4406 entries. 94 themes. Last updated December 26, 2016.

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

2.B. The Transition from Oral to Written Culture

"Some might argue that, without writing, the same beliefs could not have prevailed over such a long period of time, but in reality, oral traditions are far more faithfully passed on than the written word. A written account can be open to multiple interpretations, distortions, and transformations, depending on the time and situation, economic imperatives, or the whims of political or religious leaders. Orally transmitted traditions, in contrast, must be rigorously and accurately passed on in order to survive in all their subtlety, and in the smallest of details. Furthermore, the written word, thought to be the surer and safer means of communication, is not only less reliable but also more permeable to outside aggression than are the more secret codes of an oral system. During the time of the Roman Empire, for instance, the fact that the Celts were still 'prehistoric'—meaning that they hadn't recorded their history, ways, and beliefs— made it much harder for the conquering Romans to devise an appropriate strategy to subjugate them" (Desdemaines-Hugon, Stepping-Stones. A Journey Through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne [2010] 75).

One of the twelve tablets--of the 1200 discovered by Austen Henry Layard in Ninveh--upon which the Epic of Gilgamesh was recorded.

Because, as mentioned in 2.A, writing began in Mesopotamia and Egypt in the fourth millenium BCE, there is little or no documentation of the transitions from oral to written culture in those regions. The Epic of Gilgamesh, preserved in the library of Ashurbanipal, was an oral composition written in a literate culture, as distinct from an oral composition composed in an exclusively oral culture. 2.B.1 ". . . there seems little doubt that the form of the written epic that has come down to us is the result of aggregating (and so transforming) earlier products, possibly of an oral tradition. But we need to appreciate a further point if we are to understand the position of this epic in relation to literacy. For even before the version we know was brought together in writing, the constituent parts existed not simply as 'oral poems' but as part of a culture in which writing had played an increasingly important part since the fourth millennium. For Mesopotamia had not experienced a truly oral culture, a purely oral tradition, since that time. It is true that writing appears to have been relatively little used for 'literary' activity in the usual sense. However its poetry was subject to influences both in the form and in content, in composition and in reproduction (memorization), that emanated from the other changes that writing had wrought, promoted or accompanied." (Jack Goody, The Interface Between the Written and the Oral [1999] 92).

In the the European tradition the earliest transition from oral to written culture, for which there are useful records, occurred in ancient Greece. During this transition literature was recorded, and passed down from generation to generation, in both the ancient oral tradition of memorization, and through the methods, new to this society, of reading and writing. It was a transition away from a purely oral culture but not a transition to a written culture in the sense that modern cultures are written cultures. It was an intermediate condition, neither pre-literate nor modern, in which, after the archaic period in which writing first developed, the elite educated class relied heavily upon writing, and the rest of the population was mainly affected by writing, as in the operation of their government or in having literature to read to them aloud. But some of the characteristics of an oral culture always remained present in the society--notably the widespread reliance on and cultivation of memory, and, in certain contexts, an ambivalence toward or distrust of the written record. To the extent which some of us today are imbued with the classical tradition of Greek literature, philosophy and science which is based on surviving elements of the written record, contemplating the ancient Greeks' ambivalence and distrust of this record may remind us how far we are removed from the ancient culture on which so many of our traditions are based, or it may remind us to continue an element of the tradition by taking a critical view of what we read today.

