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Materials For Writing, And Forms Of Books

( Originally Published 1893 )


PROBABLY the earliest efforts of the human race to record its thoughts and history were by scratching with some hard instrument on stone or bone. The permanence of the result has always made stone or metal a satisfactory substance to receive engraving, whether for sepulchral tablets, for some official records, such as State decrees, or for honorary inscriptions. Among obvious examples are the drawings of prehistoric man on the walls of caves, the Ten Commandments graven on stone, the Nicene Creed cut in silver by Pope Leo III.'s order (to fix the absolute form decreed by the second General Council), the Parian Chronicle, the Rosetta Stone, and tombs of all ages. It is on stone almost alone that we find in the early classical days of Rome the pure capital forms of letters, as on the tombs of the Scipios. And as material tends to act on style, and as curves are harder to grave than straight lines, writing on stone tends to discard the former and to encourage the latter, so that we find in such inscriptions a decided preference for angular forms of letters.

But another very early material for writing was the wood or bark of trees. It was easy to obtain, soft, and fairly durable. Three of our common terms are derived from the custom of cutting or scratching on wooden boards or bark, the Latin liber (a book, properly the bark of a tree, whence such words as library, libretto), the Latin codex (or caudex, a tree-stump, then sawn boards, then a book, now narrowed to a manuscript book ; compare codicil, a diminutive form), and perhaps the Teutonic word which appears in German as Buck and in English as book, meaning originally a beech tree and beechen boards.

Next we come to the substance which has given us much of the terminology of books. A common reed, chiefly found in Egypt, and known to the Greeks as (papuros), and to the Romans as papyrus, was discovered to be, when properly pre-pared, a facile and cheap material for writing. The inner rind was cut lengthways into thin strips (bubloi), and laid in order thus :

On this was glued, with the help of rich Nile water or other substance, another set of slips laid on the former transversely,thus: This cross-formed substance, properly pressed, hammered and dried, presented a smooth but soft receptive surface for ink, and was most extensively used in classical times until parchment competed with it, or, more accurately, till the export of papyrus began to fail. The papyrus, however, was not used in the form of our books, but as a long roll, with the writing in broad columns placed thus, the writing being represented by wavy lines :

Birt, in his book Das antike Buchwesen (1882), has endeavoured to prove that there was a normal length of about thirty-eight letters in each line, but the length of the entire roll might be anything up to 150 feet. There are also a face and a back to papyri, a right and a wrong side for writing. In the British Museum there is a papyrus roll containing, in Greek, the funeral oration of Hyperides on Leosthenes, B.C. 323 ; on the other side of this is a horoscope of a person born in A.D. 95. Naturally, for some time it was believed that the horoscope was casually inscribed on the back of the Hyperides ; but a closer examination has proved that the horoscope is on the face of the papyrus, and the Hyperides perhaps a school exercise accidentally entered on the back. So that A.D. 95 is not the terminus ad quem of the date, but the terminus a quo.

Unfortunately, of all possible materials for permanent record, papyrus is among the worst. Even when first written on, it must have seemed ominous that a heavy stroke was wont to pierce and scratch the smooth surface ; so much so that in all papyrus records the writing is along the line of the uppermost layers or strips (not across them), and is also of necessity light, and hardly distinguishable into up and down strokes. This foreshadowed the time when, on the complete drying of the substance in course of years, the residuum would be fragile, friable, and almost as brittle as dead leaves. Every papyrus that comes into a library should therefore be at once placed between two sheets of glass, to prevent, as far as possible, any further disintegration.

The terms used in connexion with writing in Greek, Latin and English are chiefly derived from the rolls of papyrus. Let us begin with two words which have had an interesting history. Our `paper' is derived from the Greek (through the Latin papyrus), explained above as the name of an Egyptian reed. Thence it carne to mean the papyrus as prepared to receive writing. How then has paper, which has always been made out of rags, usurped the name without taking over the material ? Simply because the term came to signify whatever substance was commonly employed for writing ; so when papyrus was disused (the latest date of its systematic use is the eleventh century), a material formed of rags was beginning to be known, and carried on, so to speak, the term. The Latin charta (paper) has had a partly similar history, for when first found it is applied to papyrus as distinguished from parchment.

Still more interesting is the word Bible. (bubloi) was the Greek term for the strips of the inner part of papyrus. Then the book formed of papyrus began to be called (biblos) and (biblion, a diminutive form). The Romans took over the second word, but chiefly used it in the plural, biblia, which came later to be regarded as a feminine singular, as if its genitive were biblia and not bibliorum. Lastly, the word became specially and exclusively applied to The Book, the Bible, and as such has passed into English. Other terms which recall the days of papyrus are volume (Latin volumen, ` a thing rolled up,' from volvo, I roll ; corresponding to the Greek kulindros), the long stretch of papyrus rolled up for putting away ; the Latin term evolvere, to unroll, in the sense of ` to read ' a book ; and the common word explicit, equivalent to ` the end,' but properly meaning' unrolled ' (' explicitus '), the end of the roll having been reached. So, too, the custom of writing on parchment with three or even four columns to a single page, as may be seen in our most ancient Greek MSS. of the New Testament, is probably a survival of the parallel columns of writing found on papyri.

