The book: from silk, papyrus and parchment rolls to paper sheets

The history of the book is a long and peculiar one, strictly inter-woven with that of writing itself with which it is often identified, sometimes generating a little confusion. It is not easy for modern men to imagine 3000-year-old stones engraved with phrases as the forefathers of modern books, which we are used to reading comfortably seated on our sofa.

Luisa Canovi

The symbols ideated by human beings in every part of the world to communicate have progressively become different kinds of writing, transcribed on various materials that have nothing to do with the paper we use today. Through its 5000-year history, writing has met the book in its modern form only 1500 years ago; many more years will be necessary before the book takes on its definite shape.

Before the advent of paper sheets, other supports were used for writing: leaves, pieces of bones, animal shells, stones, clay, wood, waxed tables, fabrics, papyrus, animal leather and many others. Each of these materials has its own characteristics, and required suitable tools able to engrave cuneiform, hieroglyphic characters, ideograms, alphabetic signs etc, according to the various kinds of writing.

Excluding the most primitive materials such as leaves, bones and stones, the veritable forefathers of paper are those materials that are more similar and closer to paper itself, not as far as physical composition, rather for their similarity to paper as a support for writing: silk fabrics, papyrus sheets and parchment leather.

So, the book in its most common aspect, i.e., as an object made up of folded sheets, gathered in pamphlets, sewn together and bound, was not born in a single place; rather, it appeared in different geographical places, evolving from previous forms dependent on the materials used.

BEFORE THE INVENTION OF PAPER, WHICH DATES BACK TO 105 A.D., IN CHINA, AND ITS SLOW DIFFUSION WESTWARD, THE MAIN MATERIALS USED FOR WRITING WERE THREE: silk (in the Far East), papyrus (in the Mediterranean basin), parchment (in Asia Minor). Curiously, but naturally, all of these three materials could acquire the same shape, after being wound around a stick. Only one face was written on and people used to read it by keeping the roll with one hand while unwinding it with the other; then the roll would be wound up again from the opposite side (the same vertical reading that we can find today on the internet!).

When fibre felting was invented in China, and gave birth to paper – which, cheaper and quicker to produce, replaced silk – the same use of winding the sheet around a bamboo stick was maintained.

But, differently from silk, paper is not suitable for such a use, especially because rolls were usually placed horizontally, thus causing paper to be crushed and folded.

Probably the idea of the first book with veritable pages originated from crushed rolls; this book was later to be called concertina book, because it consisted of a long paper sheet folded alternatively upstream and downstream so as to be easily opened and closed. Unlike silk, paper maintains the folds, which confer it rigidity and sturdiness, and this is the reason that it was quite natural to abandon the roll shape and use the folded one.

FROM THE CONCERTINA BOOK, OFTEN TOO LONG AND NOT EASY TO USE, THE FIRST BOOKS SEWN ON THE BACK SIDE WERE BORN, WHICH COULD BE OPENED PAGE BY PAGE. Considering that a folded book could also be read by turning over the pages along the folded sides, the idea of sewing the opposite side was born, so as to facilitate the use of the book. The pages of the sewn book remained double, just like the pages in the old uncut western books, and were called “sack pages”.

These had a double function, aesthetic and practical: the first one consists of the pleasant tactile sensation given by the folded border if compared with the cut page. But, most of all, the folded page was more practical for brush writing. In eastern calligraphy, the ink often penetrated into the paper fibres, thus staining the back of the page. With the “sack page”, the stains remain hidden internally. From simple functional bindings, the Chinese and Japanese stitching evolve into veritable decorative items and are given poetic and inventive names such as tortoise-shell or bird-claw binding, and are often defined sight stitching.

FROM THE FAR EAST TO EUROPE: THE EARLIER BOOKS OF THE ROMAN CHRISTIAN AGE, ORIGINATING FROM THE UNION BETWEEN CODICES AND VOLUMES, WERE VERY SIMILAR TO THE BACK-SEWN EASTERN BOOKS IN STRUCTURE. The words codices and volumes, which in Italian are today both synonyms of the word book, originally had a quite different meaning: their use in connection with writing brought about the current meaning. The codex was a small wooden table that was waxed to be used for writing; when more codices were bound together through leather strips on the back side, this item was still called codex although more similar to a book. Extremely heavy and rigid, the codex had the advantage of an easier division of pages with respect to the other system used by Romans, i.e., the Egyptian papyrus roll.

The Romans used to call it “volumen”, noun that derives from the Latin verb for “to wind”; it was made up of a single long sheet consisting of papyrus strips overlapped side by side. So the Romans tried to use the advantages offered by these two forms of books – the codex with its wooden pages and the volume with wound papyrus – to elaborate a single solution which could unite the best features of both. The creation of the first veritable books with light-weight, flat papyrus sheets, overlapped and bound along the back side like the waxed tables – which progressively disappeared – dates back to the end of the I century A.D.

WHILE THE NEW PAPYRUS BOOKS WERE EXPANDING IN ROME, IN ASIA MINOR PARCHMENT WAS STILL IN USE: it was animal leather, dried and smoothed, whose original Italian name “pergamena” derived from the town of Pergamo, where this material was born. Both in its country of origin as well as in the ones where it was exported, parchment maintained the form of the roll, as had already happened for the Chinese silk and the Egyptian papyrus. But differently from silk and papyrus, parchment could also be written on both sides: these characteristics enabled the passage from the bulky roll, very difficult to read, to the book made up of pages to turn over. The advantage with respect to the papyrus books made up of frail pages, was that parchment could also be folded and overlapped in pamphlets that were then bound together to form thick books. When parchment books reached Europe, they contributed to further enhancements in the form and the use of the other kinds of books already existing. As a heritage of the old codices, two small tables to cover and protect the parchment book were used; this represents the earliest form of book-binding. Later on, book-binding was carried out using different materials such as leather, metal, ivory, fabrics, cardboard, which were often enriched with engraved or embossed decorations, ornaments, studs and even gems.

WHEN, AROUND THE YEARS 1000-1100, THE PAPER PRODUCTION TECHNIQUE REACHED EUROPE (ITALY, SPAIN AND FRANCE), the book had already acquired its definite structure, and paper sheets – whch were cheaper and easier to produce – progressively substituted parchment.

At first only for those books considered of low value and then, with the introduction of printing characters around 1450, paper began to be used for the entire publishing production.

So, this is how the book was born in the form we all use today, all around the world: from different materials, various forms and far away places.•

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