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A: Altstadt, Mainz, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany

Trithemius Favors Vellum over Paper for Long Term Information Storage


Tritheim's De laude scriptorum from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

In his treatise De laude scriptorum (In Praise of Scribes) written in reaction to the information revolution caused by printing, and published as a printed book in 1494, Benedictine abbot Johannes Trithemius (Tritheim) advocated preserving the medieval tradition of manuscript copying in spite of the the advantages of printing for information distribution. He was well aware of these advantages since he exploited them to expand his abbey library after the invention of printing, and also because thirty printed editions of his own writings appeared during the 15th century.

In the context of the fifteenth century information revolution Tritheim is most remembered for questioning the durability of media used in long term information storage when he compared the known long-term durability of information written on traditional parchment, examples of which had already lasted over 700 years, with that written or printed on the newer and less proven medium of paper.

Tritheim wrote:

"Brothers, nobody should say or think: 'What is the sense of bothering with copyring by hand when the art of printing has brought to light so many important books; a huge library can be acquired inexpensively.' I tell you, the man who ways this only tries to conceal his own laziness.

"All of you know the difference between a manuscript and a printed book. The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper. How long will it last? The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years. Yet, there are many who think they can entrust their works to paper. Only time will tell.

"Yes, many books are now available in print but no matter how many books will be printed, there will always be some left unprinted and worth copying. No one will ever be able to locate and buy all printed books. . . ." (Translated in Tribble and Trubek eds., Writing Material: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age [2003]).

Taking an expansive view of libraries and the history of information, Tritheim also pointed out that all recorded information could never be published in print or collected in a single library. He also believed that in spite of the new technology it remained the responsibility of monks to continue to copy and preserve obscure texts which might not be economically viable to print. Working manually, the monks could produce copies of higher quality, or include decorative elements (ceteros librorum ornatus) not possible in a printed edition. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Tritheim's retrograde treatise which took issue with the new technology was not a best-seller. It underwent only one printed edition, from Mainz at the press of Peter von Friedberg, during the 15th century.

ISTC no. it00442000.  Wagner, Als die Lettern laufen lernten. Medienwandel im 15. Jahrhundert (2009) no. 32.

In November 2013 a digital facsimile was available from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek website at this link

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