Writing Materials: The Politics and Preservation of Knowledge

Bonnie Effros

“The library of the future must also be a place that will preserve the knowledge and understanding of written culture in the forms that were and still are today, very much its own.” —Roger Chartier


Just as it is very challenging to communicate to those around us without gestures or spoken language, it is difficult to convey thoughts and desires in a more lasting manner (or to those at a distance) without either the written word or pictorial representation.[1] In Europe as early as the Renaissance, scholars pondered the origins of language as intimately tied to writing symbols. They believed themselves a part of a grand cultural tradition that traced back to classical antiquity, and linked their own achievements with those of the ancient Greeks and Romans.[2]

Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), a humanist philosopher in Italy, elevated the achievements of the ancient Greeks over those of all earlier civilizations because he believed they were the first to master alphabetic writing. In his view, mastery of writing in words as opposed to the hieroglyphic symbols of the Egyptians, freed Greek citizens from having to rely on priests or aristocrats. Rather than a “secret language” like cuneiform or hieroglyphs, what Vico described as “vulgar writing” was a key ingredient in the origin of democracy in classical Greece. From his perspective, alphabetic writing stripped figures and signs of their mysteries and gave people equal access to knowledge of truth. Letters made it possible for a greater number of people to learn to read, which, in turn, was intimately connected to their ability to participate in both religious worship and government in a direct and personal manner.[3]

Rosetta Stone
Figure 10.1 In 1799, a French soldier during the Napoleonic invasion rediscovered the Rosetta Stone (196 BCE) in the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta. When the British navy defeated the French in 1801, they took it to the British Museum in London where it remains today. In 1822, the French scholar, Jean-François Champollion, succeeded in translating the decree issued by Ptolemy V transcribed in three languages on the Rosetta Stone. He was able to decipher the hieroglyphs and demotic Egyptian in the top two registers of the inscription with the help of the Greek in the lowest register. [Wikimedia Commons.]

Although the transition to an alphabetic system was an important step in the development of written language, we now recognize the problematic implications of Vico’s Eurocentric perspective: it was based on his implicit assumption that all parts of the world were inferior to those that followed the European tradition. We can alter his observation in several ways to make it more accurate and helpful to our purposes here. First, we can point to other languages that made the transition to alphabetic systems in antiquity, including among them the Ge’ez or Ethiopic syllabic alphabet used from the 4th century BCE, the Brahmi writing system of South Asia seen as early as the 3rd century BCE (a forerunner to Sanskrit), and the Tifinagh or Libyc syllabic alphabet used in the Maghreb (North Africa) from some time in the 2nd millennium BCE. Second, we can suggest that alphabets were never a guarantee that large numbers of people could read them; literacy rates depend far more on access to education than the expressive format of any particular language. We can also look to China, for instance, where millions have mastered the ability to read using the character system despite its evident challenges (yet recognize that this influential system was modified in Japan and later Korea so as to be more accessible). Finally, we can underline the fact that Greek democracy no longer seems as enviable as it was to Vico, since it only allowed elite men (and not women, the non-free, and non-Greeks) to vote (and read) rather than a broader sector of the population. That being said, the development of alphabets indeed made the process of learning to read and write more efficient by decreasing the number of symbols that it was necessary to memorize.

Back in Europe in the decades prior to the French Revolution, Enlightenment thinkers continued to wrestle with the significance of language in social and political development. However, they now placed greater worth on reason and individual thinking than on ancient tradition, as had been the case during the Renaissance. The philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet (1743–1794) pointed to the positive social good brought by recent inventions such as the printing press. Condorcet believed that the limitless reproduction of texts afforded by moveable print was key to the success of democracy, which he experienced firsthand as a delegate to the National Assembly at the start of the French Revolution. In fact, he credited this technological achievement with greater access to justice in human society. In his view, the proliferation of the written word broke the Church’s monopoly over knowledge by allowing more individuals access to texts which they could read and judge for themselves.[4]

Ornate manuscript page with two columns of text starting with red, blue, and gold embellished text
Figure 10.2 This opening page of the Gutenberg Bible at the University of Texas (Hubay 39) contains Saint Jerome’s introduction. One of the earliest printed books in Europe, the style imitates a medieval manuscript with historiated initials, illustrations and double columns of Latin text on a single leaf. Unlike a hand-copied manuscript, it could be reproduced multiple times once the type had been set. [Johannes Gutenberg (1454-56), University of Texas Harry Ransom Center.]

Those among you who love numbers will be pleased to learn that Condorcet identified mathematics as the most universal and most perfect form of language. He viewed numbers and formulas as a highly developed alphabet and form of communication. Since most women and the poorer classes of his day had insufficient education to participate in this dialogue, Condorcet believed that improved schooling was essential to a just society.

These century-old debates about the origins of language—and the direct connection between the written word and participatory democracy— may seem part of the distant past to many of us. Yet, they are relevant because they offer unique perspectives on the challenges and opportunities of the digital revolution and recent innovations in magnetic storage. These early modern examples offer a historical comparison that gives us a basis for measuring the impact of writing materials on society. They allow us to ask if technological innovations like the internet and the ability to store ever-increasing amounts of data are actually making us more knowledgeable and improving the quality of our lives. They also give us the chance to consider whether the cost of entry (access to a computer or lack of education) excludes people who might benefit from this information.

Understanding these discussions by Enlightenment thinkers also helps us to formulate vital questions about who controls knowledge in the digital age and what obstacles exist to full participation. Thankfully no longer restricted just to the educated elites, humanistic thought encourages us to apply greater objectivity to the exploration of the politics of collecting, storing, and transmitting information both in the past and today. Whatever our conclusions, we cannot deny the deep and meaningful connections that exist between writing forms and media (i.e., the materials we use and manipulate), and between the preservation of knowledge and the organization of human society.

