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Papyrus Rolls and Documents Had a Usable Life of Hundreds of Years

Circa 400 CE
Lewis Papyrus in Classical Antiquity dust jacket
Creative Commons LicenseJeremy Norman Collection of Images - Creative Commons

". . . 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 [Calcho] 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 way 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).

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