The Greeks are thought to have inherited the use of wax tablets and the leather roll for writing, along with the Phoenician alphabet, and to have developed their writing system in the mid-eighth century BCE. The earliest known Greek inscriptions date from 770-750 BCE, and they match Phoenician letter forms of circa 800-750 BCE. Many scholars believe that the Iliad is the oldest surviving work of literature in the ancient Greek language, making it one of the first works of ancient Greek literature--a work which originated long before writing. It is believed that the Odysseysequel to the Iliadwas composed after the Iliad. Both epic poems, products of the oral tradition, may have undergone a process of standardization and refinement out of older material beginning around 750 BCE, when they may have been first committed to writing. The Greek script, adapted from a Phoenician syllabary, made possible the notation of the complex rhythms and vowel clusters that make up hexameter verse. Homer's poems appear to have been recorded shortly after the script's invention: an inscription from Ischia in the Bay of Naples, ca. 740 BCE, appears to refer to a text of the Iliad; and illustrations seemingly inspired by the Polyphemus episode in the Odyssey are found on Samos, Mykonos and in Italy in the first quarter of the seventh century BCE. In the narrated tale of Bellerophon (Iliad vi.155–203), which introduces the trope of the "fatal letter", with its message sealed within the folded tablets: "Kill the bearer of this" the written tablets are an anachronism in a narrative of an event that was supposed to have occurred generations before the Trojan War, centuries before writing had come to Greece. The "Fatal Letter" episode thus helps date the earliest possible recension of the version of the epic that we read to after the Greeks used writing, in the mid-eighth century.

Inevitably, texts from the oral tradition would have existed in a multiplicity of variants, which would eventually have been transcribed, and from which a standard text would eventually have been established. Homeric quotations by Plato and Aristotle, both of whom wrote in the fourth century BCE, show considerable variants which could be the result of reading or hearing variant texts; however, philosophers, orators and historians from this transitional period often quoted from memory, with all its limitations, rather than from a written text, making it impossible for us to know whether variants in their Homeric quotations are reflective of textual variants or the vagaries of recall. With memory valued as high or higher than a written text it appears that textual precision may not always have been appreciated at this time. Further evidence of textual variation of Homer is documented in the 680 Homeric papyri of a total of 3026 literary papyri, the percentage of Homeric papyri reflecting the popularity of Homer in education. 2.B.2. Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship. From the Beginning to the End of the Hellenistic Age (1968) 104-117. Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 3rd ed (1991) 4-7. The first critical edition of Homer was prepared by the Greek grammarian, and literary critic Zenodotus of Ephesus, first superintendant of the Library of Alexandria, who was at the height of his reputation about 280 BCE, during the reign of Ptolemy II. Working without an established tradition of philology, Zenodotus collated numerous formal manuscripts of Homer preserved in the library, deleted or obelized doubtful verses, transposed or altered lines and introduced new readings. It is probable that he was responsible for the division of the Homeric poems into twenty-four books each, using capital Greek letters for the Iliad, and lower-case for the Odyssey. Editorial comments, glosses and commentaries by Zenodotus and later scholars at the Royal Library of Alexandria are believed to be preserved among the "A scholia" in the most famous Greek codex of the IliadVenetus A, which is regarded by some as the best text of the epic poem. This manuscript, which was most probably written at the Imperial Library of Constantinople about 950 CE, is preserved in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. It was presumably copied from papyri written at the Royal Library of Alexandria, or from some intermediary copy or copies, which were later lost or discarded.

Besides the awkwardness of manipulating the roll form, and the limited information each could contain, papyri were much harder to interpret than any modern book because punctuation, if any, was usually rudimentary, and texts were written in scriptura continua without word-division.

"Minor points of articulation or breath pauses, where we now place a comma or a colon, are left unpunctuated for the most part; when marked, raised dots are normally used, and these are often additions by a reader. Punctuation is, however, routine for marking periods (i.e. at the end of a sentence), changes between speakers in drama and dialogue, and other major points of division, such as the poems within an epigram collection. Points of major division are most often signaled by the paragraphos (a horizontal line at the left edge of the column). . . . Note that the net effect is designed for clarity and beauty but not ease of use, much less mass readership. Importantly, this design is not one of primitivism or ignorance. The ancients knew perfectly well, for instance, the utlility of word division--the Greek school texts on papyri bear eloquent testimony to the need for emerging readers to practice syllable and word division. Similarly philhellenism in the early empire led to the adoption of scriptio continua in Latin literary texts, which earlier had used interpuncts (raised dots) to divide the words-- that is word division was discarded by the Romans in deference to Greek aesthetic and cultural traditions. As already mentioned, readers would sometimes add detailed punctuation to texts as a guide to syntax and breath pauses, yet the punctuation does not become more complex over time: In general the deliberate scribal practice was to copy only the bare-bones punctuation of major points of division even when detailed punctuation was available. Strict functionality, clearly, is not a priority in bookroll design. The bookroll seems, rather an egregiously elite product intended in its stark beauty and difficulty of access to instantiate what it is to be educated." (Johnson, "The Ancient Book," The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, Bagnall (ed) [2009] 261-63).