We next come to the most satisfactory material ever discovered for purposes of writing and illumination, tough enough for preservation to immemorial

It will be observed that ' explicit ' is a vox nihili, and can only be properly explained as a contraction of ' explicit(us) ' est liber, the book ' is unrolled to the end.' The corresponding term is incipit, ' here begins,' which is a good Latin word time, hard enough to bear thick strokes of pen or brush without the surface giving way, and yet fine enough for the most delicate ornamentation. Parchment is the prepared skin of animals, especially of the sheep and calf ; the finer quality derived from the calf being properly vellum, and if from the skin of an abortive calf, uterine vellum, the whitest and thinnest kind known, employed chiefly for elaborate miniatures. Parchment has neither the fragile surface of papyrus nor the coarseness of medieval paper, and has therefore long enjoyed the favour of writers. Its only disadvantages in medieval times were its comparative costliness and its thickness and weight, but neither of these was a formidable obstacle to its use. The name of this substance contains its history. In the first half of the second century before Christ, Eumenes II., King of Pergamum, found himself debarred, through some jealousy of the Ptolemies, from obtaining a sufficient supply of papyrus from Egypt. From necessity he had recourse to an ancient custom of preparing skins for the reception of writing by washing, dressing and rubbing them smooth ; probably adding some new appliances, by which his process became so famous that the material itself was called ; in Latin, Pergamena, ` stuff prepared at Pergamum,' whence the English word parchment. Both parchment and paper have had less effect than stone or papyrus on styles of writing, because both are adapted to receive almost any stroke of the pen. They have rather allowed styles to develop themselves naturally, and are specially favourable to flowing curves, which are as easy as they are graceful in human penmanship.

Paper has for long been the common substance for miscellaneous purposes of ordinary writing, and has till recent .times been formed solely from rags (chiefly of linen), reduced to a pulp, poured out on a frame in a thin watery sheet, and gradually dried and given consistence by the action of heat. It has been a popular belief, found in every book till 1886 (now entirely disproved, but probably destined to die hard), that the common yellowish thick paper, with rough fibrous edge, found especially in Greek MSS. till the fifteenth century, was paper of quite another sort, and made of cotton (charta bomb˙cďna, bombyx being usually silk, but also used of any fine fibre such as cotton). The microscope has at last conclusively shown that these two sorts are simply two different kinds of ordinary linen-rag paper.

A few facts about the dates at which papyrus, parchment and paper are found may be inserted here. The use of papyrus in Egypt is of great antiquity, and the earliest Greek and Latin MSS. we possess are on papyrus ; in the case of Greek of the fourth century B.C., in Latin of the first century A.D. It was freely exported to Greece and Rome, and, though it gradually gave way before parchment for the finest books, from the first century B.C. onwards, it was not till the tenth century A.D. that in Egypt itself its use was abandoned. Practically in about A.D. 935 its fabrication ceased, although for Pontifical Bulls it was invariably used till A.D. 1022, and occasionally till 1050. Parchment has also been used from the earliest times ; and its use was revived, as we have seen, in the second century before Christ, and lasted till the invention of printing, after which it was reserved for sumptuous editions, and for legal and other durable records. Paper was first manufactured (outside China) at Samarkand in Turkestan in about A.D. 750 ; and even in Spain, where first it obtained a footing in Europe (in the tenth century), it was imported from the East, not being manufactured in the West till the twelfth century ; but from that time its use spread rapidly. In England there was a paper-mill owned by John Tate in 1495, when Bartholomćus Glanville's De proprietatibus rerum was issued on native paper. Watermarks in paper (see p. 16) are entirely a Western invention, found first towards the end of the thirteenth century, and never found at all in Oriental paper.

Besides stone, papyrus, parchment, and paper, the materials used for writing, though numerous, are rather curious than important. Tablets of wood, hinged like a book and covered with wax, on which letters were scratched with a small pointed metal rod (stilus, whence our words style, stiletto, etc.), were common at Rome in classical and later times, and are believed to have suggested the form of our ordinary books. For private accounts and notes these wax tablets are said to have been in use in Western Europe until the time of printing. Various metals, especially lead, have been made use of to bear writing ; and also bones (in prehistoric times), clay inscribed when soft and then baked (as in Assyria), potsherds (ostraka), leaves, and the like.