Humans and the Search for Functional Writing Materials

Chinese text on bamboo strips
Figure 10.3 This Chinese text was copied on bamboo strips using a brush and dates to the Warring States Period (475221 BCE). These strips, read downwards and from right to left, are now held in the Shanghai Museum, and contain a discussion of the ‘Shi Jing’, or Book of Odes. [Wikimedia Commons.]

From the earliest times, humans used various media for writing surfaces: the walls of caves, stones, bones, bamboo strips, and ceramic sherds. Once inscribed with markings, these materials transmitted messages of religious, ritual, magical, and practical significance like trade inventories, curse tablets, and to-do lists. However, not all of these materials were equally accessible and efficient. They varied regionally in response to the availability and affordability of particular resources. In addition, written language was often out of reach for the vast majority of pre-modern populations, which were for the most part functionally illiterate.

In ancient Babylonia, priests used a metal stylus to mark soft clay tablets with cuneiform texts when they wanted to preserve their writing for the elite audience who could read them. Cylinder seals, rolled over a similar medium, were particularly handy when priests wanted to reproduce texts multiple times. Once baked, such inscribed clay tablets were sufficiently durable to last millennia under the right conditions.[5]

Terracotta clay cone inscribed in cuniform
Figure 10.4 This terracotta clay cone inscribed in cuneiform with a stylus commemorates the construction of the walls of Sippar by King Hammurabi. Now at the Louvre Museum, it dates to the first half of the 18th century BCE and comes from Iraq. [Wikimedia Commons.]

By contrast, the ancient Greeks and Romans chose stone carving for important messages that they intended to display in posterity such as grave markers. However, in daily life, for the sake of convenience and affordability, they often relied upon handy potsherds or ostraca, broken bits of pottery that provided a smooth surface and inexpensive material for writing. Wax-coated tablets in the ancient world, by contrast, offered the benefit of reuse after heating. This medium which was especially suited to classroom use, where children were learning to write. In 8th-century Korea and China, engraved wood allowed repeated reproduction of the written word by rubbing, a technique known as xylography that was transmitted to the West only half a millennium later.[6]

Writing on surface of triangular fragment with point facing down
Figure 10.5 This late 3rd-century ostracon in Greek preserves a private letter concerning the use of oxen for sowing a field. It suggests that immediate tasks could be written on a variety of accessible surfaces and were not intended by their authors to be kept in perpetuity. [“O.Mich.inv. 4194; Recto,” University of Michigan Library, Advanced Papyrological Information System.]

In China, the use of silk as a writing material showed the advantages of shifting to a more flexible writing medium. However, it was very costly and limited to the elites. In the West, the ancient Egyptians were among the first to employ more flexible writing media, namely papyrus. Egyptian artisans manufactured this material from the papyrus reed, which grew mainly in the region known as the Egyptian Delta. To prepare the reeds, Egyptians cut the pithy centers of stalks of the plant into thin strips which they then placed side-by-side with superposed layers at right angles to form sheets. Pressed and beaten together while still moist, the fibers adhered even when dry. The horizontal lines left by the papyrus strips became the guide for scribes to keep their writing (done with a reed brush) straight and level. Papyrus, however, was unforgiving in a number of ways if a scribe made an error. While erasure was possible with a sponge or an abrasive substance, it was not easy to write over the same spot. Another downside to the material was that the sheets became brittle when dry and thus could not be folded. For this reason, papyrus sheets were rolled as a scroll. Likewise, scribes could only write on one side because ink bled through the semi-porous material.[7]

Activity: Browse a slideshow

Screenshot from slideshow, image of papyrus with illustration overlaid showing palm trees and text "papyrus making"
University of Michigan


This exhibit (https://apps.lib.umich.edu/papyrus_making/#) from the University of Michigan Papyrus Collection demonstrates how papyrus is manufactured, from harvest to finished paper.


Papyrus reeds grew in few places other than Egypt and Ravenna on the Adriatic coast of Italy. Egypt thus exercised a near monopoly on the production and trade of this elegant, light-colored writing substance throughout classical antiquity. It became popular not just among the Egyptians but also among the Greeks and Romans, who were attracted to the relative affordability of papyrus rolls. With the advent and spread of Islam through the Middle East and North Africa in the 7th century, papyrus remained an important writing material for adherents of the new religion. Muslim administrators used the medium for official correspondence, legal documents, ledgers, and tax receipts. In northern Europe, however, climatic conditions supported neither the cultivation of papyrus nor its effective use since humidity hindered its preservation. Few surviving examples of papyrus in Europe date after the 7th century.[8]

Papyrus manuscript pages with black and red writing
Figure 10.6 Dating to the Second Intermediate Period in Egypt, the Edwin Smith papyrus may have come from the capital of Thebes. Purchased in Luxor, this hieratic manuscript (Egyptian cursive) was donated to the New York Academy of Medicine. It is thought to be the oldest surviving Western text of surgery, and includes material on surgery, gynecology, and magic. [New York Academy of Medicine. Wikimedia Commons.]

Does Form Determine Function?

In antiquity, like today, specific qualities of writing materials dictated the purposes for which they were employed. As we have seen, stone, for instance, was most suitable for epitaphs or public proclamations, whereas contemporaries did not see papyrus as having sufficient permanence and durability for long term preservation. For these reasons, papyrus was not commonly used for longer literary or sacred texts. The accessible and cost effective medium nonetheless remained popular for day-to-day transactions like trade in the dry, hot conditions of North Africa and the Middle East. These examples should make us think about more recent technological developments and to what degree digital media like electronic books and newspapers are better suited to some objectives (like quick reading) than others (note-taking and deep engagement with a text).

Something to keep in mind is that the format of papyrus, namely scrolls, influenced the way in which authors composed texts and people read them. The manufacture of papyrus rolls in standard lengths necessitated the division of literary works into books. Anyone familiar with the ancient Greek epic poems of the Iliad and Odyssey, for instance, should consider that scholars of Alexandria apportioned this work of the 8th century BCE into books relatively arbitrarily based on how much material fit on a scroll. By the time of the Latin author Virgil in the 1st century BCE, however, authors began to think of book divisions—today’s chapters—as discrete parts of a work. In other words, writers took advantage of divisions introduced by their writing medium to structure their texts. In the Aeneid, Virgil applied this technique to represent changes in the narrative.[9]

Figure of scribe seated with papyrus scroll in lap
Figure 10.7 This scribe seated with a papyrus scroll on his lap suggests some of the difficulties in using a scroll for study. It is hard to mark one’s place! Dated to the 19th20th dynasty, 12951069 BCE in Egypt, this diorite statue gives us some clues as to why a codex was preferable if one wanted to navigate quickly through a text. [Louvre Museum. Photo by user Janmad, shared under a CC BY 3.0 Unported LicenseWikimedia Commons.]

Increased familiarity with the medium of the codex—what we know today as a book (see below)—gave birth to an intellectual shift and a revolution in literature which became dominant by the 4th century CE. We see similar steps being taken today, as engineers continue to modify the format of electronic books to meet the needs and expectations of readers. Whereas engineers designed the earliest Kindles to look like books with a plain white background, black print, and limited possibility to alter texts, today’s touch screens allow readers freedom to manipulate the content and appearance of their reading.

Putting Quills to Parchment

Contemporary to papyrus, parchment was a writing material made from animal skins. In the ancient Middle East, parchment was commonly made from skins of calves, sheep or goats. White animals were preferred since they tend to produce the lightest colored parchment. Vellum, the most desirable form of parchment because of its refined surface, referred exclusively to calfskin. Parchment, which was far more costly than papyrus, was developed first in ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia, but then spread to many regions that raised flocks. It provided material support for writing, painting, and other purposes. Despite its durability and versatility as a writing surface, parchment’s cost was prohibitive. This technology thus never fully replaced the use of papyrus, ostraca, stone, and wax tablets for recording information.[10]

To prepare animal hides for writing, workers soaked the skins in a lime solution and removed the remaining hair and flesh (a characteristic that survives in parchment manuscripts, in which the hair and flesh sides are discernable). Workers washed and stretched the cleaned hides tightly on a wooden frame and scraped them with moon-shaped knives as they dried. When the hides were nearly dry, workers buffed the surfaces with pumice stone. From the 4th century CE, scribes began to fashion split quills from feathers as a firmer tool for writing than reed brushes. Quills quickly supplanted reed brushes for writing in the West due to their availability in virtually any market. They offered exciting possibilities for artists who learned to incorporate shading and decorative work in written characters that had not been possible with reed brushes. The spread of parchment and quills contributed to the development of new letter forms and book design features.

Papyrus pages with erased text showing through under new writing
Figure 10.8 The high cost of parchment encouraged the erasure and reuse of entire manuscripts. The Archimedes Palimpsest is a 13th-century Byzantine Greek prayer book made of parchment taken from several earlier manuscripts (which were then partially erased), including most importantly a 10th-century copy of at least seven treatises by the ancient Greek scientist and philosopher Archimedes. [Wikimedia Commons.]

Parchment offered the advantage of lightness and flexibility, which meant ease of handling and transmission. The surfaces were suitable for inks and colors and one could write on both sides. Scribes could make erasures and corrections. Parchment also accommodated folding and stitching and could be sewn together in scrolls or organized concertina fashion since sheets of parchment did not tear easily as papyrus. With a long life, parchment could be stored for more than a millennium in the right conditions and wear was minimal compared to papyrus. Due to cost, however, access to parchment was limited to those of financial means such as religious institutions and individuals of high status such as pharaohs, kings, and aristocrats.

Long rectangular scroll topped by ornate image with two columns of text
Figure 10.9 This magico-medical scroll of parchment from Ethiopia is now held in London in the Wellcome Collection, Oriental Ms. IX. Its form as a scroll likely dictated storage needs and the way in which the text could be used. [Photo shared under a CC BY 4.0 International License. Wellcome Collection.]

The earliest texts on parchment took the form of rolls or scrolls. For instance, the ancient pharaohs of Egypt (as early as c. 1500 BCE) recorded their law codes on leather rolls. The stitching between multiple pieces of parchment proved much stronger than the pasted joints of papyrus rolls. These scrolls resembled the modern Torah (Hebrew Bible) still featured in Jewish worship, as well as the magical and medical texts recorded in Ge’ez on scrolls in Ethiopia between the 18th and 20th centuries.

Although papyrus manufacture continued for centuries, parchment began to supplant it as the most widely used writing surface in the West by the 4th century, which, as we will see below, was the same period in which the codex definitively replaced the use of scrolls. In fact, during the period in which both parchment and papyrus were employed, scribes copied many works of ancient literature from papyrus to parchment. Had this not occurred, many ancient Greek and Roman classics would not have survived for us today. In the Arab world, the transition from papyrus to parchment occurred somewhat later due to the continued accessibility of the former from Egypt. Parchment was used widely in the Muslim world by the 9th century, but since papermaking technology had arrived from the East in the mid-8th century, demand for parchment in the Muslim world was never as great as in Europe, where paper arrived much later.



Activity: Watch a video

In this BBC video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-SpLPFaRd0), Wim Visscher gives Dr. Stephen Baxter a modern demonstration of how to make parchment from animal skins.

Organizing Knowledge: The Rise of the Codex

As early as the 1st century CE in the Roman Mediterranean, some papyrus but especially parchment texts began to take a different shape. Rather than retaining the shape of a roll, scribes gathered parchment leaves in a manner similar to wax tablets, which were often bound together as a collection for transcribing longer texts. Thus, the word codex originally referred to two or more tablets fastened together.[11]

Roman fresco of objects on two layers of shelves.
Figure 10.10 A Roman fresco from the Praedia of Julia Felix in Pompeii, and now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples), displays a bound set of wax tablets and a stylus in the middle section of the lower shelf. It sits next to a contemporary scroll, suggesting that the two writing media were used at a contemporary period. [Praedia of Julia Felix in Pompeii, Naples National Archaeological Museum. Photo by Carole Raddato, shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic License. Wikimedia Commons.]

In the first centuries of the Common Era, scribes began for the first time to employ sheets of parchment in this fashion. They were sewn together at their central crease to form something akin to what we know as a book. Like scrolls, codices had a cover or binding, but in this case they were typically made of wooden boards (which today have been replaced by cardboard). Decorated with cloth, parchment, leather, metal, or precious stones, wooden boards helped identify the content of books. Books might include affixed tags or labels with the name of the author and title of the work on their spines. As we will see below, although not all genres of texts were copied into codices, Christian texts like the Bible, saints’ lives, and liturgical works were frequent candidates for such transitions because of the ways in which scholars studied them.

In China, by contrast, the scroll had a much longer life in Chinese culture but was supplanted in the 10th century by what were known as “whirling books,” which opened like an accordion. This design made various parts of the text more accessible than scrolls, which were difficult to manipulate. However, a significant flaw of the “whirling books” was that the paper from which they were fashioned was not very durable along the folded sections. During the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE), “butterfly” bindings became increasingly popular. This format involved printing only on one side of the paper and then folding it so that the blank sides were not visible.[12]

Similar to this technology, but with no direct connection to it, was an accordion-like instrument developed by Amerindians like the Mexica and Maya in Mesoamerica before the time of the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century. Used for recording religious rituals and other significant information, these artifacts were made of a paper-like material composed of pounded tree bark or roots. Like paper, this substance could be polished in preparation for painting symbols and images. Unfortunately, few original examples of this technology survive today since Spanish missionaries condemned indigenous works as idolatrous and confiscated and burned them when they had the opportunity.[13]

Codex with person image in center and intricate drawings surrounding
Figure 10.11 The Codex Fejérváry-Mayer is a rare surviving manuscript dating from before European contact (dated to some time between 1200 and 1521 CE). It is made from deerskin parchment and contains the sacred Aztec calendar. [World Museum Liverpool. Wikimedia Commons.]

By contrast, in the European West, scribes fashioned codices from several sheets of parchment cut to the same rectangular size and shape. They typically laid four of these together and folded them once to form the writing unit known as a gathering, which was then sewn at the seam. This gathering produced eight folios (two-sided) or 16 leaves (single-sided), and was called a quaternio or quire. So that quires could be bound in the correct sequence, they were marked with signatures (consecutive letters or numbers) on the last page at the top or bottom. From the late 11th century, the first words of the next quire became signature marks. The regular employment of page numbers in a codex did not become common in Europe until the 13th century, and the practice was firmly established by the 16th century.[14]

Side view of folding almanac
Figure 10.12 This 15th-century folding almanac, Ms. 8932, at the Wellcome Trust was composed in Latin and contains astrological tables and diagrams. Judging from its binding, a physician might have traveled with this luxury manuscript hung from his belt for both practical reasons and as a sign of his status as a learned man. [Wellcome Collection.]

So what were the advantages of the codex over the scroll? To start, the codex offered convenience to scholars and worshippers, especially with large devotional texts like the Bible in Judaism and Christianity and the Qur’an in Islam. The format of the codex allowed people much greater ease of movement through long and complex texts used in prayer or study. A reader could mark the leaves in a permanent or impermanent way at relevant passages or read pages out of sequence if it was desirable to review a passage or skip ahead. Moreover, as opposed to a scroll, a book could be held in one hand, allowing a scribe to read and write at the same time, something we largely take for granted today. Historians of technology think that the spread of Christianity and Islam helped popularize the effectiveness of the codex over the scroll, not just for sacred texts but also as a medium for organizing and conveying knowledge more effectively.

Medieval Manuscript Production and Consumption

In medieval Europe, the main centers for the production, preservation, and copying of texts onto parchment were Christian monasteries. These were filled with monks or nuns, individuals who had pledged to lead a life of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Monastic houses typically had scriptoria, rooms where monks and nuns spent much of their time copying manuscripts by hand. Monastic leaders like Saint Benedict of Nursia in southern Italy in the 6th century emphasized in his Rule the importance of the written word in the lives of monks and nuns, and placed an emphasis on public readings of the Bible and other holy texts during mealtimes. Court chanceries were another location where clerics prepared documents during the Middle Ages. From the 11th century, notaries who drafted legal contracts could also be found in the commercial centers of Europe.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, however, book production in Europe shifted in part to cathedral schools and universities and became the source of learning about topics like law, medicine, mathematics, and the humanities. From the 13th century, universities in Italy, France, Spain, Germany, and England (staffed largely by Dominican and Franciscan friars) became the most important locations of textbook production, especially the composition and copying of commentaries and glosses on canonical authorities.

Have you ever wondered how medieval university students procured the books they needed for their studies? Medieval students (all male institutions—women were not allowed to participate) typically rented texts through local booksellers through what was known as the pecia system. Namely, rather than buying books, students rented exemplars by the quire (known as a pecia), and used them to make their own copies. Once returned, booksellers rented the same quires to other students. This system had the advantage of decreasing the replication of errors since each copy depended upon the same uncorrupted text. Students often sold their own copies when their courses were finished in order to pay off debts, including their beer tabs at the local bars so common in university towns.[15]

Just because manuscripts were the bread and butter of medieval university learning does not mean that they were accessible to anyone but a small number of men, many of them clerics, who received a higher education. Scholastic manuscripts were written in Latin, which was no longer commonly spoken in Europe. They thus required significant learning to copy accurately and to comprehend. Even worse, they included extensive use of abbreviations and there were often no distinct separations between words. Although these conventions allowed students to copy quickly, readers had to read the texts aloud, a practice that only changed in the 16th century when efforts were made to make texts more legible. These traditions and the use of Latin excluded many potential readers from access to these texts.

What kinds of texts were popular among the medieval elites who could afford them (or were members of institutions like monasteries that owned them)? The most common manuscripts were Latin bibles and books of hours, the latter being prayer books for private devotions, many of which were used by women. In the later Middle Ages, the most commonly copied manuscripts included annals, chronicles, and romances. Many of these were composed in the vernacular rather than Latin, which by this point was mainly limited to clerics. By the 13th century, wealthy patrons, both male and female, who wanted to expand their private libraries commissioned manuscripts from booksellers in cities like Paris. These shops or scriptoria employed scribes and illuminators to create custom copies.[16]

Ornate medieval book pages with brightly colored images
Figure 10.13 Medieval books of hours such as this one associated with the 15th-century female aristocrat Catherine of Cleves encouraged pious contemplation. The mouth of hell depicted on the left was meant to instill fear of sin in its female reader. This work illustrates how books served both devotional purposes as well as exhibiting the wealth of their owners. [“Office of the Dead,” MS M.917/945, ff. 168v–169r, Morgan Library and Museum.]

Plant Fiber Technology: The Advent of Paper

Paper was invented in China in the second century BCE. Composed of vegetal fibers like hemp, paper’s cost was modest and it quickly replaced silk fabric as a writing material for all but luxury manuscripts. By the 2nd century CE, paper goods probably entered into trade through the intricate network of roads and tracks that crossed Eurasia: the routes between China and the West known as the Silk Road. Travel across the Eurasian landmass was rudimentary and expensive with the aid of mules, camels, and oxen; the overland itinerary also depended upon the political stability of the regions through which tradesmen passed.[17]

Knowledge of paper and the process by which it was made from cloth rags (usually hemp or linen) reached Persia by the 7th century and the city of Samarqand by the 8th century. From there, the use of paper spread throughout the Islamic world in the 9th century, promoted by the Abbasid caliphs who employed it for official records. In Spain, which was controlled by Muslim rulers from the early 8th century, the know-how for paper-making passed to the Christian West. Eleventh-century Valencia, for instance, was an important urban center for paper manufacturing.[18] Italian papermakers refined these methods in Fabriano, including inventing the watermark, adopting gelatin sizing, and improving pulping methods. By the 14th century, Italian paper made in paper mills dominated European markets.

As opposed to parchment, paper provided a comparatively cheap writing surface. In the era before mechanical printing, we know that paper profoundly influenced scribal culture in medieval Islamic lands, since it was more abundant and accessible than parchment. However, paper was also more easily adapted to woodblock printing popular in China and Korea from at least the 8th century. In Western Europe, paper’s future looked very bright following the development of moveable type in the mid-15th century. For this reason, paper largely supplanted parchment by the 16th century due to cost, accessibility, and fit with new printing technologies. Paper thus had the important effect of opening up literate Christian culture to a much wider (though certainly not universal) array of readers than could afford such works when parchment was the prevalent writing material.

Our knowledge of this history has important lessons that we can bring to bear on our understanding of the social impact and accessibility of digital media. Namely, how is the transition to digital technology affecting how we compose literature, organize and present information, and store data? While our ever-increasing dependence on computers, tablets, and smartphones may allow us to marshal large amounts of data from a seemingly endless number of sources, we also need to ask how individuals and groups benefit from this information and whether all benefit equally from the digital revolution.

The Invention of Printing

Efforts to make exactly reproducible multiple impressions go back thousands of years. In China, stone steles or upright stone slabs with engraved calligraphic texts were used to make rubbings or copies. As we have seen, in ancient Mesopotamia, stone cylinder seals were engraved around their perimeter so that when they were rolled across a receptive surface, they revealed their messages. The oldest printed material known (dated to 751 CE) is from Korea, and is now called the Dharani Sutra. The earliest extant dated printed work, the Chinese Diamond Sutra scroll, was printed from a woodblock in 868. The carving of over 80,000 woodblocks between 1236 and 1251, many of which still survive, supported an effort to print the Korean Buddhist scriptures in their entirety. In China, Pi Cheng innovated with movable type made from fire-hardened clay or liquid glue under the Sung Dynasty (960–1279). In Korea, cast metal type was first developed in 1234, two centuries before it made its debut in Western Europe.[19]

Woodblock imag eof central figure surrounded by others
Figure 10.14 This detail comes from the woodblock print on the frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra, found in Cave 17 at Dunhuang in China. It is the oldest extant printed book with a firmly known date of 868 CE. [British Library.]

In the mid-15th century, the German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg, among others, invented cast-metal movable type in individual characters designed to be printed with a press. Once a page of type was prepared, printers inked and printed them onto dampened paper with a wooden press adapted from those traditionally used to make wine or oil. The pages were hung out to dry and then proofread and gathered in the correct order. Printers also carved historiated or decorated initials and other illustrations onto wooden blocks made at the same thickness as the type so that they could be set in the form. They included this labor-intensive step to preserve a style that was common to hand-copied manuscripts on parchment and paper. Efforts to imitate the style of hand-copied manuscripts suggest that consumers of printed books considered the latter desirable. In fact, for a century after the advent of printing, luxury copies of the Bible were still copied by hand and printed copies in many cases were made to look like those written by hand.[20]

Activity: Watch Gutenberg-style printing

This video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLctAw4JZXE) demonstrates the procedure of printing a single leaf on a Gutenberg-style press.


Gutenberg first published the Bible in 1456 using metal type, a wooden press, and Italian paper. Although he did make some luxury copies for elite clients on parchment, most printing was done on paper. From Germany, this important invention spread rapidly to workshops in Switzerland, Italy, Spain, France, and England. It created considerable challenges for those who wished to print texts in non-Roman alphabets such as Arabic, in which letter shapes varied depending upon their position at the start, middle, or end of a word, or Chinese, in which there are thousands of characters. Such considerations remain important today for hardware engineers designing computer keyboards and touchpads for global markets.

We should keep in mind that many kinds of documents like wills and private letters were not affected by the advent of printing press for centuries. Moreover, printing aggravated instead of eliminated some of the shortcomings of hand-copied manuscripts since rather than creating one defective copy, one might produce hundreds of corrupted copies. For this reason, for centuries after Gutenberg’s invention, distinct communities remained loyal to the tried and true method of copying texts by hand: this was especially true of monks and nuns since it was a required component of the monastic day. Moreover, the creation of luxury manuscripts was a business controlled by well-organized and powerful guilds, especially in university towns where students were a source of profit. In the early decades of the print trade, guilds protected their interests by running competing printing workshops out of town.

The Printed Word: Access, Literacy, and the Publishing Industry

What were the ramifications of the invention of printing with moveable type in the West? This is an enormous subject, but here is some food for thought.[21]

To start, the set-up cost involved in printing was quite prohibitive. For instance, in Italy in 1483, the Ripoli Press charged three florins to set up and print a quinterno (quire) of the Italian priest and scholar Marsilio Ficino’s translation of Plato’s Dialogues. This price might seem quite expensive if we know that a contemporary scribe might have charged a single florin per quinterno to duplicate the same work. However, the Ripoli Press produced 1,025 copies of this work whereas the scribe could make just one at a time. Printing thus had the advantage of producing multiple copies at a reduced rate per copy. In other words, there were significant economies of scale for works like the Bible for which there was always demand or for pamphlets that required broad circulation. This situation meant that sizeable libraries were no longer the exclusive preserve of monasteries or the elite.

It is certainly true that printing made many texts much more available, since bookshops could now print books on their lists in large quantities and libraries could acquire more works at a higher rate of speed. The end result was that scholars and literate members of the public had access to a much broader range of texts than had previously been possible. These workshops thus opened up the possibility of owning a book and stimulated interest in literature (and literacy) among a larger public readership than was the case previously.

An additional outcome of mechanical printing was the commercialization of the reproduction of books, which some scholars have convincingly argued contributed to the commodification of the book. In other works, if books were increasingly seen as a desirable possession that was in reach of a greater number of consumers, printers competed for this market by making their books more attractive in a variety of ways. These options affected which works booksellers chose for printing, how they embellished their covers, and the choices they made about decorative fonts or large numbers of illustrations.

Printing and Revolutionary Thinking

The first print shops were centers of intellectual and commercial collaboration in which editors, proofreaders, writers, merchants, and patrons of learning came together to produce books collaboratively. A useful corollary of that development was the serendipitous juxtaposition of texts and maps in early printing workshops. In other words, when everything from Bibles to atlases to works of science were brought together under a single roof, they supported non-traditional thinking and afforded opportunities for innovation that might not have otherwise been conceivable. An analogous example in the modern world is our daily dependence on digital search engines like Google that allow us to input a keyword regardless of topic. This kind of search often produces very different results than if we followed the more old-fashioned method of searching by name of author or in a single subject area. While such finds are useful for scholarly research only if they are put in their proper context, they nonetheless widen the spectrum of possibilities as was the case for those who frequented early modern printing workshops.

Two pages of text on beige paper
Figure 10.15 In 1517, the then-Catholic monk Martin Luther is thought to have posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, to protest what he saw as corrupt practices including the sale of indulgences for salvation. Although the document was originally handwritten in Latin, by the following year he translated it to German and printed it. This technology allowed him to circulate numerous copies of the document in a short period of time. Church authorities were not able to stop the spread of what they saw as dangerous ideas. [University of Basel Library.]

In a time when we are all familiar with the mantra of the internet bringing about a more democratic world, a promise that has proved somewhat hollow and elusive at best, thinking about the invention of printing has particular resonance. The advent of mechanical printing had a number of unintended consequences by legitimizing and popularizing works that would not have previously circulated widely because they were seen as suspect by the Catholic Church. To be certain, religious leaders were concerned about the distribution of unauthorized works on theology, astrology, alchemy, and magic.

Religious authorities were not the only public figures made uncomfortable by the freedom of expression offered by printing. Powerful lay rulers like monarchs and aristocrats were especially concerned about individuals and groups that sought to reach a public audience with pamphlets and books criticizing secular leaders and advocating alternative political models. The relative ease with which an individual could reproduce hundreds of copies of any particular work meant that it was difficult for monarchs to enforce effective bans on texts they deemed unacceptable.

Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible from Latin to German in the early 16th century challenged the longstanding monopoly of the Catholic Church. Unlike his predecessors, whose manuscripts were burned when they were condemned and executed as heretics, Luther circulated thousands of copies far and wide in the Holy Roman Empire. Luther’s successful resistance to the Church’s demands and his evasion of Church censors led to the birth of the breakaway religious movement of Lutheranism. Scholars suspect that Luther would not have succeeded in his reform agenda had it not been for the technological advantage of printing.

Has Digitization Changed Our Relationship with the Written Word?

Why is it important to learn about the birth of the codex? The French historian Roger Chartier has suggested that we consider the digital revolution in terms of the “longue durée” or the long term. In other words, we need to think about the possibilities digital texts and their transmission create not just in our lives today but also over the coming decades and centuries.[22]

First, how does the digital revolution change how we engage with a text? Theoretically, at least, readers can interact with texts more fluidly. Previously, we underlined, took notes, or wrote in the margins of books. Today, readers can index, annotate, copy, recompose, hyperlink, and move digital texts. In essence, each person becomes an active participant in the text. In this way, digital works blur the distinction between reading and writing and between author and reader, since any reader with a digital device has the ability to create new texts from fragments that have been spliced and reassembled. Of course, there is a thin line between this practice and plagiarism if one claims this work as his or her own without acknowledging the original sources of such blended works. If we look around the classroom today, however, not all students have abandoned paper and many continue to take notes the old-fashioned way. Indeed, recent studies suggest that the act of writing (as opposed to keying words into a computer or tablet) helps us to process and retain information more effectively.[23]

Second, there is no doubt that the digital revolution has changed how we order and store information. With magnetic storage devices, readers can construct unique collections of original texts whose existence and organization depend upon their individual whims (and the texts to which they can gain access). One can not only store but also modify or rewrite these works at any moment. These technologies challenge not only traditional ideas of literary property and copyright, but also reshape our conceptions of what a library is, what one should do there, and how it should look. We can each create our own libraries in a way that was not long ago confined exclusively to institutions and elites. However, we must also be conscious that these libraries are easily erased or destroyed. All of us are familiar with the panic that sets in if our computer crashes or our hard drive fails. With rapidly changing technology, storage technology like floppy disks have quickly gone out of use as they were replaced by CDs, DVDs, and USB drives. Not only are older formats difficult or impossible to read with a new computer, but these storage devices were never intended for the long term. Most forms of magnetic storage must be backed up since they become unreadable in less than a decade.

Central aisle with many library book stacks and overhead lighting
Figure 10.16 A photo of the fourth-floor stacks of the Free Library of Philadelphia, a city that received one of the largest grants offered by Andrew Carnegie. With these funds, Philadelphia constructed 25 branch libraries between 1905 and 1930. Although the Central Library, which houses the Free Library chartered in 1891, was not part of the endowment, it became one of the most important libraries in the world with over one million volumes. [Photo by Joseph Elliott, Historical American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress.]

These many factors suggest that the digital revolution will not cause the printed word to disappear overnight as industry pundits often predict. A historical perspective suggests that just as the scroll imposed its organization on the early codex, so handwritten codices imposed their form upon the earliest printed texts. These shaped the early form, structure, and layout of the successive media in which knowledge was conveyed. Essentially, one could argue that printed books have done the same to ebooks, especially in light of users’ attachment to the tactile experience they love about reading an authentic paper book or newspaper. Over the course of several generations, however, it is likely that the memory of this experience will fade and new readers will prioritize some aspects of book culture while eliminating others depending upon their needs. With that, some features of the codex will remain embedded while others will be discarded.

Information Storage Technologies as Appropriate Technologies

Looking at the history of writing technologies teaches us that humans use different materials for storing information in different social contexts. Our choice of a material for writing, for example, depends upon the availability and accessibility of materials, the needs of users in various places and times, and established local cultural practices. Papyrus worked well where it could be locally cultivated and was used for texts that were not expected to be preserved for long periods of time. Parchment, by contrast, worked well for large texts that needed to be consulted for specific information rather than necessarily reading it from front to back. And parchment was effective for storing important information that was meant to be studied and guarded for generations, especially in regions of the world that were damp and cold. Neither of these writing technologies, however, supplanted the use of stone inscriptions which continued to be used for gravestones, ceremonial markers, and engraved sculpture. Similarly, today, stone, paper, and hard drives coexist as materials for information storage because they each work in a particular constellation of practice.

Think about why you might find it easier to jot a library reference number on a piece of scrap paper if you did not want to bring along a mobile phone, tablet, or computer into the library stacks to search for a book. Or why you might write someone’s phone number on your hand when making new friends at the pool because you did not bring your own cell phone (no pockets). By contrast, consider why the ubiquitous phone books and “yellow pages” that used to be in every household and business have now disappeared, since internet searches and online advertising have proved to be more effective ways to convey this information and have thus made these bulky storage devices obsolete.

The idea that a material technology is relevant to its local context of use is termed appropriate technology. Put simply, a material has to work easily and well in people’s everyday lives. It must be appropriate to their needs and compatible with local social organization, but it also must be affordable, locally sourced or available, locally repairable (if intended to last some time), and work symbiotically with the local material environment.[24] A digital storage center deployed in an area without a stable electricity grid will be just as ineffective as requiring royal and church officials to write on papyrus in 16th-century Northern Europe. For a recent example, we might think about how the COVID-19 pandemic pushed shoppers as never before to abandon printed money in favor of contactless transactions. However, this change does not mean that printed money will disappear any time soon since it is still considered to have value beyond the immediate crisis, and the costs associated with this technology (and the oversight embedded in it) may not be feasible or desirable in all cases. The entanglements of writing materials, and the various implications of their use, mean that different writing materials necessarily coexist. And, our use of one material may influence how we deploy another.

For materials scientists and engineers, the concept of appropriate technology can focus development teams on creating technologies with new materials that are sustainable in the context of their use, versus developing technologies that work in one culture (where, for instance, electricity is dependable) but are inefficient, unaffordable, or simply alien to another culture of use (where power might be available one hour per day or users are concerned about government oversight). However, just as a culture shapes our use of materials, the introduction of new materials for information storage shapes our writing and preservation practices. Thinking of materials as appropriate reminds us to use new digital storage materials purposefully, bearing in mind what they help us to do best, and what other writing materials are still needed to make and share information in a given society.

We may close with Chartier’s warning that: “The library of the future must also be a place that will preserve the knowledge and understanding of written culture in the forms that were and still are today, very much its own. The electronic representation of all texts whose existence did not begin with computerization should not in any way imply the relegation, forgetting, or, worse yet, destruction of the objects in which they were originally embodied. More than ever, perhaps, one of the critical tasks of the great libraries is to collect, to protect, to inventory. . .”[25]

The message that we should take from this warning are the potential challenges of digitization. We must evaluate what digital formats and electronic storage mean for the quality of our lives, engagement with knowledge, and preservation of information for the near and long-term future. While change may be inevitable, and a current generation of children will never know life in the absence of these technologies, we must observe how they affect our day-to-day existence, the ways in which we learn, and the methods by which we preserve knowledge of the past. These choices will indelibly shape how humans live together in the future.

Discussion Questions

  1. Condorcet believed that the limitless reproduction of texts afforded by moveable print was key to the success of democracy, and he credited this technology with greater access to justice in human society. Do you think our current on-line digital technology increases access to justice?
  2. In what ways has digital storage changed what we study and how we learn?
  3. How has today’s technology affected communication, positively and negatively?
  4. What is the property of great importance to remember when deciding whether to use magnetic information storage or some other form of data storage?
  5. What materials have been used throughout history to preserve the printed word? Discuss the properties for which they were chosen as a vehicle for the written picture or word.

Key Terms

appropriate technology
Dharani Sutra
quaternio or quire
“vulgar writing”

Author Biography

Bonnie Effros (Ph.D., European Medieval History, UCLA, 1994), holds the Chaddock Chair in Economic and Social History in the School of Histories, Languages, and Cultures at the University of Liverpool. Prof. Effros was previously the inaugural Rothman Chair and director of the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere in addition to being a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Florida in Gainesville. She is the editor of the Brill Series on the Early Middle Ages and serves on the Editorial Board of Studies in Late Antiquity.

Further Reading

Baker, Keith Michael. Condorcet: From Natural Philosophy to Social Mathematics. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1975.  https://archive.org/condorcetfromnat0000bake.

Crick, Julia, and Alexandra Walsham, eds. The Uses of Script and Print, 13001700. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/433605414.

Danesi, Marcel. Vico, Metaphor, and the Origin of Language. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/802512895.

Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright, eds. The World’s Writing Systems. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/909698730.

Diringer, David. The Book before Printing: Ancient, Medieval and Oriental. New York: Dover Publications, 1982. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/611226929.


I would like to dedicate this essay to my doctoral advisor Professor Richard H. Rouse, who instilled in me, among other things, an abiding appreciation for the mechanics of books and book culture.

  1. Elizabeth Hill Boone, “Aztec Pictorial Histories: Records without Words,” in Writing Without Words, eds. Elizabeth Hill Boone and Walter D. Mignolo (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1994), 50–76, http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/837771541.
  2. Chartier focuses on Vico and Condorcet as symptomatic of these larger questions.; Roger Chartier, “The Representation of the Written Word,” in Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 6–24, http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/44961557.
  3. Giambattista Vico, On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians. Drawn out for the Origins of the Latin Language [1711], trans. Jason Taylor (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2010), http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/601348202.
  4. Condorcet, “Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind: Tenth Epoch,” trans. Keith Michael Baker, Daedalus 133, no. 3 (Summer, 2004), 65-82, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20027931.
  5. Jean-Jacques Glassne, The Invention of Cuneiform: Writing in Sumer (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2003), http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/51041422.
  6. Roderick Whitfield and Anne Farrer, Caves of the Thousand Buddhas: Chinese Art from the Silk Route (New York: George Braziller, 1990), http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/20931666.
  7. Bridget Leach and William John Tait, “Papyrus," in Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, eds. Paul T. Nicholson and Ian Shaw (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), 227–53, http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1087529499.
  8. Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, AD 300900 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001), 696728, http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/469934775.
  9. Kelly Sloane, “Epic Illustrations: Vergil’s Aeneid in the Vergilius Vaticanus,” 2005-2006 Penn Humanities Forum on Word & Image, Undergraduate Mellon Research Fellows, https://web.archive.org/web/20150312073624/http://humanities.sas.upenn.edu/05-06/mellon_uhf.shtml.
  10. Ronald Reed, The Nature and Making of Parchment (Leeds: Elmete, 1975), http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/2038984.
  11. J. A. Szirmai, "Wooden Writing Tablets and the Birth of the Codex," Gazette du Livre Médèvale 17 (1990): 31–32, https://www.persee.fr/doc/galim_0753-5015_1990_num_17_1_1144.
  12. Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin, "Paper and Printing," in Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 5, sect. 1, ed. Joseph Needham (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), 22733, http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/79441618.
  13. Alan R. Sandstrom and Pamela Effrein Sandstrom, Traditional Papermaking and Paper Cult Figures of Mexico (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1986), 331, http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/12950001; Walter D. Mignolo, “Signs and Their Transmission: The Question of the Book in the New World,” in Writing Without Words, 22025.
  14. Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, trans. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín and David Ganz (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), 2048, http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/924973935.
  15. Mary A. Rouse and Richard H. Rouse, “The Book Trade at the University of Paris, ca. 1250–ca. 1350,” in Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame, 1993), 259–338, http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/925020363.
  16. Christopher de Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, 2nd ed. (London: Phaidon Press, 1997), http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/611946900.
  17. Tsuen-Hsuin, "Paper and Printing," 5283.
  18. Helen Loveday, Islamic paper: a study of the ancient craft (London: Archetype Publications, 2001), http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/249681685.
  19. Jixing Pan, "On the Origin of Printing in the Light of New Archaeological Discoveries," in Chinese Science Bulletin 42.12 (1997): 976–81, https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02882611.
  20. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005), http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/8157450657.
  21. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450–1800 (London: Verso, 1997), http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/931383419.
  22. Chartier, “The Representation of the Written Word,” 624.
  23. Pam A. Muelle and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” in Psychological Science 25, no. 6 (2014): 1159–68, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0956797614524581.
  24. Marianne de Laet and Annemarie Mol, “The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a Fluid Technology,” in Social Studies of Science 30, no. 2 (2000): 225–63, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F030631200030002002.
  25. Chartier, “The Representation of the Written Word,” 24.


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Impact of Materials on Society by Bonnie Effros is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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