Francois Deroche and Yasmeen Khan made a visit to the University of Iowa Special Collections to look at Islamic and Arabic manuscripts in late March 2017. They were in town to give their Mellon Sawyer lectures and Khan was set to give a one-day Islamic bookbinding workshop [see blog post]. The UI has a small collection of Islamic and Arabic manuscripts, including Qur’ans and Quranic commentaries, and a beautifully illustrated 16th-century Shahnama, the Persian Book of Kings. The collection also includes a rare Arabic Christian manuscript, Forty Monastic Stories, dating to the late 1600s and produced in Egypt. We spent a few hours in Special Collections looking through materials and this was a great opportunity to learn more about the Islamic and Arabic manuscripts in the collection and choose materials that Seminar participants would be allowed to see and handle during the Seminar meeting the following day.
One of the most striking things, for me, was Deroche and Khan’s interest in the paper used in the manuscripts. We pulled out the light sheet and began looking for watermarks, which can provide important provenance and dating information. Islamic paper, as a general rule, does not have watermarks, so the presence of a watermark indicates that the manuscript contains European paper, which can provide information about the manuscript’s place of production and use. There was a great trade in European paper with the Ottoman lands across the Adriatic and to north Africa. Ironically, it was the Arabs that brought the technology of papermaking to Europe in the 10th century, but by the 17th century, it was the Europeans [especially the French and Italians] who were exporting paper to the Islamic lands of the Mediterranean.
The following day, after the Seminar lectures [by Deroche, Khan, Schmidtke, Luijendijk and Nongbri] Seminar participants had the opportunity to examine some of the Islamic and Arabic manuscripts in the UI Special Collections. Deroche showed the Seminar group one of the watermarks in the Christian Arabic manuscript, in the UI Special Collections, Forty Monastic Stories – which discusses the Coptic Christian monasteries of Egypt. The manuscript contains two watermarks. The first is one of the most common European watermarks found in Arabic manuscripts – the tre lune/ three crescents – produced by Italian and French papermakers and marketed to the Ottoman market [below right]. It lacked the Christian connotations that were associated with many European watermarks, making it acceptable to Muslim book makers [and their religious authorities]. The second, a crown topped with a crescent and star [below left], dates its production to the late 1600s – making it 300 years older than previously thought – demonstrating the value of watermarks dating!
Deroche shows Seminar participants the watermarks in one of the UI Arabic manuscripts. Seminar participants examined the UI manuscripts and convened for a Seminar discussion at the end of the day.
The Mellon Sawyer Seminar reconvened February 18th  to make palm leaf manuscripts and experiment with writing on birch bark, the substrate used in the earliest known Buddhist manuscripts. Most of the day was spent at the University of Iowa Center for the Book, making a palm leaf manuscript and learning how to produce writing on the slippery surface of the talipot palm. Jim Canary, Head Conservator at the Lilly Library, Indiana University [Bloomington, IN] led us through the process of making the palm leaf manuscript and scribing on the sheets of palm, which he sourced in his travels in Cambodia and Thailand. Fellow seminar presenters Justin McDaniel [U.Penn] and Richard Salomon [U.Washington] took part in the workshop, adding their observations about manuscript use throughout the day.
We began at the beginning – watching the following video demonstrating the harvest, processing and production of palm by laymen and Buddhist monks.
This video was produced by the Traditional Palm Leaf Manuscripts Preservation Project, Rangiri Technical Centre, Dambulla (2009) on the island nation of Sri Lanka. Dambulla is north east of the city Colombo, where a number of the palm leaf manuscripts in the U.Iowa Special Collections were purchased.
The palm leaves were first trimmed to width, using a template. Two lacing holes were also punched through the palm leaf using the same temple. This worked best for the daylong workshop, but in production in southeast Asia, the palm would be assembled between its wooden covers [for books using posts instead of string for the binding] then trimmed by running a a sharp blade against the covers, and finished by burning the edges with a hot metal rod [see video]. This provides a uniform shape to all the sheets and ensures that it will fit neatly between the wooden covers once it is scribed and ready to be re-bound.
Palm leaf manuscripts are not written upon, but etched into. The surface of the palm is too slick for ink to adhere well to. Instead, the scribe etches/scratches into the surface of the palm using a sharp metal or bamboo stylus. This scratches away the shiny, protective, top layer of the leaf, leaving lines of almost invisibly etched writing. Ink is then rubbed into the etched line, and wiped away, miraculously leaving only the inked writing. We used calligraphy ink, but Justin McDaniel noted [from his time as a Buddhist monk] that the ink used in Thai Buddhist manuscript production comes from the ash of the funerary pyres. Hence, the writing in the books come from human bodies!
Participants spent several hours trimming and punching their palm leaf sheets, inscribing and inking their texts and decorations into the leaves.
Covers were then assembled. These had been pre-cut, holes drilled, and painted, ready for cord to be laced through.
