Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sad Truth: The Missing MSS of the 4th - 14th centuries

In the following concise account, we can simultaneously learn about the switch from papyrus, the preference for parchment, and the destruction of the bulk of ancient gospels all in one pass.  Here we can read another large piece of the heartbreaking puzzle of what happened to the thousands of Gospel manuscripts made between the 4th and 10th centuries:

Paper came before its time and had to wait for recognition. It was sorely needed. The Egyptian manufacture of papyrus, which was in a state of decay in the 7th century, ceased entirely in the 9th or 10th. Not many books were written during this period, but there was then, and for at least three centuries afterwards, an unsatisfied demand for something to write upon. Parchment was so scarce that reckless copyists frequently resorted to the desperate expedient of effacing the writing on old and lightly esteemed manuscripts. It was not a difficult task. The writing ink then used was usually made of lamp-black, gum and vinegar; it it had but a feeble encaustic property, and it did not bite in or penetrate the parchment. The work of effacing this ink was accomplished by moistening the parchment with a weak alkaline solution and by rubbing it with pumice stone. This treatment did not entirely obliterate the writing, but made it so indistinct that the parchment could be written over the second time. Manuscripts so treated are now known as palimpsests. All the large European public libraries have copies of palimpsests, which are melancholy illustrations of the literary tastes of many writers or bookmakers during the Middle Ages. More convincingly than by argument they show the utility of paper. Manuscripts of the Gospels, of the Iliad, and of works of the highest merit, often of great beauty and accuracy, are dimly seen underneath stupid sermons, and theological writings of a nature so paltry that no man living cares to read them. In Some instances the first writing has been so thoroughly scrubbed out that its meaning is irretrievably lost.
“Much as paper was needed, it was not at all popular with copyists; their prejudice was not altogether unreasonable, for it was thick, coarse, knotty, and in every way unfitted for the display or ornamental penmanship or illumination. The cheaper quality, then known as cotton paper, was especially objectionable.  It seems to have been so badly made as to need governmental interference. Frederick II, of Germany, in the year 1221, foreseeing evils that might arise from bad paper, made a decree by which he made invalid all public documents that should be put on cotton paper, and ordered them within two years to be transcribed upon parchment.  Peter II, of Spain, in the year 1338, publicly commanded the paper-makers of Valencia and Xativa to make their paper of a better quality and equal to that of an earlier period.
“The better quality of paper, now known as linen paper, had the merits of strength, flexibility, and durability in a high degree, but it was set aside by the copyists because the fabric was too thick and the surface was too rough. The art of calendering or polishing papers until they were of a smooth, glossy surface, which was then practised by the Persians, was unknown to, or at least unpractised by, the early European makers   ...
“There is a popular notion that the so-called inventions of paper and xylographic printing were gladly welcomed by men of letters, and that the new fabric and the new art were immediately pressed into service. The facts about to be presented in succeeding chapters will lead to a different conclusion. We shall see that the makers of playing cards and of image prints were the men who first made extended use of printing, and that self-taught and unprofessional copyists were the men who gave encouragement to the manufacture of paper. The more liberal use of paper at the beginning of the 15th century by this newly-created class of readers and book-buyers marks the period of transition and of mental and mechanical development for which the crude arts of paper-making and of black printing had been waiting for centuries. We shall also see that if paper had been ever so cheap and common during the Middle Ages, it would have worked no changes in education or literature; it could not have been used by the people, for they were too illiterate; it would not have been used by the professional copyists, for they preferred vellum and despised the substitute.
“The scarcity of vellum in one century, and its abundance in another, are indicated by the size of written papers during the same periods. Before the sixth century, legal documents were generally written upon one side only; in the tenth century the practice of writing upon both sides of the vellum became common. During the thirteenth century valuable documents were often written upon strips two inches wide and but three and a half inches long. At the end of the fourteenth century these strips went out of fashion. The more general use of paper had diminished the demand for vellum and increased the supply. In the fifteenth century, legal documents on rolls of sewed vellum twenty feet in length were not uncommon. All the valuable books of the fourteenth century were written on vellum. In the library of the Louvre the manuscripts on paper, compared to those on vellum, were as one to twenty-eight; in the library of the Dukes of Burgundy, one-fifth of the books were of paper.  The increase in the proportion of paper books is a fair indication of the increasing popularity of paper; but it is obvious that vellum was even then considered as the more suitable substance for a book of value.”  (- De Vinn, quoted for review from "Medieval Ink")

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