LOST Magazine
About Us

Subscribe Now


Print This Article    Print This Article

Email This Article    Email This Article

The Parchment Brothers

by Alan Hirshfeld

Before e-books, publishers, and printers, Western knowledge was in the hands of scribes and their superiors

If you do not know what writing is, you may think it is not especially difficult …. Let me tell you that it is an arduous task:  it destroys your eyesight, bends your spine, squeezes your stomach and your sides, pinches your lower back, and makes your whole body ache …. Like the sailor arriving at the port, so the writer rejoices at the last line.

– Colophon of a 12th century religious manuscript from northern Spain

The ancient Hellenic empire, with its host of commercial and literary enterprises, offered ample opportunities for creators of new ideas as well as for the professional scribes whose task it was to write them down. In Athens, a philosophy lecture by Aristotle's noted student Theophrastus drew an audience of 2,000. Monarchs competed to attract scholars to their courts. Royal patronage supported scientists, poets, playwrights, and mathematicians.

The buzz of scholarly pursuits generated a burgeoning manuscript trade. Big-name philosophers spared no coin to buy precious scrolls for their private libraries. Plato handed over three Attic talents — the present-day equivalent of $75,000 — for a trio of works by Philolaus. Aristotle paid just as dearly for writings of Plato's nephew, Speusippus. Scribal services were likewise needed at institutional libraries that dotted the Mediterranean, most notably at Alexandria. Prices for custom writing, from legal documents to love letters, were set by decree:  so many lines for so much money, with a bonus for superior penmanship. Individual scribes developed a reputation for the beauty of their script or the accuracy of their transcription.

All of this feverish writing activity hinged on one thing:  sufficient papyrus to take up the flood of ink. During the 2nd century B. C., if the Roman historian Varro can be trusted, a monopolistic Egypt refused to supply papyrus to its rival Pergamon in Asia Minor. In desperation, the scribes of Pergamon are said to have improved the venerable animal-skin writing surface. Whether the story is true or not, parchment — from the Greek pergamene, "skin from Pergamon" — became the first true competitor of papyrus. By the time Archimedes' treatises were set down in the palimpsest during the 10th century, papyrus had largely left the scene in favor of parchment (as parchment would some five centuries onward when paper arrived in the West).

To make parchment, the hides of sheep, lambs, or calves are softened in a lime bath, then stretched on a rectangular frame. Flesh and hair are scrubbed away with a knife blade and pumice stone. The skin is dusted with chalk or similar powder to absorb leftover oils, then scraped to remove any remaining blemishes and irregularities. The result:  a uniform, nearly white sheet that takes ink well. A superior form of parchment called vellum, made from the skin of very young or even stillborn calves, was created for special volumes, such as those with brightly colored illuminations.

Parchment production in the West took off with the introduction, around the 2nd century A. D., of the codex, the forerunner of the modern book. As a codex medium, parchment is superior to papyrus in every way. Not only can it be inked with a goose quill, which is more durable than a reed pen and requires less dipping into the ink well, its strength and texture permit writing on both sides. Parchment leaves can be produced to larger dimensions than a papyrus sheet, and they remain intact when folded for binding, whereas papyrus is apt to split.

The codex itself, whether of papyrus or parchment, has significant advantages over the scroll. It is compact yet capacious enough to hold multiple texts. (The Archimedes Palimpsest codex contains seven geometric treatises plus several other unrelated documents.) The codex is far easier to consult for specific text, a property of immense importance to early Christians, who needed quick access to scriptural passages. And, if constructed of parchment, a codex withstands the ravages of time better than a papyrus scroll.

The rise of the codex during the early Christian era forced the selective conversion of classical documents from scrolls into codices. With each codex requiring a veritable flock of animal skins — the 392-leaf Souvigny Bible consumed around 200 — there was never enough parchment to accommodate more than a tiny percentage of ancient works. Most of the works that didn't make the cut from scroll to codex inevitably decayed into dust. And even ones that were converted might later be washed away and re-inked with a document adjudged more important. Now and then, the washing was incomplete and a ghost of the old text poked through — a palimpsest.

After the Roman conquest of Greece, the center of book production shifted away from Athens, first to Alexandria, and then to Rome itself. High-volume publishing in the Roman Empire was accomplished by the scribal equivalent of galley slaves:  pools of learned drudges who simultaneously penned copies of the exemplar work from dictation. During the 2nd century A.D., the number of written works produced in the Roman Empire doubled compared to the century before. Business was brisk for both Greek classics and original Roman literature.

Rome was astir with literary activity. Poets recited at banquets. Authors read their latest works at public forums. Travelers of means carried a book to read aloud to themselves on the journey. While overall literacy remained limited within the empire, there was Hellenic-inspired elementary education for children to learn language, reading fundamentals, and arithmetic. Privileged students continued their education with private tutors, who guided them in oratory and the study of classical Greek works.