The holes are punched through the palm leaf and sometimes cauterized with a hot poker [like the sides after trimming] and threaded with string or cord to keep leaves together. In some traditions, the whole is not punched, but still remains part of the page layout – with a dot and circle indicating where the hole would be. This is the case with some Tibetan manuscripts produced on paper [see photo below]. Does this reference some original exemplar [on palm leaf], and demonstrate the movement and copying of certain Buddhist texts across Asia?
Kalzang Dorjee Bhutia demonstrated the proper technique for wrapping up a palm leaf manuscript.
Jim Canary then demonstrated how to cut a reed pen and use a Tibetan ink pot.
Participants also learned about preparation of birch bark for writing. The earliest known Buddhist manuscripts from Gandhara [today N. Pakistan] were written on birch bark. Visiting scholar Richard Salomon had given a lecture on these manuscripts the previous day and all were eager to test out this material with newly cut reed pens and ink. Tim Barrett had sourced the birch bark from Michigan and UICB MFA student Johan Solberg painstakingly peeled layers of the bark away to create the proper thickness, flexibility and writing surface. The trick appeared to be to work carefully and slowly and avoid areas with knots from the tree trunk. Thank you Johan!
Reed pens and ink were tested on the birch bark, which has a fine fuzzy surface that quickly absorbs the ink.
Some Tibetan manuscripts from Jim Canary’s collection.
The final Mellon Sawyer Workshop focused on the craft of north African bookbinding in the early Christian era. Book conservator Julia Miller began the workshop day with a presentation on the Coptic codices of Nag Hammadi, Egypt – followed by a workshop on Ethiopic madhar binding with Gary Frost.
The Nag Hammadi codices are extremely important in the history of the book, since they are the oldest surviving complete codices in the Christian tradition. Mostly single-quire codices [consisting of one gathering of papyrus sheets], they were produced in Egypt in the 4th century and contain gnostic Christian texts written in Sahidic Coptic, including gospels [the only complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas], prayers, and apocrypha. We have fragmentary evidence of earlier codices, for example – evidence of multi-quire codices dating to the 2nd century, but these are the earliest examples of the codex that exist in the western tradition. Ten of the surviving eleven Nag Hammadi codices are housed at the Coptic Museum in Cairo [originally discovered at near Nag Hammadi, Egypt].
Julia Miller, Conservator Emerita at the University of Michigan Libraries, brought her models of the Nag Hammadi and other early Coptic codices and gave a presentation on these books, available here [slides with text, no audio].
Julia’s research on the Nag Hammadi codices was conducted at the Coptic Museum in Cairo, with book conservator Pam Spitzmueller [formerly of UI, and Harvard Libraries], and she is finishing up a book on the Nag Hammadi codices, Meeting by Accident: Selected Historical Bindings [forthcoming, Legacy Press].
Miller notes in an essay co-authored by Spitzmueller, “Cairo in August: Researching the Nag Hammadi Codices,” that the leather on the covers is in excellent condition [considering their age], largely because of the dry Egyptian desert climate which has prevented the dry rot that so often damages leather books in more humid climates [Bonefolder, Volume 4, Number 2, Spring 2008].
Miller noted that the skills involved in constructing and decorating the leather covers on early Coptic codices were skills already established in other craft traditions, such as shoe-making and trades that involved lacing, painting, tooling leather. She has mentioned seeing beautifully crafted leather work at the Coptic Museum, including a funerary shroud from Fayum, painted with parchment lacing and decorative cut outs resembling the tooling on early Coptic codex covers from Hamuli and Edfu. This discussion of the early craft antecedents of the codex is something that UI Conservator Emeritus Gary Frost has been discussing for years, and has recently been articulated by Georgios Boudalis, in his 2015 lecture ‘The Making of the Early Codex and the Crafts of Late Antiquity’ [see lecture video below]. This idea will be explored more in the symposium ‘Early Codices: Production, Destruction, and Modern Conservation’ at the Bard Graduate Center in NYC [Feb. 2018].
Miller also discussed five other single-quire papyrus codices: Bodmer XIV [3rd c.], Crosby-Schoyen MS 193 [3/4th c.], the Tchacos codex [4th c.], SBB Or. oct.987 [4th c.], and P.Mich. Inv. 1289 [c. 6th c.]. She had made models of these structures, as well as some early multi-quire codices, which she shared with the Seminar group.
Miller’s Nag Hammadi models arrived in Iowa in advance of her visit, for the earlier Mellon Sawyer Workshop on April 1 [see Asian Palm Leaf Workshop post]. We were lucky to get her models a couple of weeks early to coincide with the lectures by AnneMarie Luijendijk and Brent Nongbri. Brent used Julia’s models to give a short presentation on early Coptic manuscript production. Brent is a scholar of early Christian texts, and discussed the production of these manuscripts, their discovery at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and some of the variations between the surviving bindings. We were very lucky to have these books here at Iowa in April and learned a lot about early Christian book production!
Brent Nongbri and Miller’s model of a Nag Hammadi codex.
