioned in the time of Pope Gregory I (pope 590-604); but gradually the Roman ruling class was replaced or absorbed by Lombard (or, in Gaul, by Frankish) peoples who had little need, or even less ability, to maintain the physical infrastructure of Roman civilization: the forum, public baths, roads, libraries, temples. As became unnecessary, they were increasingly neglected. Eventually they served the only useful purpose left to them, becoming the quarries that provided the cut stone from which early medieval basilicas and royal palaces were built" (Rouse," The Transmission of the Texts," Jenkyns (ed) The Legacy of Rome: A New Appraisal [1992] 44-45). Against this background of decline and decay there is, however, evidence of the origins of a papal library, ancestor of today's Vatican Library, organized at the Lateran Palace in the mid-fourth century. The relative stability of the early church as an institution throughout these periods of social instability, and church's need to maintain institutional records, as well as to maintain monastic libraries for preaching, study and teaching, was both the motivation for most of book production in Europe and the cause of its survival between Late Antiquity and the Carolingian Renewal in the ninth century. 2.E.4. "The first allusion to a papal library comes from Julius I (337-52), who directed the clergy to settle certain legal matters not in the civil courts in the scrinium sanctum in ecclesia. The use of the singular suggests a central library, whether in the Lateran or in the episcopal church. There is evidence that a little later Damasus I (366-84) rebuilt the basilica of the church of Saint Laurence (San Lorenzo in Prasina) to better house a library. A dedicatory hexameter inscription that once stood over the entrance to the basilica is preserved in a codex of the Vatican library. It reads: archivis fateor volui nova condere tecta addere preterea dextra laevaque columnas quae Damasi teneant proprium per saecula nomen. "This library, however, was probably not the central ecclesiastical library at Rome, for the Lateran Palace had been the official residence of the pope and the center of ecclesiastical administration since the time of Sylvester I (315-335), and it is more likely that the papal library, including the central archives, was located there. "Excavations carried out at the beginning of the twentieth century in the Capella Sancta Sanctorum, the only surviving part of the ancient Lateran Palace, discovered among the foundations of the chapel the remains of a room of the earliest Lateran library. On one wall was a fresco of a reader, apparently Augustine, seated at a desk, an open codex before him. Beneath it was a legend referring to the writings of the fathers. Clearly this library contained theological literature, not merely archives. The painting dates from the fifth or early sixth century, but the room was probably a library much earlier. Although the Liber pontificales lists a series of popes, beginning with Celestine I (422-32), who contributed to the growth of the Lateran library, little is known of its scope and contents before the seventh century. The proceedings of the Lateran Council of 649 include an extensive list of books the council requested from the library in order to document the issues, a list that includes a great variety of theological texts, orthodox and heretical, deriving from both the Greek and the Latin church. If this list reflects the actual or approximate holdings of the library, it held an extensive collection of theological literature at least by the middle of the seventh century" (Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church [1999] 162-63).

As an example of the Roman senatorial class recycling itself into an ecclesiastical class, the foundation of the scriptorium and library at the Vivarium by Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus, was a notable development in Late Antiquity. A Roman Senator, and former magister officiorum to Theodoric the Great, the Ostrogothic ruler of Rome, Cassiodorus retired and formed a school and monastery at his estate at the port of Squillace on the southern sole of Italy's boot in the region called by the Romans Magna Graecia. It received this name after its intensive colonization by Greeks in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. Cassiodorus named his monastery the Vivarium after the fishponds which were a "feature of its civilized lifestyle." The monastery included a purpose-built scriptorium, intended to collect, copy, and preserve texts. At the very close of the Classical period this monastery in a Greek-speaking region of Italy was the final effort to bring Greek learning to Latin readers. Even so, most of the writing in the monastery was in Latin. At the Vivarium Cassiodorus had monks produce a vast pandect of the bible called the Codex Grandior. He also had them copy out his own work, Institutiones divinarum et saecularium litterarum. Along with detailed instruction for a religious routine, this work explained how manuscripts should be handled, corrected, copied, and repaired, and included what amounted to an annotated bibliography of the best literature of the time. Cassiodorus also stated "that biblical manuscripts should be bound in covers worthy of their contents, and he added that he had provided a pattern book with specimens of different kinds of bindings" 2.E.5. Graham Pollard, Early Bookbinding Manuals [1984] 1. This may be the earliest detailed reference to bookbinding.