Such were the Roman reader's tastes and so time-consuming and labor-intensive was the copying of scrolls — in essence, publication — that, only a few centuries after their creation, specialized works like the treatises of Archimedes became difficult to obtain. This despite the fact that there were at least 28 libraries within Rome itself and numerous provincial libraries scattered across the Empire. With the rise of Christianity and with Constantine's decision around 324 A.D. to move the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, the nexus of book production began to shift away from Rome. The 3rd century saw one-third fewer literary and scientific books published than the 2nd, and the 4th century two-thirds fewer than the 3rd. By the time Rome was overrun by the Goths in 410, the preservation of classical literature and science already rested in the hands of the empire's Christian monasteries.

The monastic scribe's original order of business was to produce copies of various liturgical guides for religious practice, such as the Euchologion in the Archimedes Palimpsest. Some of these documents remained in-house; others made their way to affiliated abbeys. During the 6th century, Italian monasteries founded by the Roman statesman and writer Cassiodorus at Vivarium and by St. Benedict at Montecassino spearheaded a more literate approach to religious devotion and the scribal arts. Cassiodorus set down detailed guidelines for a schola Christiana where, in addition to the requisite study of Holy Scripture, monks would read the likes of Hippocrates on medicine, Strabo on geography, and — explicitly named — Archimedes on geometry. Cassiodorus extolled the virtue of making worldly knowledge available through the copying and dissemination of manuscripts. To him can be credited the gradual transformation of Christian monasteries into the de facto publishing houses and literary repositories of the medieval Western world.

If Cassiodorus envisioned the monastery as a religious institution of letters, his contemporary, St. Benedict saw it as essentially the opposite:  a place where secular studies augmented one's service to God. To Benedict, learning for learning's sake was an affront. Benedict's Rule, so-called, declared that monks read for three hours each day during the summer and two hours during the winter. They were further compelled to complete an entire book during Lent and to pack a book whenever traveling. This at a time when reading was considered the mental equivalent of labor in the fields; given the freedom, many a monk would have chosen the hoe over Herodotus. A team of senior monks stood by to ensure that Benedict's reading directive was carried out. At the conclusion of Lent, each monk was questioned about the contents of his assigned book. If his answers were deficient, he was sentenced by the abbot to another term with the book. The librarian saw to the distribution of the monastery's treasured texts and, most critically, to their return. According to medieval commentaries, a missing book triggered a monastery-wide search by the abbot himself.

A second element of Benedict's Rule promoted daily oral readings to the brethren during meals and assemblies. Given the limited literacy of monks at the time, this was probably more effective than individual reading in teaching classical works. So critical were these periods of group edification that the gathered monks communicated with one another by hand signals, else a voice interrupt the reader. The reader's task was arduous:  enunciating syllable by syllable, as was the mode of the time, a cramped Greek or Latin text, devoid of word spacing or punctuation. Benedict advised the reader to take some bread and wine beforehand to keep from flagging during the long recital. Apparently, readers were held in high regard within the monastic community; the title was inscribed as an honorific on their tombstones.

The Benedictine practice of reading aloud to oneself or to the group spread to other monasteries. (Silent reading was uncommon until the 12th century, although some eight centuries earlier St. Augustine reported of his contemporary, St. Ambrose, that "his eyes ran over the page and his heart perceived the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent.") In 790, Charlemagne declared Benedict's Rule of study to be an obligatory part of religious devotion and practice, stimulating the reconsideration and rediscovery of classical works, including those in science and mathematics. Scholarly scribes of the Carolingian era took an activist approach to translation, correcting obvious transcription errors and resolving inconsistencies in the text. The most authoritative editions of a work would receive the official imprimatur ex authentico libro.

The Carolingian era also saw a dramatic expansion of monastic libraries. By the end of the 9th century, the Benedictine monastery at Bobbio, in northern Italy, housed almost 700 religious and secular codices, said to be the largest collection in Europe at the time. Even this paled in comparison to Byzantine state and church libraries:  The imperial library of Constantinople, as early as 475, contained 120,000 volumes, including a prized 120-foot-long parchment scroll of the Iliad and the Odyssey. So prevalent did monastic libraries become by the 12th century that one cleric observed, "A cloister without bookcases is like a military camp without armament." This monastic tradition of scholarly study would lead, in part, to the survival of the works of Archimedes.

During the Middle Ages, reproduction of manuscripts became a major source of income for monasteries, as wealthy patrons sought copies of rare works for their libraries. The beleaguered cartoon character Dilbert might have found the environment depressingly familiar:  monks scribbling away in their respective carrels — a medieval variant of the office cubicle — egged on by the pointy-hooded boss, who was typically also the monastery's choirmaster. Scribes sat or stood at their desks, laboring throughout the day to copy up to four large leaves — eight pages — of text. Sunset brought a reprieve:  To ensure the safety of the precious manuscripts, firelight of any kind was banned. If business was good or if a commission arrived for multiple copies of a work, the monastery might take up Cassiodorus's suggestion that an entire room — a scriptorium — be allocated to the task. The scriptorium would have been one of the few heated spaces in a monastery complex and, of necessity, would have been suffused with natural light. In some cases, a reader probably dictated the exemplar work to one or more copyists (which might account for the frequent spelling errors found in medieval manuscripts). Otherwise, scribes mumbled their respective texts to themselves, infusing the medieval scriptorium with a sound one observer likened to the hum of a beehive.

These anonymous monastic copyists were told by the abbot which texts to copy and often had little or no understanding of what they were writing. Their attention was focused — if focused at all — on the letter, not the word. Monks were to be humble movers of the pen, copying their assigned works verbatim. For their efforts — and the inevitable eyestrain, headaches, and hand cramps — they received neither public acclaim nor stipend. The creation of a book was service to God and to the order, an act of piety, a manifest expression of one's religious devotion. The scribe's sole reward:  self-satisfaction.

Yet these monks were merely men and, piety be damned, were apt to complain — in writing, of course. "St. Patrick of Armagh," an Irish scribe pleads in a marginal note, "deliver me from writing." Another declares, "Thank God, it will soon be dark." The colophon of one manuscript dispenses with the usual bibliographic details and contains instead, "Now I've written the whole thing:  for Christ's sake give me a drink." And for the potential book abuser, this overtly un-Christian take on the old Mesopotamian curse:  "For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever." Pop these sentiments into the mouths of today's librarians, and books would be returned on time.

Inevitably, there was the occasional scribal monk to whom humility was foreign. Take the 12th century's Eadwine of Canterbury, self-declared "prince of writers," whose portrait annotation rings with a Maileresque bravado undiminished by time: "Neither my fame nor my praise will die quickly …. Fame proclaims you in your writing forever Eadwine." And rarely, a human spark erupts playfully from the page, like this marginal jot by a 9th century Irish monk:  "Pleasant to me is the glittering of the sun today upon these margins, because it flickers so." Yet whatever their personal faults or devotional shortcomings, medieval scribes were esteemed within the Church:  the penalty in 7th century Ireland for killing a scribe was the same as for murdering a bishop.

Euclid wrote for the geometric education of the masses, virtually ensuring the survival of his works through the ages. The vaunted Archimedes, on the other hand, wrote for a relatively small number of mathematical specialists like himself. The transmission of esoteric works like Archimedes' therefore depended on continued demand by a meager cadre of highly trained scholars, both in the West and in the Islamic world. During times of political, cultural, or religious upheaval, when advanced learning was discouraged, the number of such patrons dwindled to near-extinction. Already barely a generation after Archimedes' death in 212 B. C., the Greek mathematician Diocles was unable to procure a copy of his famous predecessor's On the Sphere and Cylinder. Many ancient commentators sang the praises of Archimedes' mathematical works, without ever having laid eyes upon them. In fact, we know more today about the breadth of Archimedes' mathematical treatises than did most mathematicians of antiquity.

The writings of the ancient Greeks survive today because of the sporadic emergence of societal oases where, for a few precious decades, the scholarly tradition of the classical era flourished. It was in one such oasis — medieval Byzantium — that the works of bygone scholars like Archimedes were transcribed from decaying exemplars and bound into books. But the Byzantine enlightenment gradually dimmed, and the once-prized books found fewer and fewer readers. Like a fleet of parchment time machines, these vessels of classical knowledge were cast onto the shifting seas of memory and circumstance. Only a relative few arrived in safe harbor, into the light of study; the rest foundered into obscurity, taking with them the fruits of a glorious age.

From Eureka Man:  The Life and Legacy of Archimedes, Walker Books, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Alan Hirshfeld, and reprinted by permission of Walker & Co.

Back to Top

Articles in this Issue

Garbage, by Jeanne Koskela
Time v. Frank Moran, A Heavyweight Bout, by Robert G. Byrnes
A Brooklyn of My Mind, by Linda McMeniman
The Parchment Brothers, by Alan Hirshfeld
Military History, by Amanda Ringer
Photography, by Carlos Albaladejo
Geology, by Shelley Emling
September 2009


Alan Hirshfeld is a professor of physics at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and an associate of the Harvard College Observatory. He is the author of The Electric Life of Michael Faraday and Parallax: The Race to Measure the Cosmos. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Buy Alan Hirshfeld's books through Amazon at the LOST Store.

Where loss is found.

Copyright © 2008 LOST Magazine. All rights reserved.   User Agreement   Privacy Statement   LOST RSS Feed