Miller’s presentation was followed by a workshop by Gary Frost on Ethiopic madhar bindings. Mellon Sawyer participants each made a small model of an Ethopic book and madhar carrying case, from previously assembled book kits. Elise Hochhalter, UI graduate student [Book Arts MFA / Library Science MA] and book conservation assistant, started the workshop out with a presentation on Ethiopic books, demonstrating examples from the model collection and the UI Special Collections, which housed four Ethiopic manuscripts in their original bindings.
Participants sewed their books, using a link stitch sewing in paired stations. The link stitch has a long and fascinating history, and is believed to have first been used by Coptic Christians in Egypt, before it was brought to Ethiopia in the 4th century with the spread of Christian texts in north Africa. The Ethiopic board attachment [method of attaching the boards/covers to the textblock] uses channels drilled into the wooden covers, which the sewing thread passes through while sewing the first and last gatherings of the book. It is a sophisticated technical improvement over the Coptic bindings of the period, and protects the thread from wear and damage at the cover.
After the link stitch was sewn through the book’s wooden covers, end sheets were attached and the madhar case constructed. These protective carrying cases [above] are commonly associated with Ethiopic book production and allowed the manuscripts to be easily transported. The leather madhar cases are blind-tooled to match the covers of the books. Encasing texts in leather cases is not reserved for large manuscripts. This technique is also seen with small talismanic Ethiopic scrolls, which can be sewn closed into full leather cases which are ritually sealed and offer healing and spiritual protection to the wearer.
Mellon Sawyer participants had a chance to examine the Ethiopic manuscripts from UI Special Collections during the workshop. The collection includes at least 4 bindings generously donated by Fritz James, dating from the 19th to the 20th centuries. Though these are not early Ethiopic books, they are created in exactly the same way they were 600 years ago, scribed in black and red in Ge’ez, on parchment, with wooden covers [sometimes covered in tooled leather] and leather carrying cases. This continuation of early book production technologies is the most durable of all traditions in the western tradition. One outlier in the collection is an Ethiopic book bound not in leather, but in cloth, over wood and corrugated cardboard covers! One of the wood covers likely fell off and was replaced by more readily available cardboard. Folk repairs abound in the Ethiopic and Coptic binding traditions and one often sees that the books’ wooden covers have broken in half and are sewn together with thread to prevent them from detaching.
The workshop was packed, with 30 participants attempting to make an Islamic book in an 8-hour work day. Because of the complexity of the book-to-be-made and the short duration allotted in which to complete it, I divided the group into working pairs, each consisting of a bookbinder and a non-binder. It was not difficult to find willing bookbinders at the UI Center for the Book to fill out the ranks!
The book was a model of a 15th-century Turkish binding, with some nods to Persian decoration. It was made with a two-part cover – upper and lower cover made of book board, which is attached to a cloth spine liner, then covered in leather and tooled [instead of using one large piece of leather to cover the entire book]. The lower cover had an envelope flap which sat under the upper cover when closed. At the spine edge of the upper and lower cover, the leather was pared thin and adhered to the spine, one piece overlapped the other. The two-part covering style is found on many Turkish bindings [among others], though it is often not detected because the overlapping leather often looks seamless on the spine.
The workshop began with a viewing of an Islamic Papermaking video made by the filmmaker father of Mellon Sawyer participant and papermaker Radha Pandey, who herself teaches Islamic papermaking throughout the US and abroad [check out her tour schedule and work at: www.radhapandey.com]. The video, in Urdu, discusses the steps involved in making paper with Islamic techniques and discusses the lineage of a papermaking family within the town of Sanganer, Rajasthan – a place known for paper and textile production. Fiber is prepared from a mix of raw hemp and torn strips of recycled manuscript which are beaten and stamped in water to form a pulp.
Copyright: Riverbank Studios, New Delhi.
Filmed in Sanganer, Rajasthan.
Indo-Islamic papermaking uses a mould with detachable screen and deckle sticks. Sheets are pulled, transferred to a stack or post and pressed slowly using weights [also seen in Japanese papermaking]. Sheets are then brushed onto plastered walls outside to dry [this is seasonal production therefore, not possible during the monsoons]. As noted, many of these processes are similar to techniques and tools used in Nepalese and east Asian papermaking. Dry sheets are then coated with a light coating of wheat starch, dried and burnished to give them a crisp sheen and make them suitable to take ink without bleeding. European papers were burnished, but not to the extent of Islamic papers, which were traditionally burnished to a lustrous sheen.
In the Middle Ages, papermaking moved from China to Europe through Islamic craftspeople and trade routes, so to study Islamic paper is to study this critical cultural link connecting eastern and western traditions. Paper transformed every culture that it was introduced to, so the role of Islamic paper on European culture should not be underestimated. Jonathan Bloom explores this history in his Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World.
