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Origin of the Materials of Writing

FROM the “Literary History of France,” by the learned Benedictines, I have collected the chief materials of the present article. It is curious to observe the various substitutes for paper before its discovery.

When men had not yet discovered the art of recording events by writing, they planted trees, erected rude altars, or heaps of stone, as remembrances of past events. Hercules probably could not write when he fixed his famous pillars.

The most ancient mode of writing was on bricks, tiles, and oyster-shells, and on tables of stone; afterwards on plates of various materials, on ivory, on barks of trees, on leaves of trees.*

Engraving memorable events on hard substances, it has been prettily observed, was giving, as it were, speech to rocks and metals. In the book of Job mention is made of writing on stone, on rocks, and on sheets of lead. It was on tables of stone that Moses received the law written by the finger of God himself. Hesiod’s works were written on leaden tables; lead was used for writing, and rolled up like a cylinder, as Pliny states. Montfaucon notices a very ancient book of eight leaden leaves, which on the back had rings fastened by a small leaden rod to keep them together. They afterwards engraved on bronze: the laws of the Cretans were on bronze tables; the Romans etched their public records on brass. The speech of Claudius, engraved on plates of bronze, is yet preserved in the town-hall of Lyons, in France. Several bronze tables, with Etruscan characters, have been dug up in Tuscany. The Treaties between the Romans, Spartans, and the Jews were written on brass; and estates, for better security, were made over on this enduring metal. In many cabinets may be found the discharges of soldiers, written on copper-plates. This custom has been discovered in India: a bill of feoffment on copper has been dug up near Bengal, dated a century before the birth of Christ.

Among these early inventions many were singularly rude, and miserable substitutes for a better material. In the shepherd state they wrote their songs, with thorns and awls on straps of leather, which they wound round their crooks. The Icelanders appear to have scratched their runes, a kind of hieroglyphics, on walls; and Olof, according to one of the Sagas, built a large house, on the bulks and spars of which he had engraved the history of his own and more ancient times; while another northern hero appears to have had nothing better than his own chair and bed to perpetuate his own hcroic acts on. At the town-hall, in Hanover, are kept twelve wooden boards, overlaid with bees’ wax, on which are written the names of owners of houses, but not the names of streets. These wooden manuscripts must have existed before 1423, when Hanover was first divided into streets. Such manuscripts may be found in public collections. This exhibits a very curious, and the rudest state of society. The same event occurred among the ancient Arabs, who, according to the history of Mahomet, seem to have taken the shoulder-bones of sheep, on which they carved remarkable events with a knife, and after tying them with a string they hung these chronicles up in their cabinets.

The laws of the twelve tables which the Romans chiefly copied from the Grecian code were, after they had been approved by the people, engraven on brass; they were melted by lightning, which struck the Capitol and consumed other laws; a loss highly regretted by Augustus. This manner of writing we still retain, for the inscriptions, epitaphs, and other memorials designed to reach posterity.

These early inventions led to the discovery of tables of wood; and as cedar has an antiseptic quality from its bitterness, they chose this wood for cases or chests to preserve their most important writings. The well-known expression of the ancients, when they meant to give the highest eulogium of an excellent work, et cedro digna locuti, that it was worthy to be written on cedar, alludes to the oil of cedar, with which, valuable MSS. of parchment were anointed, to preserve them from corruption and moths. Persius illustrates this in the excellent version of Mr. Gifford:

“Who would not leave posterity such rhymes,
  As cedar oil might keep to latest times!”

They stained materials for writing upon with purple, and rubbed them with exudations from the cedar. The laws of the emperors were published on wooden tables, painted with ceruse; to which custom Horace alludes: Leges incidere ligno. Such tables, now softened into tablets, are still used, but in general are made of other materials than wood. The same reason for which they preferred the cedar to other wood induced to write on wax, which, from its nature, is incorruptible. Men generally used it to write their testaments on, the better to preserve them; thus Juvenal says, Ceras implere capaces. This thin paste of wax was also used on tablets of wood, that it might more easily admit of erasure.

They wrote with an iron bodkin, as they did on the other substances we have noticed. The stylus was made sharp at one end to write with, and blunt and broad at the other, to deface and correct easily; hence the phrase vertere stylum, to turn the stylus, was used to express blotting out. But the Romans forbade the use of this sharp instrument, from the circumstance of many persons having used them as daggers. A schoolmaster was killed by the Pugillares or table-books, and the styles of his own scholars. They substituted a stylus made of the bone of a bird, or other animal; so that their writings resembled engravings. When they wrote on softer materials, they employed reeds and canes split like our pens at the points, which the orientalists still use to lay their colour or ink neater on the paper.

Naudé observes, that when he was in Italy, about 1642, he saw some of those waxen tablets, called Pugillares, so called because they were held in one hand; and others composed of the barks of trees, which the ancients employed in lieu of paper.