It is understood that in the ancient world all reading was typically done aloud, either to oneself or to others. This process is believed to have continued until well after the transition from the roll to the codex, and after the decline of the Roman Empire, to around the fifth century CE, after which the rise of monasticism, with its ideal of silence, and the introduction of word spacing, gradually caused the preference for silent reading which we know today. Parallel to reading aloud, scholars have debated whether scribal book production in the ancient world and the Middle Ages was done from visual exemplars or from dictation, or both. 2.B.3. See Skeat, "The Use of Dictation in Ancient Book-Production," Proceedings of the British Academy 42 (1956) 11. By reading aloud the sound of the words compensated for lack of punctuation and word-division. In this early period literacy was, of course, limited to only a small portion of society, and the oral tradition, with its mnemonic devices built in, would have continued both in the recitation of literature that had not been put in writing, and in customs of listening to written literature read aloud, which would have been maintained partly out of tradition, and partly because of the high cost and scarcity of books, and partly out of necessity. In his classic study Harris estimated literacy at 10-15% in the overall Roman Empire, assuming that literacy would have been higher in some localities depending upon local education systems, and lower in others. In the western provinces he doubted that literacy reached 5-10%. Because of the difficulties in defining literacy, and the enormous variations it entails, influenced by educational systems, geography, and economics, among other factors, these general quantifications should be taken chiefly to reflect the minorities in the populations that would have been directly involved with reading and writing. 2.B.4 Harris, Ancient Literacy (1989) 272. We might add that the peculiar difficulties that had to be surmounted in reading early manuscripts would more than likely have contributed to lower literacy rates:

"Finally it should be emphasized that the text as arranged on the papyrus was much harder for the reader to interpret than in any modern book. Punctuation was usually rudimentary at best. Texts were written without word-division, and it was not until the middle ages that a real effort was made to alter this convention in Greek or Latin texts (in a few Latin texts of the classical period a point is placed after each word). The system of accentuation, which might have compensated for this difficulty in Greek, was not invented until the Hellenistic period, and for a long time after its invention it was not universally used; here again it is not until the early middle ages that the writing of accents becomes normal practice. In dramatic texts throughout antiquity changes of speaker were not indicated with the precision now thought necessary; it was enought to write a horizontal stroke at the beginning of line, or two points one above the other, like the modern English colon, for changes elsewhere; the names of the characters were frequently omitted. . . . Another and perhaps even stranger feature of books in the pre-Hellenistic period is that lyric verse was written as if it were prose; the fourth-century papyrus of Timotheus (P. Berol. 9875) is an instance, and even without this valuable document the fact could have been inferred from the tradition that Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 257-180 BCE) devised the colometry which makes clear the metrical units of the poetry (Dion. Hal. de comp.verb. 156, 221). It is to be noted that the difficulties facing the reader of an ancient book were equally troublesome to the man who wished to transcribe his own copy. The risk of misinterpretation and consequent corruption of the text in this period is not to be underestimated. It is certain that a high proportion of the most serious corruptions in classical texts go back to this period and were already widely current in the books that eventually entered the library of the Museum of Alexandria" (Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 3rd ed. [1991] 4-5).

Herodotus, who wrote circa 450-420 BCE, expected his Histories to be read aloud. He began his Histories with a sentence that has been translated in various ways: "Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time." Another translation reads, "What follows is a performance of the enquiries of Herodotus from Halicarnassus." According to The Landmark Herodotus, Strassler (ed) (2007) 3, Proem.b, from which the second translation was taken, "This almost certainly implies that Herodotus performed (read aloud) his text, in whole or in part, to an audience gathered to hear him." Whether or not Herodotus himself "performed" his text, it is reasonable to assume that since all reading was done aloud at this time Herodotus would have expected his Histories to be read aloud in both private and public readings. Such public readings could have been appropriately characterized as performances.

In this transitional period in which oral and written cultures overlapped, it is believed that Herodotus relied primarily on oral sources and oral tradition for his Histories. He cites short inscriptions or epigrams mainly as illustrations of his narrative rather than the basis for his narrative. 2.B.5 Thomas, Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens (1989) 4. It is also increasingly agreed by scholars that Thucydides, who followed almost immediately after Herodotus, also relied primarily on oral sources, providing summaries of speeches, rather than actual transcriptions of what was said, throughout his history, and citing contemporary documents, chiefly point by point citations of treaties, only in Book Five. Even by the late fifth and early fourth centuries BCE, when both Herodotus and Thucydides wrote, much of the literary activity, knowledge and discussion in Greece seems to have been based upon oral communication rather than books, though books were available. It seems that during this period written texts were often viewed as aids to memory rather than the primary object of study. 2.B.6 Thomas, op. cit., 21. " . . . Herodotus knew that writing was full of ambiguities. Since a written document could not be cross-examined as a speaking person could, it might be used not to inform but to deceive. Themistocles, the Athenian general who led the resistance to the invasion of Xerxes. knew this too. Both sides in the war were vying for the help of the Ionians, descendants of Greek settlers who had colonized the Aegean islands and the adjacent mainland coastal areas of present-day Turkey. Most Ionians sided with the Persians, their powerful near-neighbours, but the Greeks sought their aid on the grounds of common ancestry. Themistocles used the ambiguity of writing to enlist their help, or at least to minimize the potential harm they might do to the Greek cause. He sent men to the 'drinkable-water places' where Ionian ships put in for resupply, and he had them cut written messages into the rocks there, urging the Ionians to abandon Xerxes and join the Greek side. His plan was clever: either the Ionians who read the messages would be persuaded to rebel against the Persians, he reasoned, or Xerxes himself would see the messages and distrust his allies, withholding them from the order of battle (8.22). As it happened, only a few Ionians defected to the Greeks (see 8.85), but a more important point had been made: writing could send a deliberately confusing message as well as a direct one. Writing was not always so straightforward as it appeared to be. "Writing could also be useful for sending messages in secret, and Herodotus provided several examples of how written records promoted secrecy. There was a danger in committing anything to writing since, if the document were intercepted, secrecy would be lost. Histiaeus, who had been made Despot of Miletus by Darius, learned this lesson when he sought through secret messages to stir up a revolt against his benefactor. The King's brother intercepted these letters, read them, and then sent them on to their original destination, having meanwhile profited from knowing what plans were afoot. When the revolt came, the loyal forces 'killed a great number ... when they were thus revealed' (6.4). Still, writing out a message and smuggling it to a confederate could be safer than entrusting it orally to a messenger, who could be bribed or tortured into talking if apprehended. Because of the possibility of such discovery, special care was needed over secret communications, and Herodotus found several instances of such security precautions. "These stories present the historian at his anecdotal best, and we may well doubt whether any of them actually happened. Their very dramatic content, however, highlights the problem Socrates complained of; namely, writing drifting 'all over the place' and getting into the wrong hands. In one case, a Mede named Harpagus plotted with Cyrus to overthrow the King and install the young man in his place. 'Because the roads were guarded,' a secret message had to be smuggled through by some 'contrivance.' Harpagus took a hare and split open its belly, leaving the fur intact. Next, he inserted "a paper on which he wrote what he wanted," stitched the animal back together, and entrusted it to a servant, disguised as an innocuous huntsman. The servant made it past the guards along the road and delivered the message to its intended recipient (1.123; the text of the message itself is at 1.124)" (O'Toole, "Herodotus and the Written Record," Archivaria 33 (1991-92) 153-54).

Besides bookrolls on papyrus, Athenians maintained a wide variety of written records on wood tablets, lead tablets, bronze tablets, wooden boards, and stone inscriptions. 2.B.7 For illustrations of a wide variety of Greek papyri and other writing forms see Turner, Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World (1971), including as plate 4 a single leaf of a wooden tablet filled with wax.  Apart from stone inscriptions, few examples of these media surivived. Dramatic exceptions to this overall lack of early Greek books and archival data are the Archives of the Athenian Cavalry from the fourth and and third centuries BCE preserved on lead tablets. 2.B.8For the role of horses in ancient Greek life, and the place of the Athenian Cavalry in Greek Culture see Camp, Horses and Horsemanship in the Athenian Agora (1998). This archive was excavated in 1965 from a water well within the courtyard of the Dipylon, the double-gate leading into the city of Athens from the north. It included 574 lead tablets from the third century BCE. 2.B.9 The pottery and lead tablets excavated from the Dipylon were described by Karin Braun in "Der Dipylon-Brunnen B1 Die Funde," Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts Athenische Abteilung, Band 85 (1970 129-269, plates 53-94. The lead tablets are illustrated on plates 83-93. Six years later another hundred or so lead tablets from the fourth and third centuries BCE were excavated from a well at the edge of the excavated section of the Agora in Athens. Historian of ancient archives Ernest Posner characterized these as "by far the largest name file of ancient times. Tightly rolled or folded up, they contain the following information: the name in the genitive of the owner of a horse; the horse's color and brand, if any; and its value stated in drachmas, with 1,200 drachmas as the highest valuation given. Normally, only the name of the owner appears on the outside; the other data is relegated to the interior of the tablet and could not be read unless the tablet was unrolled or unfolded. A number of tablets are palimpsests; that is, the original entries were erased and replaced by new data." 2.B.10. Posner, "The Athenian Cavalry Archives of the Fourth and Third Centures B.C.", The American Archivist (1974) 579-82. From the extensive information available, John H. Kroll, author of the primary paper on the 1971 excavation, developed a theory of the purposes and operation of the Athenian Cavalry Archives. 2.B.11 Here is a portion of Kroll's theory: "The continual turnover of the horses explains, I think, why the records of the horses' values were kept as they were-individually on lead tablets. Official annual records at Athens were normally kept in list form on papyrus or whitened boards. But since a cavalryman was likely to have changed his horse at any time in the course of a year, a more flexible system of records was called for-the equivalent of the modern card-file system-whereby the record of a given horse could be pulled out and replaced if the horse itself was replaced. For such individual records, lead had obvious advantages over paper or wood, and, becatuse it was cheap and could be erased and re-used repeatedly, it would have been less costly in the long run. The re-use of the tablets, incidently, must surely be a factor in the low survival rate of tablets in most series and the loss of other entire series. There is one other respect in which the tablets stand apart from most annual records. I assume that they were rolled or folded simply to facilitate storage and not because the evaluations they contain were to be kept secret. But the fact that they were folded or rolled up, many of them as tightly as they could be, indicates that no one expected them to be referred to on a regular basis. Indeed, since all of the unbroken tablets were recovered from the Kerameikos and Agora wells in their original folded or rolled state, it appears doubtful that any of the extant tablets had ever been consulted. This of course does not mean that the evaluations were never consulted, merely that the records were made up annually and filed away to be consulted only in rare, though anticipated, cases. If the occasion did not arise in the course of the year, they expired, were replaced with the next year's evaluations, and were put aside, eventually to be erased and re-used" (Kroll, "An Archive of the Athenian Cavalry," Hesperia XLVI (1977) No. 2, 94-95). Kroll's extensive article occupies pp. 83-140 of the journal issue and includes numerous drawings and photographs. In his footnote no. 29 Kroll also commented on the use of lead for writing: "Lead seems to have been employed for writing in antiquity more commonly than is usually recognized. Because of its baseness and assumed affinities with the underworld, it was the standard medium for curse tablets (A. Audollent, Defixionum Tabellae, Paris 1904, pp. xlviii-xlix). Otherwise its cheapness, permanence, and ease of inscribing made it suitable for private papers (e. g., Plutarch, De mul. virt. 254 D; Frontinus, Strategemata III, 3. 7= Dio, XLVI. 36. 4; SIG3, 1259, 1260; G. R. Davidson and D. B. Thompson, Hesperia, Suppl. VII, Small Objects from the Pnyx: I, Cambridge, Mass. 1943, pp. 10-11, no. 17; Zeitschrift fir Papyrologie und Epigraphik 17, 1975, pp. 157-162), for the writing out of queries to the oracle at Dodona (H. W. Parke, The Oracles of Zeus, Oxford 1967, pp. 100-102, 126, note 18, 259-273), and for public documents, such as the 6th century B.C. records of loans from a temple archive at Corcyra (BSA 66, 1971, pp. 79-93). Pausanias (IX. 31. 4) saw a text of Hesiod on lead on Mt. Helikon. Unspecified public lead documents are mentioned by Pliny, Nat. Hist. XIII. 68-69, and " lead paper " (plumbea charta) by Suetonius, Nero. 20. H. A. Thompson has called my attention to a series of lead strips of the 8th century B.C. from central Anatolia inscribed with various official records and published by T. Ozgiic in Kultepe and its Vicinity in the Iron Age, Ankara 1971, pp. 111-116; reference is there made to similar lead plaques found at Assur (Bibliotheca Orientalis 8, 1951, pp. 126-133). An exhaustive account of Greek inscriptions on lead has been compiled by Anne P. Miller in her University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Ph. D. dissertation, " Studies in Early Sicilian Epigraphy: An Opisthographic Lead Tablet," 1973 (Xerox University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, no. 73-26, 213), to which I owe several of the above references. A new private letter on lead, of the early 4th century B.C., was found in the same well as the present cavalry tablets. . . ."