We began by sewing the sections of the book together, a task helped along with some pre-prep [sections pre-punched, sewing begun]. The book block contained 18 sections, sewn in a single paired station using a simple and fast link stitch. The link stitch has a fascinating and complex history! It appears on the earliest codices from Coptic Egypt, and is a technology that was shared across early Christian cultures from north Africa [Egypt and Ethiopia], throughout the Near and Middle East [Byzantium, Armenia, Georgia, Syria] to northern Europe [8th-c. St. Cuthbert Gospel of John]. Each culture adapted the link stitch to their own needs and textual traditions. With the 7th-century rise of Islam, Muslims adopted this link stitch sewing for production of the Koran and Koranic commentaries. The adaptation of the link by Muslim binders is light [few stations/holes, light thread], as compared to the heavier application seen in Byzantine bindings [more stations/holes, heavier sewing thread often formed in an extended/reinforced link]. This is due to the early adoption of paper by Muslim scribes and bookmakers, which creates a book block that exerts less stress on the binding than a parchment book block. Many texts were also meant to be read supported in a book cradle, which reduced stress on the binding. In any case, we sewed our books and started in on the next step.
We gave our book spines a slight round and added a cotton cloth spine liner, before jumping into the final task for the morning, sewing Islamic headbands.
The Islamic chevron headband has an intimidating reputation, but, like all headbands it just requires some practice to understand the logic of the sewing pattern and a little time to get into the groove. Even experienced binders need a formal introduction, so we set up an Islamic chevron headband tutorial the day before the workshop, so the binders could get a couple under their belts before assisting their non-binder partners during the workshop day. We met in the UI Book Conservation Lab and Khan walked binders through the steps of sewing the chevron headbands. It is basically a two-part headband consisting of a primary support of leather and thread fastened to the head and tail of the book, and a secondary sewing of two colors of silk thread sewn in like a weaving across the primary support. The trick with the chevron headband is to keep the tension light on the ends [left and right] so you end up with an even pattern that sits proudly the full width of the spine, and doesn’t end up shrunken up and deformed at the ends. I forgot to take a detail of this in action, but this site outlines the steps. The Mellon Sawyer seminar often visited the topic of the craft origins of early book technologies. The woven nature of the Islamic headband sewing connects this bookbinding technologies to ancient craft production in the Near and Middle East, as it replicates established patterns and systems used in weaving tapestries, rugs, and cloth. This is true not only of headbands, but leather work, binding structures and closures.
On the day of the workshop, the headband sewing went remarkably well! Khan provided a walk-through on the overhead projector – a brilliant way to provide detailed step-by-step instructions for participants. Headbands anchor the book at the head and tail [top and bottom] and provide stability and support to the book. They also cover and protect the folds of the book at the head and tail and are beautiful! To lay the foundation for the chevron sewing, the primary headband is anchored down to the book through the center of each section or gathering, using the pre-punched holes [we pre-punched, but generally headband tie-downs are all over the place, and it is often much easier to just ‘sew as you go’ than to find pre-punched holes]. Francois Deroche, the father of Islamic codicology, had a eureka experience at this step, discovering that the quire marks made at the outside corners of the sections are marks used by the binders to find the center of gatherings when sewing the headbands. That was pretty cool and lends credence to what we already know at the Center for the Book, making informs knowing in ways that are sometimes surprising.
After a much-needed midday lunch break [delicious Mediterranean fare], participants continued work on their headbands. By mid-afternoon we had completed our book blocks, headbands and all, are were ready to turn to the covers, cover decoration and attachment.
The book, in a style not uncommon to Turkish and other Islamic binding traditions, is constructed with a two-part cover – the upper [front] cover, and lower [back] cover with an envelope flap that sits under the upper cover when the book is closed. This two-part cover allows the leather to be tooled off the book, then attached [with overlapping pared leather at the spine], and also allows the binder to make use of smaller sections of leather [instead of needing a large piece of leather to cover the entire book]. It is often a difficult technique to detect, since the overlapped leather on the spine can appear as one piece.
Because we had so much to accomplish, the bookboard covers were cut and covered with leather in advance of the workshop, by a dedicated team of binders who cut, pared, trimmed and pasted the leather to the covers [thanks Bill Voss, Giselle Simon, Sarah Luko, Johan Solberg, Julie Leoard, Suzanne Glemot, Candida Pagan!]
On the day of the workshop, participants blind-tooled their leather covers before attaching them to the book. Blind tooling involves creating impressions into dampened leather using metal [or other] tools. It is referred to as ‘blind’ since it is plain, without gold or colored pigments.
We first framed our covers with double-lined marks, impressed into the dampened leather with a bone folder [low tech way to go if you don’t have metal tools]. Khan brought a die stamp, cut to the shape of a mandorla for the center of the covers, and a smaller stamp for the envelope flap. Leather was dampened and nipped under pressure, the metal tool creating impressions in the leather. The placement was determined by scoring a single vertical and horizontal lines across the center of the upper and lower covers. These cross-hair lines have long been used by Islamic binders to center decorative tools in the middle of the covers. The vertical score marks even became integrated into the decorative motifs on covers, in the Persian, Turkish, Ottoman and other Islamic traditions – with vertical lines extending from the central mandorla becoming tooled in gold. This is a great example of how process can influence decorative techniques.