B.—Forms of Books

We now come to the forms of books—the way in which they are made up. In the case of papyrus, as has already been observed, we almost always find the roll-form. The long strip was, of course, rolled round a round rod or two rods (one at each end) when not in use, much as a wall-map is at the present day. With parchment the case has been different. Though in classical times in Rome, so far as can be judged, the roll-form was still in ordinary use even when parchment was the material, and though, in the form of court-rolls, pedigrees, and many legal kinds of record, we are still familiar with the appearance of a roll, the tendency of writers on parchment has been to prefer and perpetuate the form of book best known at the present day, in which pages are turned over by the reader, and no membranes unrolled.

The normal formation of a parchment book in the Middle Ages was this :—four pieces of parchment, each roughly about 10 inches high and r8 inches broad, were taken and were folded once across, so that each piece formed four pages (two leaves) as a basis for making a quarto volume. These pieces were then fitted one inside another, so that the first piece formed the 1st and 8th leaves, the second the 2nd and 7th, the third the 3rd and 6th, and the fourth the two middle leaves of a complete section of eight leaves or sixteen pages, termed technically in Latin a quaternio, because made of four (quatuor) pieces of parchment. When a sufficient number of quaternions were thus formed to contain the projected book, they were sent in to the scribe for writing on, and were eventually bound. Many variations of form, both smaller and larger than quarto, are found, and often more or fewer pieces than four make up the section or quire.

Paper was essentially different from parchment, in that it could be made of larger size and folded smaller ; whereas the cost of skins was almost prohibitive, if very large and fine pieces were required. As a fact, paper has almost always been used in book and not roll-form. The normal formation of paper-books has been this :— a piece about 12 inches high by 16 inches wide was regarded as a standard size. This was folded across along the dotted line a b, and if this singly-folded sheet was regarded as the basis of a section, and the whole book was made up of a set of these sections, it was called a folio book ; if, however, the singly-folded sheet was folded again across the dotted line c d, and this was treated as a section (containing four leaves or eight pages), the book made up of such sections was called a quarto. Once more, if the doubly-folded sheet was again folded along the dotted line e f, and this trebly-folded sheet was treated as a section (containing eight leaves or sixteen pages), the book was called an octavo. The methods of folding the sheet so as to pro-duce a duodecimo, a 16mo, etc., and the use of half-sheets to form sections, are matters which concern printing rather than writing. But it should be clearly understood that, whereas we now mean by a folio a tall narrow book, by a quarto a shorter broad book, and by an octavo a short narrow book, judging by size and shape ; in the earlier days of paper, these terms indicated, not size or even shape, but form, that is to say, the way in which the sheets of paper were folded up to form sections ; and that it is only owing to the fact that a certain size of paper was generally adopted as a standard that the terms came to have their modern signification. So true is this, that some early folios are quite small, and many quartos larger or smaller than what we call quarto. But there is one infallible test of a true folio, quarto, or octavo. Observe the diamond on the figures on pp. 15-16, and the lines drawn across them. The diamond represents the watermark, a trade design (such as a jug, a unicorn, a pair of scissors, etc.) inserted by the maker in every sheet, and the lines are ` chain-lines,' the marks where the wire frames supported the half liquid paper-sheet as it gathered consistency by being dried. The position of the watermark and the direction of the chain-lines were fortunately invariable, and therefore (as may be easily seen by a paper model) every true folio has the watermark in the centre of a page and the chain-lines perpendicular ; every quarto has the watermark in the centre of the back, not easy to see, and the lines horizontal ; and every octavo has a watermark at the top of the back at the inner edge, and the lines perpendicular. These points are not necessarily true of modern books.

C.—Instruments and Ink

On this subject few words are necessary. For hard substances and for wax and clay, a graving tool or pointed metal rod is necessary ; for papyrus and parchment and paper, a pen. Pens have till modern times always been of one of two kinds, either made of a reed (calamus, arundo, a reed-pen), or made of a quill, usually from a bird's feather (penna, a quill-pen). The latter appears to be the later in invention, but is found as early as the sixth century of our era.

Ink (atramentum) has hardly varied in composition from the earliest times, having been always formed in one of two ways : either, as was the common practice in classical times, by a mixture of soot with gum and water, which produces a black lustrous ink, but is without much difficulty removed with a sponge ; or by galls (gallic acid) with sulphate of iron and gum, which is the modern method, though also so ancient as to be found on the Herculanean rolls. At Pompeii ink of this kind was found still liquid after seventeen centuries of quiescence. The chief coloured inks known to antiquity were red, purple, green, and yellow : gold and silver liquids were sometimes used, especially when the parchment had been stained purple to enhance the effect. For the colours used in illumination, Chapter V. may be consulted.

So far we have been concerned with passive sub-stances prepared and presented to the scribe, to become instinct with life when the message of the author is consigned to the expectant page. Our next chapters will naturally treat of the writing itself, and of scribes and their ways, the living elements in a book.

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