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HIST 2220 War and Society (Jobin) - An Introduction to Works Held in Rare and Distinctive Collections: Creating the Book: Early Christian through Early Modern Materials and Processes

Creating the Book: Papyrus

Cuneiform 1 and 2, c. 2000 BCE

Special Collections, Rare and Distinctive Collections

MS 105, Receipt from a Dike Tax, Northern Egypt, c. 160CE. 

Special Collections, Rare and Distinctive Collections

MS 106, List of Books on Papyrus, Egypt, 6th Century

Special Collections, Rare and Distinctive Collections

The cuneiform tablets above date from the second millennium BCE of Mesopotamia. Cuneiform I, made of unbaked clay, originated from the city of Ur, during the reign of Ibi-Sin, c. 2000 BCE.  A receipt for a shekel of silver - the ancient equivalent of a grocery receipt - this tablet is tangible evidence of the palace redistributive economy of this period of Mesopotamia.  It shows the remnants of 4000 year-old finger prints on each side.  Both are very small - the smallest of the two - Cuneiform 2 - is not much larger than a small piece of 'Rice Chex.'

Papyrus had been in use as a writing surface in Egypt from roughly 3,000 BCE..  It retained its usefulness in Greece and Rome until late antiquity, roughly coinciding with the decline of the western Roman Empire. 

The Roman natural historian Pliny describes the process as one in which the inside of the triangular stalk of the plant would be cut or peeled into long strips, which  were then laid in a grid pattern, dampened, pressed, dried, and polished.  This process created a smooth surface, which would take ink.  As seen by the two papyri held by Special Collections above, papyrus tends to become brittle and fragment over time.  MS 105 is a receipt from a dike tax from northern Egypt, which dates 160 CE; MS 106 is a list of books, which dates from the 6th century CE.   

Many early Christian works, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bodmer Papyri (c. 200 CE) above, were written on a similar surface.  

Creating the Book: the Codex

John 19:7-12, Latin Bible, c. 1100-1160, Switzerland, Ege 1,

Gift of Diane and Robert Greenlee in honor of Professor Amy Vandersall

Special Collections, Rare and Distinctive Collections

Over the course of the late Roman Empire, vellum - or animal skin - bound into the form of a codex - the form of our modern-day book - would become the preferred writing surface. A number of factors may have led to this change.  The decline of the Roman Empire in the west and related unrest in the Mediterranean may have made the acquisition of papyrus - much of it grown in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean - more difficult.  Moreover, as a product, a leather bound codex is more durable than a scroll made of papyrus.  The rise of Christianity, too, seemed to play a role.

Vellum, however, was neither economical nor easy to prepare.  It has been estimated that one Bible requires roughly 200 animal skins, each requiring soaking in lime, stretching, and repeated scraping with a lunellum - a crescent-shaped knife - to prepare the surface for writing.  

The ink (see demonstration, British Library) was made of oak galls, gum Arabic, and iron sulfate.  

See oak gall - the spherical protrusion - on the small branch

The durability of vellum was also conducive to illumination or decoration.  Gold leaf, minerals such as malachite (green) and lapis lazuli (blue), the lapis imported into Europe from Afghanistan, and the Polish cochineal or louse (red) provided vibrant colors.  Beyond medieval books highly decorative illuminated initials, many included historiated initials, or decorative initials that helped tell the story of the text that followed, such a the scene below showing Job sitting on a dung heap.

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Latin Bible (Jerome, Prologue to Job - Job 5: 9). Paris, c. 1220-30, MS 317

Special Collections, Rare and Distinctive Collections

Creating the Book: the Transition from Manuscript to Print


                'Dragon Leaf,' Latin Bible, N. France, c. 1240.  MS 314 (left)

           Gutenberg Leaf, Latin Bible, 1455 (right)  

         Special Collections, Rare and Distinctive Collections

Displayed side-by-side, the two bible leaves shown above - Special Collections' 'Dragon Leaf' and 'Gutenberg Leaf' - demonstrate the desire by Johannes Gutenberg to produce a product that was both revolutionary in its technology and traditional in its appearance.  Special Collections' 'Dragon Leaf' on the left was created on vellum, written using oak gall ink, and decorated with gold leaf and lapis in the early 13th century.  Special Collections' 'Gutenberg Leaf' was letterpress printed by Johannes Gutenberg, using the moveable type made of lead, tin, antimony, set on a composing stick (see below), organized onto a galley, and printed on a press fashioned from a design with a screw-type lever similar to that of a grape press.

The result was a bible very similar in its page structure and design to the earlier bibles that had graced the altars of cathedrals for centuries: double-columned, decorated with illuminated initials, and with a type-face (fractur) very close to that of manuscript writing of northern Europe. 

Gutenberg's development of moveable type revolutionized the process of communicating ideas.  During the three years he was in business, he was able to print 180 bibles, roughly 180 times the speed of the copying of a bible before 1450.