After tooling was complete, Khan gave a quick demo on leather paring [thinning the edge of leather] and handed the covering demo over to Radha Pandey who demonstrated how to attach the covers to the book. The overhead projector came in handy again! The covers were attached to the spine, the cotton spine liner glued to the boards.
The final step was to glue up the paste downs, the papers attached to the inside of the covers and the envelope flap. Giselle Simon and I made the gold-flecked endsheet papers ahead of time. I painted a light weight [Mohawk] paper blue, allowing it to dry, then pasted it out with a water solution containing 2% methyl cellulose, and sprinkle-brushed gold leaf through a rigid screen so it fell in uneven bits onto the tacky paper. I then pressed each sheet between newsprint and tyvek [so the leaf would stick to the paper, not the tyvek]. Sheets were then allowed to dry overnight under weight [and wax paper to prevent gold from sticking to anything], and cut down to size for the workshop.
With end sheets pasted down – the books were done and proudly displayed!
How, when and why did oral texts get written down? One may think that an oral tradition of preserving scriptural knowledge would be less precise than a written textual one. Writing, in the western Christian tradition, has long been held up as the best way to preserve [and control] sacred texts. It fixed them and allowed them to be controlled by Roman Christian imperial and early Church authorities. Beyond manuscript writing even, the printing press was hailed as a tool that could further standardize Christian texts like the Bible in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Committing the text to print, instead of manuscript writing, could more firmly fix it in place so that it could not be altered by the unauthorized user. But how were texts best preserved and maintained in the ancient near east?
The ancient Iranian prophet Mani [c. 216-274 CE] and his followers, the Manichaeans, insisted that writing legitimized and authenticated their religious texts. Mani wrote out his own religious texts – the only religious leader to do so in the premodern era – and advocated for the scribal authority of sacred texts [on the Manichaean predilection for writing and the codex, see Paul Dilley’s lecture here]. However, Jewish rabbis and the Zoroastrian priests of ancient Iran maintained the primacy of the oral transmission of their sacred texts – long after their cultures had adopted technologies of writing. Orality, not writing, preserved the most authoritative versions of religious texts. Only a Jewish rabbi could safeguard the accuracy and proper interpretation of sacred texts. Authoritative rulings on texts were oral. It was even said that rabbinic texts resided in the belly, bones or rooms of the heart, suggesting the deep personal significance of memorization. The living body was the repository of texts, not the parchment scroll or codex.
Religious texts such as the Talmud [including the Mishnah] and ethical tracts [such as the Tractate Avot] were transmitted orally and not written out until well into the first millennium CE. Testimonials by Maimonides and others mention the writing out of early sacred Jewish texts during the late Geonic period [8-11th c.], but the earliest dated manuscripts date to the 11th century. Secunda discussed a Mishnah fragment, dating to 1066 CE and the earliest datable Talmud fragment, dating to 1085 [Egypt]. The Cairo Geniza, a storeroom holding 300,000 fragments of worn or fragmentary Jewish texts in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, has been important in dating some of these earliest examples of written rabbinic texts. Many of the Cairo Geniza fragments have been digitized as part of the Friedberg Genizah Project and Princeton Geniza Project [be sure to catch Marina Rustow’s April 28 lecture on the Cairo Geniza].
In contrast to the Torah, most surviving early rabbinic texts [Talmud and Avot] are from codices, very few [4-5] survive from scrolls. Those that do are on parchment or leather. This apparent preference for the codex over the scroll for these particular texts happens because, by the 8th c. CE, when these texts are committed to writing, the codex was the dominant carrier of writing. The Torah, still today associated with the scroll, was committed to writing in a much earlier period [pre-codex, before 3rd c. CE], when the scroll was the dominant manuscript format. As Secunda states, rabbinic Jews continued to use the scroll for certain sacred texts [like the Torah] because the codex didn’t have the ‘gravitas’ that the scroll did. The birth of the Torah as a written text was inexorably tied to the scroll form, an association that remained because the rabbis invested it with sacrality. How texts are written down, and what they are written down on, is tied to the dominant book culture of the period in which they move from oral to written form.
When does this move from oral to written occur? Secunda noted that, for rabbinic texts, the late Geonic period – especially c. 750 CE – appears to be an important date, with many texts committed to writing in this period. At this time, ‘Babylonia’ [so-called by medieval Talmudic scholars] – modern day Iraq – was the center of the Jewish diaspora. The Talmudic Academies there were the centers for Jewish scholarship and rabbinic law, and their leaders – the Geonim – were important compilers of rabbinic texts. As early as c. 550 CE, the Geonim had completed the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud. It was in this place of learning and Jewish scholarship that a number of texts, previously only transmitted orally, were written down. The mid 8th century may have been a critical period for Jewish communities in this region, perhaps because of the instability caused by a shift in power from the Ummayad to the Abbasid Caliphate, making it necessary to commit previously oral texts to writing to ensure their survival within a new diaspora.
The Zoroastrians had a similar tradition of orally transmitting texts. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of ancient Persia [modern Iran] from the 6th c. BCE to the 7th c. CE. In the case of the Zoroastrians, the shift from orality to writing appears to have taken place within the context of the imperial promulgation of texts during the early Sasanian Empire [225-651 CE]. In the 3rd century, a high priest and imperial advisor named Kerdir boasted about the production of written texts in the imperial bureaucracy and the organization of the Avesta, the sacred Zoroastrian scriptures [in an epigraphic record at Naqsh-I Rajab, known as Kerdir’s inscription]. Here the writing down of sacred texts appears to have occurred under the sponsorship of the early Sasanian emperors, who may have had a stake in solidifying their position at the head of the Zoroastrian church state.
Trying to pinpoint when, where and why these shifts from orality to writing occur is one of the central questions of the Mellon Sawyer Seminar. It will be interesting to see how these dates, places and motives intersect with the introduction and spread of manuscript technologies [sheet materials, writing/ scripts, book forms], religions, political upheaval, movement of people, and the establishments of imperial bureaucracies. Based on discussions with other Mellon Sawyer visitors lecturing on eastern manuscript traditions, the establishment of imperial bureaucracies and the spread of religion appear to have been the primary forces behind the invention and spread of paper, the promulgation of scribal bureaucracies and the establishment of manuscript culture in medieval China [see lectures by Michael Friedrich, Susan Whitfield, TH Barrett and Abdurishid Yakup]. We hope the Mellon Sawyer mapping project [forthcoming, late 2017] will graphically illustrate how such factors overlap and intersect.
30 September 2016 – Mellon Sawyer Seminar Hands On Session
Mellon Sawyer Seminar participants met at the Oakdale Papermaking Facility near Iowa City on a beautiful autumn day to get hands on experience with manuscript and book technologies and production techniques. The workshop included scroll and codex structures, Nepalese and beaten bark papers, Japanese papermaking, western papermaking, parchment making, writing surfaces, tools and inks, and was led by professors and graduate students from the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book.
Book Conservator Gary Frost and Elise Hochhalter of the UICB demonstrated how to produce 3 book structures: a north African Nag Hammadi style tacket binding with a papyrus textblock, a Chinese ‘whirlwind’ book like those found in the book repositories of the caves of Dunhuang, China, and a folded pocketbook based on papyrus exemplars from dynastic Egypt.
The Coexistence of Scroll and Codex in the Classical West
The surviving evidence suggest that the codex [book bound on one edge] became the dominant carrier of textual information in western Europe by the 4th century [see the Leuven Database of Ancient Books and William Johnson’s lecture]. But both Gary Frost and Paul Dilley [in his “Roll to Codex?” lecture] emphasize that the roll/scroll and codex were in concurrent use for centuries before and after this date [btw, philologists prefer the term ‘roll’ over ‘scroll’, but they are interchangeable – I’m sure there’s a story there!]. Our idea of what early book use looked like – in the classical west at least – is heavily influenced by the form that came to dominate, the codex [i.e., the scroll was prevalent for longer that surviving evidence suggests]. The idea of the inevitable dominance of the codex may be colored by the underlying narrative of Christian triumphalism put forth by early Christian writers – the idea that the codex gained dominance over the pagan/classical scroll form because it held the word of God. It was meant to be. Instead, the codex may just have been a better survivor in those transitional centuries – physically speaking – and the numbers of surviving codex vs. scroll exemplars may present a skewed view of what was happening on the ground in the classical west. Frost noted that ‘a resulting survival disparity between the two formats skews our perspective of interaction and obscures their actual interdependent presences and functionalities at the time of their initial use.’ Continuity and co-existence of scroll and codex must be stressed. It was not a clash of formats, but a co-mingling, until the two forms gradually found their way into common use for certain texts – based on religious, cultural or literary custom.
Scroll or Codex – a Choice
When and why the scroll form was maintained in association with certain texts is a regular topic of discussion in the Seminar. Certain texts within certain cultural and religious traditions continued to be produced in scroll form long after the codex came to dominate. Sometimes this had to do with the sacred quality of a text – such as the Torah – and the religious customs of copying, storing and reading such a text within the Judaic tradition. Tradition also played a role in the use of scroll [over codex] for ‘published’ literary works in the Graeco-Roman world. It was just what one did with one’s finished work of literature. Custom here looked back to the great traditions of the past – a nod to the writers and orators who came before. In some cases, the choice of which form a text would take [scroll or codex] was decided based on the historical moment in which a certain text moved out of the oral tradition and into the written one.
Scroll to Codex Technology Transfer
So, why did people eventually move from scroll to codex as the carrier of textual information in the west? Frost emphasizes book commodity as a driving factor in this shift. The codex was more portable, easier to store [rectilinear and compact], its texts more accessible for reading and cross-referencing, than the scroll [though an argument can be made that cross-referencing was only one of many ways to use a text, and was not a driving factor if you’ve memorized a literary text]. Early users may also have noted that the codex preserved writing better. The codex sheet material was stored flat and remained flat when the book was opened and closed [so the writing surfaces did not rub together]. The scroll, which was rolled and unrolled was more likely to damage pigments and inks during use.