On these tablets, or table-books, Mr. Astle observes, that the Greeks and Rcmans continued the use of waxed table-books long after the use of the papyrus, leaves, and skins became common; because they were convenient for correcting extemporaneous compositions; from these table-books they transcribed their performances correctly into parchment books, if for their own private use; but if for sale, or for the library, the Librarii, or Scribes, performed the office. The writing on table-books is particularly recommended by Quintilian in the third chapter of the tenth book of his Institutions; because the wax is readily effaced for any corrections: he confesses weak eyes do not see so well on paper, and observes that the frequent necessity of dipping the pen in the inkstand retards the hand, and is but ill suited to the celerity of the mind. Some of these table-books are conjectured to have becn large, and perhaps heavy, for in Plautus, a schoolboy is represented breaking his master’s head with his table-book. According to Cicero, it appears that the critics were accustomed to reading their wax manuscripts to notice obscure or vicious phrases by joining a piece of red wax, as we should underline such by red ink.

Table-books written upon with styles were not entirely laid aside in Chaucer’s time, who describes them in his Sompner’s tale.

“His fellow had a staffe tipp’d with horne,
  A paire of tables all of iverie;
  And a pointell polished fetouslie,
  And wrote alwaies the names, as he stood,
  Of all folke, that gave hem any good.”

By the word pen in the translation of the Bible, we must understand an iron style. Table-books of ivory are still used for memoranda, written with black-lead pencils. The Romans used ivory to write the edicts of the senate on, with a black colour; and the expression of libras elephantinis, which some authors imagine alludes to books that for their size were called elephantine, were most probably composed of ivory, the tusk of the elephant; among the Romans they were undoubtedly scarce and dear.

The pumice stone was a writing material of the ancients; they used it to smooth the roughness of the parchment, or to sharpen their reeds.

In the progress of time the art of writing consisted in painting with different kinds of ink. This novel mode of writing occasioned them to invent other materials proper to receive their writing; the thin bark of certain trees and plants, or linen; and at length, when this was found apt to become mouldy, they prepared the skins of animals. Those of asses are still in use; and on those of serpents, &c. were once written the Iliad and Odyssey. The first place where they began to dress these skins was Pergamus, in Asia; whence the Latin name is derived of Pergamenæ or parchment. These skins are, however, better known amongst the authors of the purest Latin under the name of membrana; so called from the membranes of various animals of which they were composed. The ancients had parchments of three diffferent colours, white, yellow, and purple. At Rome white parchment was disliked, because it was more subject to be soiled than the others, and dazzled the eye. They generally wrote in letters of gold and silver on purple or violet parchment. This custom continued in the early ages of the church; and copies of the evangelists of this kind are preserved in the British Museum.

When the Egyptians employed for writing the bark of a plant or reed, called papyrus or paper-rush, it superseded all former modes, from its convenience. Formerly it grew in great quantities on the sides of the Nile. This plant has given its name to our paper, although the latter is now composed of linen or rags, and formerly had been of cotton wool, which was but brittle and yellow; and improved by using cotton-rags, which they glazed. After the eighth century the papyrus was superseded by parchment. The Chinese make their paper with silk. The use of paper is of great antiquity. It is what the ancient Latinists call charta or chartæ. Before the use of parchment and paper passed to the Romans, they used the thin peel found between the wood and the bark of trees. This skinny substance they called liber, from whence the Latin word liber, a book, and library and librarian in the European languages, and the French livre for book; but we of northern origin derive our book from the Danish bog, the beech-tree, because that being the most plentiful in Denmark was used to engrave on. Anciently, instead of folding this bark, this parchment, or paper, as we fold ours, they rolled it according as they wrote on it; and the Latin name which they gave these rolls has passed into our language as well as the others. We say a volume or volumes, although our books are composed of pages cut and bound together. The books of the ancients on the shelves of their libraries were rolled up on a pin and placed erect, titled on the outside in red letters, or rubrics, and appeared like a number of small pillars on the shelves.

The ancients were as curious as ourselves in having their books richly conditioned. Propertius describes tablets with gold borders, and Ovid notices their red titles; but in later times, besides the tint of purple with which they tinged their vellum, and the liquid gold which they employed for their ink, they enriched with precious stones the covers of their books. In the early ages of the church they painted on the outside commonly a dying Christ. In the curious library of Mr. Douce is a Psalter, supposed once to have appertained to Charlemagne; the vellum is purple, and the letters gold. The Eastern nations likewise tinged their MSS. with different colours and decorations. Astle possessed Arabian MSS. of which some leaves were of a deep yellow, and others of a lilac colour. Sir William Jones describes an oriental MS. in which the name of Mohammed was fancifully adorned with a garland of tulips and carnations, painted in the brightest colours. The favourite works of the Persians are written on fine silky paper, the ground of which is often powdered with gold or silver dust; the leaves are frequently illuminated, and the whole book is sometimes perfumed with essence of roses or sandal wood. The Romans had several sorts of paper to which they had given different names; one was the Charta Augusta, in compliment to the emperor, another Liviana, named after the empress. There was a Charta blanca, which obtained its title from its beautiful whiteness, and which we appear to have retained by applying it to a blank sheet of paper which is only signed—Charte blanche. They had also a Charta nigra painted black, and the letters were in white or other colours.