From Cassiodorus's writings we know that the Vivarium library possessed 231 codices of 92 different authors, pagan works as well as Christian studies, apparently arranged by subject in at least ten armaria (book cupboards). It included five codices on medical subjects, including the works of Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, Celsus and Caelius Aurelianus. 2.E.6. Capparoni, "Magistri Salernitani Nondum Cogniti". A Contribution to the History of the Medical School of Salerno (1923) 3. Much attention is always given to the library of Cassiodorus in discussing the book history of this period because his is the only library of the sixth century of which we have definite knowledge. After the death of Cassiodorus the manuscripts at the Vivarium were dispersed; some of them found their way into the library maintained at the Lateran Palace in Rome by the Popes. As the Middle Ages advanced, knowledge of Greek became less and less common in European monasteries though it flourished under Byzantine rule.

As the educator and civil service for the tribal kingdoms of Europe, the church maintained almost a complete monopoly on education and book production until the development of universities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This production was virtually entirely in Latin, with only a very few manuscripts in Greek present in the libraries of Western Europe until the thirteenth century. 2.E.7. See. Berschin, "6. Greek Manuscripts in Western Libraries," Greek Letters and the Latin Middle Ages. From Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa. Translated by J. C. Frakes. Revised and Expanded edition. http://www.myriobiblos.gr/texts/english/Walter_Berschin_16.html accessed 01-01-2011). As one would expect, most of the books produced in monasteries concerned religion, but works of a secular nature were also required for the functioning of a monastic community. Partly because so few early codices survived from Late Antiquity to the year 799, between 1934 and 1992 paleographer E. A. Lowe, and his successor to the project, Bernhard Bischoff, were able to publish a comprehensive catalogue of 1884 surviving codices and fragments written in Latin from 350 to 799 in Codices Latini Antiquiores and its supplements. In 1954 Albert Bruckner and Robert Marichal began publication of the Chartae Latinae Antiquiores, which was intended as a supplement to Lowe's work. The Chartae Latinae Antiquiores constitutes a catalogue of the significantly larger number of Latin 'literary' manuscripts rather than codices, written on papyrus or parchment, which antedate 800 CE. The 49th and last volume in this series appeared in 1997. Statistics from Lowe's Codices Latini Antiquiores were compiled in the German Wikipedia article on Codices Latini Antiquiores and presented in four graphics posted on that site.

From the graphic showing "Distribution of Transmitted Codices by Time and Content" we we may make certain observations:

In the Late Antiquity of the fifth century, and the afterglow of Roman culture, pagan texts represent 31 out of 113 surviving codices, or about 25%. By the year 500, which has been called the beginning of the Middle Ages, as the production of manuscripts moved exclusively to monasteries, very few classical or pagan texts were being copied: 12 out of 157 in the sixth century. The percentage of classical or pagan texts copied declined even further in the seventh century to 22 out of 198, even further still in the eighth century to 9 out of 834. The statistics for secular works remained fairly consistent at around 10% throughout the period studied, with 12 out of 113 for the fifth century, 20 out of 157 for the sixth century, 22 out of 198 for the seventh century, and 91 out of 834 for the eighth century. Throughout the period, as we might expect, the vast majority of book production concerned theological works. From this we may conclude, along with L. D. Reynolds, that the basic arts of life continued; "education, law, medicine and the surveying necessary to administration and the levying of taxes still required manuals and works of reference, and these needs are duly reflected in the pattern of manuscript survival.” 2.D.8. Reynolds (ed), Texts and Transmission. A Survey of the Latin Classics [1983] xvi.

From the graphic entitled "Origin of Codices" we may observe:

Italy, seat of the church, was responsible for the greatest number of codices: 502 out 1884, and its rate of production, based on surviving manuscripts, appears to have been relatively consistent throughout the period beginning in 350 CE. Following Italy, production of manuscripts in France originated in the second half of the fifth century, and though it began slowly with the foundation of the first monasteries in Gaul, by the seventh century production increased to the point where it was second only to Italy, with 440 manuscripts surviving out of the 1884. These countries were followed by Germany where production began late, about 700 CE, and grew rapidly, with 335 manuscripts surviving from the eighth century. Great Britain also began production late, in the mid-seventh century, from which only 148 codices survive. Only 32 manuscripts survive from Spain, reflective of very small production beginning in the sixth century. Production in Ireland began in the sixth century but was low until the eighth, of which 81 codices are recorded. Switzerland, with its small population but historically stable environment, did not begin production until the eighth century, from which 84 manuscripts survived. From the Byzantine empire, in which Greek was by far the predominate language, only Latin codices survive from the fifth to the eighth century. Finally, only six codices produced in Africa survived, though some may be among the earliest survivals.

From the graphic entitled "Migration of Codices" we may draw some general conclusions:

Roughly half of the production of each of the main producing countries, except Switzerland, remained in those countries; the rest migrated to other countries in Europe. Only Switzerland appears to have been sufficiently isolated from the other countries during its single century of production that none of its manuscripts found their way to monasteries beyond its own borders. (This section was last revised on July 14, 2011.)

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