Thinking a bit past the ‘why’ question – we might ask how did this scroll to codex shift take place? The technology writing and sheet production (papyrus or parchment in the west) were already well-established. And when you see the scroll unfurled [as Frost does, above] with narrow columns of text running perpendicular to the length of the roll, it’s not a great leap to image folding it up, rather than rolling it. This was certainly something that happened in the Asian tradition, where the accordion style book was developed by folding the scroll perpendicular to its long width [and folding was also a way to store scrolls]. Other forms of folding long sheets took place long before this. In dynastic Egypt (thousands of years before the advent of the codex in the west, and before the accordion in the east) long papyrus sheets were folded along the length and then folded down into a compact packet for easy transportation [similar to the way birch bark manuscripts of northern Indian subcontinent have been found, rolled and folded – though these were ritualistic and religious in nature, and not meant to be transported and read later].
The Relationship of Book Format to Materials
It is also important to remember that book size and format has everything to do with the dimensional constraints of the materials originally used to construct that book. A folio size manuscript is dimensionally equal to the size of one trimmed and folded parchment goat skin. The Nag Hammadi codices [4th-c. Coptic gospel books], tall and thin by later book standards, related dimensionally to the papyrus that was available at the time and in that place [Egypt]. Similarly, early printed book formats in the west [15th and 16th c.] took their dimensions from standard papermaking mould sizes in use at the time. Format – here, in terms of dimension – originates with the particularities of materials.
Nepalese Papermaking Participants successfully made several sheets of paper while at the Mellon Sawyer workshop, including Nepalese paper which is made from raw Lokta fiber, the light inner bark of the Daphne bhoula, Daphne papyracea and other trees. We got a hold of some of Lokta fiber from Jim Canary, Book Conservator at Indiana University (thanks Jim!) and UICB MFA student Lisa Miles guided us through the end stages of the production process [post-cooking and rinsing]. Lokta fiber is cooked, rinsed and beaten very briefly [about 5 mins.] with a large wooden mallet, and picked clean of undesirable flecks of dark bark.
The beaten fiber is then mixed vigorously in water to form a slurry that is poured into a mould floating in a pool of water. A stick or hand can be used to evenly distribute the fiber throughout the mould. The mould is then pulled up from the vat, water drained and mould stacked in the sun to dry. This is an ancient, low-tech, method of making paper, traditionally done by husband and wife teams. Tim Barrett believes it was originally in use in China, c. 100 BC.
I was struck by the low tech nature of this production – still done today in Nepal as it was thousands of years ago, with minimal beating time and the floating mould technique for sheet formation. Papermaking later developed independently in China, Korea and Japan, each tradition moving to a method that used a single mould, with fresh paper transferred to a stack of wet sheets. This allowed the mould to be reused immediately to pull more sheets (rather than the Nepalese technique where each sheet stays on the mould until dry). This later method (which reused mould and transfered wet sheets to a stack) required more training and a lengthy apprenticeship to master, but produced a finer sheet more suitable for writing and artistic and textual production.
This opens up questions about the availability of unskilled domestic labor – domestic partners (and women and children) are always more abundant than a specialized labor force, which you’d have to select and train in a rigorous years-long apprentice system. Did low tech technologies spread more rapidly through premodern Asia than more skill-dependent ones? As long as you had water, wood, cloth, and a source for fiber, the floating mould style of production was low tech and relatively straightforward. In theory, it was a technology that could be transferred to anyone and any place with water and a source of fiber and wood (to build frames, cook fiber). Though easily transferable as a technology, the downside to production was that paper on the moulds had to dry and be peeled off before the mould could be used again. The floating mould style required space, sunshine and many moulds. Was it a more stationary technology because of this or did it spread easily because of its low tech investment? Interestingly, Arab papermaking in North India uses a floating mold technique, though sheets are dried by brushing them out on a plaster wall in the sun.
Lisa Miles also showed us some examples of Mesoamerican bark paper that she had collected from her recent travels. Bark paper is not paper in the proper sense, but the inner bark of trees laid in strips and beaten to form a uniform sheet material. Barrett and Miles suggest these methods are close to those still practiced in Indonesia today. To their knowledge, the earliest dated Indonesian bark paper dates to the 14th century, but the technique is older and may have had a significant role in the early transmission of Eurasian manuscripts.
Japanese Papermaking UICB MFA student Johan Solberg patiently shepherded participants through the process of making Japanese paper. Japanese fiber comes from the inner bark of trees (such as Mulberry), which is steamed, stripped, cooked and beaten with wooden mallets for extended periods of time. The beaten fiber is then mixed in deep vats of water with a viscous formation aid (made from Tororo-Aoi root) and ‘pulled’ with a sugeta – a handsewn bamboo screen (su) and frame (keta). Participants noted how much rhythm and dexterity was required to successfully pull Japanese sheets (sometimes in moans and grunts)! This is difficult work, and requires much practice, trial and error to master.
Another difference between the floating mould and later papermaking techniques is the use of a formation aid – Nepalese/floating mould method using none (just fiber and water) and Japanese using the viscous liquid produced from the root of the Tororo-Aoi plant. The liquid, mixed with fiber and water, prevents the water from draining too quickly from the mould and allows the fiber to spread evenly across the sugeta to form a well-distributed sheet suitable for writing. Participants took a walk at noon to visit the Mulberry bushes and Tororo-Aoi plants used for production of Japanese Kozo paper at Oakdale. The Mulberry is harvested each year the week of Thanksgiving (mark your calendars-need all hands on deck!) in order to prep fiber for winter, the traditional time for Japanese paper production.
Participants also got their hands wet making western style paper. The process differs from Asian papermaking in its use of a mould with a screen and different types of fiber – such as flax, cotton, hemp. It also uses wool felts as interleaving between sheets of paper, which allows them to be pressed before drying. The team at Oakdale Papermaking Facility has made fantastic strides in understanding historic paper production techniques by replicating a day in the life of a late medieval papermaker. Here is a video of their marathon-style experiments in trying to replicate the production of 2,000 sheets a day of chancery paper. This first marathon session did not produce this goal, but much was learned in the process – and it inspired a repeat performance [summer 2016] which was successful. Whew. Note: keep all those old linen tablecloths from your Grandma – those make great paper!
The back deck was the site of parchment production, using medieval tools [mostly] and two goat skins. The skins had already been de-haired and de-fleshed by parchment-maker extraordinaire Jesse Meyer, of Pergamena in upstate New York [thanks Jesse!]. Jesse’s family has been making leather for almost 500 years, and he now makes parchment as well. Jesse was helpful in advising me and book conservation lab technician Bill Voss on how to get the job done. I made the wooden stretching frames and Bill fashioned a scraping lunarium from a circular saw blade and copper tubing covered with leather – and it worked! Skins were stretched on the frame, tears mended, skin stretched, dried and sanded to produce a product suitable for writing. Simple process, but like all things – easy to do, hard to do well.
Parchment overtook papyrus as dominant sheet material for codices in the 5th century – perhaps because it was better suited for the newly dominant book form, the codex, which required folding [instead of rolling, like a scroll/roll].
It was overwhelming to think of the vast numbers of animals it took to produce one book. For a large [folio size] liturgical manuscript, for example, each folded sheet was made from the skin of one animal [goat, calf, sheep]. It is easy to see how the parchment-making industry went hand in hand with animal husbandry and the slaughter of animals for meat – every part was used. It was also striking to think of the work and cost involved in producing one sheet of parchment vs. one sheet of western paper. Paper had been used in Italy (e.g., the papal chancery) for centuries before paper mills and the craft of papermaking arrived in the 13th century. However, parchment was king until the advent of the printing press in the mid-15th century. Printing on parchment was difficult – and with the number of books that were being produced, it became impossible [in terms of animals, labor, time] to fill the printer’s growing demand for sheet material. Paper was likely ten times cheaper than parchment, easier to print on – and as the Atlas of Early Printing shows, paper could be produced much more quickly to meet the demands of presses popping up all over Europe. Printing was the catalyst for the wide-spread adoption of paper as the dominant sheet material in western Europe. This type of shift in use of materials and the material connections to texts is of central interest to the Seminar.
Calligraphy and Scribal Practice UICB calligraphy professor Cheryl Jacobsen gave participants a brief intro to Scriptorium 101. How were texts produced with quill, nib, bamboo, reed and brush? What inks and sheet materials were used – and how do tools and materials relate to the texts they hold? With her expert eye and knowledge of the hand’s relationship to pen stroke and sheet, she broke down some basic letters and how they are constructed on the page. This was illuminating for participants, who came away with a reverence for medieval scribes – the good ones and even the bad ones! It took thousands of hours of practice on hundreds of texts to produce an accomplished scribe – an equation that hasn’t changed in 1,500 years. The knowledge of how penstrokes are made and the order and number of penstrokes is helpful for paleographers and those studying ancient scripts and ‘hands’ [the handwriting of an individual scribe]. For example in a Gothic script like littera textualis, the number of penstrokes to make an ‘e’ for example, can vary depending on whether the scribe is copying out a formal treatise [4 penstrokes] or a quickly copied text in a simplified littera textualis [2 penstrokes]. Training the hand can inform the eye.
Conclusions from the Workshop The transformation of raw materials into text-ready manuscript sheets felt miraculous. As much as one can understand intellectually how manuscripts were produced in the Middle Ages – the direct interaction with materials is illuminating. It both de-mystifies the process [because at a basic level, it’s simple] and leaves one in awe of the labor, materials, and skill that were required to produce medieval texts. We took one step closer to the experience of the medieval craftsperson and an understanding of the material aspects of the texts we study as historians, philologists, scientists, and digital humanists.