Our present paper surpasses all other materials for ease and convenience of writing. The first paper-mill in England was erected at Dartford, by a German, in 1588, who was knighted by Elizabeth; but it was not before 1713 that one Thomas Watkins, a stationer, brought the art of paper-making to any perfection, and to the industry of this individual we owe thc origin of our numerous paper-mills. France had hitherto supplied England and Holland.

The manufacture of paper was not much encouraged at home, even so late as in 1662; and the following observations by Fuller are curious, respecting the paper of his times. “Paper participates in some sort of the characters of the country which makes it; the Venetian, being neat, subtile, and court-like; the French, light, slight, and slender; and the Dutch, thick, corpulent, and gross, sucking up the ink with the sponginess thereof.” He complains that the paper manufactories were not then sufficiently encouraged, “considering the vast sums expended in our land for paper, out of Italy, France, and Germany, which might be lessened were it made in our nation. To such who object that we can never equal the perfection of Venice paper, I return, neither can we match the purity of Venice glasses; and yet many green ones are blown in Sussex, profitable to the makers, and convenient for the users. Our homespun paper might be found beneficial.” The present German printing-papcr is made so disagreeable both to printers and readers from their paper manufacturers making many more reams of paper from one cwt. of rags than formerly. Rags are scarce, and German writers, as well as the language, are voluminous.

Mr. Astle deeply complains of the inferiority of our inks to those of antiquity; an inferiority productive of the most serious consequences, and which appears to originate merely in negligence. From the important benefits arising to society from the use of ink, and the injuries individuals may suffer from the frauds of designing men, he wishes the legislature would frame some new regulations respecting it. The composition of ink is simple, but we possess none equal in beauty and colour to that used by the ancients; the Saxon MSS. written in England exceed in colour any thing of the kind. The rolls and records from the fifteenth century to the end of the seventeenth, compared with those of the fifth to the twelfth centuries, show the excellence of the earlier ones, which are all in the finest preservation, while the others are so much defaced, that they are scarcely legible. It is a very serious consideration, in respect to the security of property, that the Records of Parliament, the decisions and adjudications of the courts of justice, conveyances, wills, testaments, &c., should be written on ink of such durable quality as may best resist the destructive power of time and the elements.

The ink of the ancients had nothing in common with ours, but the colour and gum. Gall-nuts, copperas, and gum make up the composition of our ink; whereas soot or ivory-black was the chief ingredient in that of the ancients.

Ink has been made of various colours: we find gold and silver ink, and red, green, yellow, and blue inks; but the black is considered as the best adapted to its purpose.


* Specimens of most of these modes of writing may be seen in the British Museum. No. 3478, in the Sloanian library, is a Nabob’s letter, on a piece of bark, about two yards long, and richly ornamented with gold. No. 3207 is a book of Mexican hieroglyphics, painted on bark. In the same collection are various species, many from the Malabar coast and the East. The latter writings are chiefly on leaves. There are several copies of Bibles written on palm leaves. The ancients, doubtless, wrote on any leaves they found adapted for the purpose. Hencee the leaf of a book, alluding to that of a tree, seems to be derived. At the British Museum we have recently received Babylonian tiles, or broken pots, which the people used, and made their contracts of business on; a custom mentioned in the Scriptures.


Editor’s Notes

 § Six further footnotes were appended to this article in later editions of the Curiosities. First, upon the sentence ending ‘preserved in the town-hall of Lyons, in France,’ in the fourth paragraph:

This speech was made by Claudius (who was born at Lyons), when censor, A.D. 48, and was of the highest importance to the men of Lyons, inasmuch as it led to the grant of the privileges of Roman citizenship to them. This important inscription was discovered in 1528, on the heights of St. Sebastian above the town.

Second, on the sentence ‘A schoolmaster was killed by the Pugillares or table-books, and the styles of his own scholars:’

The paintings discovered at Pompeii give representations of these books and implements.

Third, upon the lines from Chaucer:

The use of the table-book was continued to the reign of James I. or later. Shakspeare frequently alludes to them—
“And therefore will he wipe his tables clean,
  And keep no tell-tale to his memory.”
They were in the form of a modern pocket-book, the leaves of asses’ skin, or covered with a composition, upon which a silver or leaden style would inscribe memoranda capable of erasure.

Fourth, on the paragraph which ends with the words ‘and appeared like a number of small pillars on the shelves:’

A box containing such written rolls is represented in one of the pictures exhumed at Pompeii.

Fifth, upon the phrase ‘studded with heads wrought in fine cameos’ in the subsequent paragraph:

See note to Vol. I. p. 5.

And sixth, with regard to the penultimate paragraph:

The ink of old manuscripts is generally a thick solid substance, and sometimes stands in relief upon the paper. The red ink is generally a body-colour of great brilliancy.

 ¶ This article is revised and expanded from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities.