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

2.A. Introduction

Before the current transition from nearly exclusively print to a combination of print and digital, and before the transition from manuscript copying to print that began in the mid-fifteenth century, there were several earlier phases in the development of the book. These were periods of innovation and change, of social and cultural transformation, but they were also times in which to a large extent the status quo in form and function of the book was maintained. Because of the durability of books and the persistence of prior technologies, educated people who lived in each of these phases, and had access to books and libraries, might have had opportunities to use both new and old media, the older media remaining functional in spite of their sometimes venerable age, and their survival either as the result of responsible care or in spite of the ravages of war, fire, or neglect. The persistent usefulness of prior media, and possible resistance to the new, caused these periods of transition to extend for a century or more before new media noticeably replaced the old. For those adopting the new there was the possibility of perceiving prior media as obsolete. Opportunities to preserve the record stored in prior media could, of course, be counterbalanced by the inclination to replace the old with the new and improved. For this reason phases in the form and function of the book before Gutenberg were periods of gradual innovation, in which old records perceived as significant tended to be recopied in new media, frequently undergoing change in the process. Sometimes transitional phases were also periods of destruction of records in earlier media, if those were viewed as obsolete or redundant.

A Gerzan potsherd.A Gerzan potsherd.

In Western civilization writing began as a system of pictographs created by the Sumerians about 3000 BCE, with predecessors reaching to the late 4th millennium, or about the period of Uruk IV; 3300-3100 BCE. These pictographs were written with styli on tablets of soft clay. Around or prior to those dates Egyptian hieroglyphs may have evolved from symbols drawn on pottery produced by the Gerzean culture in Egypt (circa 3,600-3,200 BCE). The pith of the papyrus plant, varieties of which were grown in many parts of Africa, but especially along the Nile River, was used in Egypt as far back as the First Dynasty (circa 3,100 to 2,980 BCE) for boats, mattresses, mats and as a writing surface. The Egyptian word papyrus, meaning "that of the king," may indicate a Pharonic monopoly during this period. Writing in cuneiform script in Mesopotamia, and hieratic and hieroglyph writing in Egypt, seem to have developed roughly simultaneously, with some of the earliest Egyptian hieroglyphs surviving on relief sculpture (circa 3,200 BCE). The earliest surviving documents written on papyrus include the Prisse Papyrus, the Berlin Papyrus 6619, and the Ramesseum Papyrus, all circa 2,000 BCE.

Babylonian tablet Plimpton 322, one of the earliest mathematicals tables.

The durability of clay tablets buried in underground ruins of Mesopotamia resulted in the survival of remarkably large quantities of business and archival records, the survival of brief mathematical documents, including some of the earliest mathematical tables, and in the survival of some of the earliest western literature. Using the hundreds of thousands of surviving cuneiform tablets and fragments, scholars at the University of Chicago completed in April 2011 twenty-first and final volume of The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. This massive undertaking began in the early 1920s. It defines 28,000 words in their context and their various shades of meaning from the first writing system in the earliest urban and literate civilization, the city-states that arose in the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys, mainly in what is present-day Iraq and parts of Syria, from 2500 BCE to 100 CE. The most complete and "standard" version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of literary fiction, was written in standard Babylonian, sometime between 1300 and 1000 BCE. The Epic was recorded on twelve cuneiform tablets, which were among about twelve hundred tablets from the library of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria in the mid-seventh centurh BCE, discovered in Nineveh by British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard  in 1849, and preserved in the British Museum. The deciphering of the twelve tablets in 1872 caused this epic to be rediscovered by the world. Chiefly because of the durability of the clay tablets, a sufficient percentage of the library of Ashurbanipal survived for it to be considered the earliest systematically collected library as distinct from an archive. Originally it is thought to have consisted of 20,000-30,000 clay tablets. Ironically, it is believed that at least 13% of Ashurbanipal's library survived to the present because the clay tablets were baked in fires set during the Median sack of Nineveh in 612 BCE! This and the library of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum preserved in lava after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, are the only libraries of which I am aware that were ever preserved, rather than destroyed, as the result of fire!

Though a significant percentage of the clay tablets in Assurbanipal's library survived by burning, non-ceramic elements of his records were lost. Bas-reliefs at Assurbanipal's Southwest Palace in Nineveh show scribes with writing-boards and scrolls. 2.A.1 The bas reliefs depicting the scribes are in room XVIII, panels 9-11, middle register (BM ANE 123955-7), and court XIX, panel 12 (BM ANE 123825). None of these were thought to have survived from ancient Assyria until sixteen ivory and wood writing boards were excavated in 1953 from a well in the "North-West" Palace of Ashurnasirpal in Nimrud. These boards, which were joined together to form a polyptych, contain residual amounts of wax in which cuneiform letters were inscribed.2.A.2 Wiseman, "Assyrian Writing-Boards," Iraq XVII (1955) 3-13.

Perhaps as many as one to one and a half million papyrus fragments, of which most are routine records of business or government, have been excavated from the dry sands of Egypt; nevertheless, only a small percentage of information from the ancient world that was originally recorded seems to have survived. One estimate of the percentage of classical literature that survived through the Middle Ages to the present is 10%. Because papyrus was relatively expensive, and valued for its permanence for archival records and books that were intended to last, whatever information that was recorded on it may have been a fraction of the information that was written down on less expensive media that were understood to be less permanent, such as ostraka (potsherds), or thin pieces of wood or bark such as have been excavated at the fort of Vindolanda built in Roman Britain, at the most remote reaches of the Roman Empire, where presumably papyrus was scarce. Some of the most widely used media for everyday writing were wooden tablets, which when coated with wax inscribed with a stylus, could be used for notes and erased, but which were also used in ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire for legal or financial records intended to last. Loss of preserved and organized information, through the fabled destruction from uncertain causes, of possibly tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of rolls in the Royal Library of Alexandria, the Library of Pergamum, the Serapeum of Alexandria, later institutional libraries, archives and private libraries, was not necessarily for lack of durability of the media. Papyrus had a useful life of hundreds of years, and continued to be used to a limited extent into the Middle Ages.

The difficulty of arriving at accurate estimates seems to have fueled speculation rather than restraint regarding the amount of information that may have been lost from the ancient world. Estimates of the number of papyrus rolls held by the famous ancient libraries vary widely. Unfortunately there is no way to estimate accurately how many rolls might have been stored in any of the ancient institutional libraries. Furthermore, the Library of Alexandria presumably preserved literary, philosophical and scientific works rather than business or archival records. If so, its holdings might have been significantly smaller than some guesstimates. As for the causes of the loss of so much information, papyrus is preserved best in a dry climate, and it has been suggested that the humidity of the port of Alexandria may have contributed to its decay. It has also been pointed out that another cause of the loss of ancient papyrus rolls which might have survived into the Middle Ages, as well as a cause of the loss of medieval papyrus codices, was deterioration in the damp European climates. Besides the issues of permanence of the storage medium and the climate, other factors were inevitably involved, including the usual suspects: war, fire, politics, religious bias, natural disasters and plain neglect. Perceived obsolescence was probably also a reason for the destruction of papyri. In libraries like the Imperial Library of Constantinople ancient papyrus rolls, including some from Alexandria, written in the difficult to read majuscule in scriptio continua, without word spacing or punctuation, might have been discarded after their texts were copied in the new, more legible minuscule onto more permanent parchment codices beginning in the mid-eighth century. What percentage of the texts preserved in the Royal Library of Alexandria might have been copied centuries later, and preserved in the Imperial Library of Constantinople, will, unfortunately, never be known, because of the loss of inventories of both libraries. For the many other libraries and archives that were lost over the millenia, or which only partially survived, specific causes for loss, and accurate knowledge of what books or records were actually lost, may remain unavailable if inventories and other pertinent records were also lost with the passage of time.

". . . papyrus books and documents had in ancient and medieval times a usable life of hundreds of years. Aristotle's manuscripts, many of them in bad condition through neglect, were part of the loot taken by Sulla to Rome, where they were edited by Andronicus of Rhodes some 250 years after they were written. Pliny tells of seeing papyrus documents 100 and 200 years old. Searching in books 300 years old is mentioned by Galen. Cardinal Deusdedit, working the papal archives c. 1085, consulted papyrus rolls of the Lateran library going back by his specific citation to c. 1000 and by inference to c. 950. In 1192 the papal chamberlain Cencius searched 'in thomis charticiniis et voluminibus regestorum antiquorum pontificum', which included archives of the period 600-1000. Papal documents up to 330 years old were handled in AD 1213, and there are references in the fourteenth century to documents contained in volumes (papyrus rolls) of the fifth to tenth centuries. The historian Tristano Calchi, working in Milan c. 1500, refers to a papyrus document of the reign of Odoacer (476-93). Among extant examples may be noted a Pindar volume of the late first or early second century that is patched on the back with strips of papyrus bearing writing of the third or fourth century A.D.; a Gospel manuscript of c. 200 with marginalia of c. 400; a roll that was first written on in the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211) then made into a codex and reused in the fifth century; and a document written in Paris at the end of the eleventh century on the verso of a testament of c. 690. "From all of the above it seems fair to conclude that the papyrus produced by the ancient factories had, and retained for years and years, the following qualities; it was white (or slightly coloured. . . .) flexible, and durable, and its surface was shiny and smooth. It was not for lack of these qualities that papyrus gave to parchment and paper, but because these other materials were better able, with the passage of time, to meet the needs and conditions of different times and places for carrying the written and eventually the printed word" (Lewis, Papyrus in Classical Antiquity [1974] 60-61). 2.A.3."For more information on papyrus see Turner, Greek Papyri: An Introduction (1968) and Parkinson & Quirke, Papyrus (1995). See also Bertelli, "The Production and Distribution of Books in Late Antiquity," The Sixth Century: Production, Distribution and Demand, eds Hodges & Bowden (1998) 41-60. (This section was last revised on August 21, 2011.)

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