The persistent influence of the oral tradition is seen in fourth century Athens with their continuing reliance on witnesses for the oral validation of written contracts early in the fourth century, and the beginning phase out of oral witnesses to written contracts much later in the fourth century. Contracts were frequently written on wooden tablets.

"The written contract first appears in our evidence in the first decade of the fourth century (Isoc. Trapez. XVII 20) and more frequently thereafter. But not till much later in the fourth century do we find a written contract apparently made without witnesses (Hyp. Ag. Athenogenes, i.e. 320s). Before this, witnesses were present as well and they duplicated the proof of the written contract. As Pringsheim has put it: 'We are in a transitional stage in which documents did not yet replace attestation, but only helped to prove it'; and he recognizes that the oral agreement was still felt to be the important element of the contract" (Thomas, Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens [1989] 41).

Books do not seem to have become common in Athens until the first quarter of the fourth century. 2.B.12 Harris, op. cit., 323. In an era which so greatly valued memory, Plato, in his dialogue Phaedrus, written circa 380 BCE, provided one of the most eloquent and frequently quoted discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of writing. Notably, Plato's teacher Socrates (d. 399 BCE) taught for his entire life without writing, and it was left to Plato to record Socrates's teachings for the world. Thus the dialogues are a blend of Socratic and Platonic thought. In Phaedrus 274 Socrates says that "writing will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. . . ." He stated that writing represented "not truth but only the semblance of truth." Written words "seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent," the philosopher said, "but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you the same thing for ever." Even worse, once something is put in writing it "drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn't know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong." While documenting Socrates's viewpoint-- aspects of which may have been widely shared at the time -- Plato clearly recognized the importance of writing both for its mnemonic value, and for creating, preserving, and distributing complex expositions such as his dialogues. Works of such extreme literary elegance and subtlety could not have been preserved in a strictly oral culture. Plato and others in ancient Greece argued that all the sons and daughters of Greek citizens should receive education in letters; however, as far as we know, no city acted on this recommendation. 2.B.13Harris, op. cit.324.

". . .the reputation of the written word in classical Greece was by no means entirely positive. Even among the educated it often seems to have generated suspicion: Greeks quite frequently perceived letters and other documents as instruments of deceit. Together with the sort of reasoned criticism of the use of writing which is put foward in the Phaedrus (for which admittedly we have no close parallel), such views may have operated on a conscious or unconscious plane to inhibit the conversion away from oral culture" (Harris, Ancient Literacy [1989] 324-25).

(This section was last revised on August 21, 2011.)

back to top