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From An Introduction to the History of History, by James T. Shotwell; Columbia University Press; New York; 1922; pp. 28-39.




WRITING ranks next to speech itself as the implement and embodiment of thought. Yet its evolution has been exceedingly slow and is still most imperfect. Even today, if we take the world as a whole, the great majority of men and woman must learn by word of mouth alone whatever they are to know, since the magic of the alphabet and of its combinations on the printed page is still beyond their grasp. Yet the Australian blacks, the lowest of existing mankind, can read crude markings on twigs made by distant tribes;1 the Bushmen of South Africa — low grade among the Africans — can draw their pictures of the hunt almost to match the hieroglyphs of Egypt.2 From message sticks to picture-writing the gulf seems wide, and the next step, — from picture-writing to an alphabet — seems small in comparison. But on the contrary, while the cave-dwellers of Europe, ten to twenty thousand years ago, could draw the bison and the reindeer with skill to match the artist of today, such simple things as letters are the invention of those comparatively recent times when merchant ships from Tyre and Sidon were already exploiting the markets of the Mediterranean. As for the extensive use of writing, in literature, records or journalism, it occupied no such place in the cultures of antiquity — even of Greece at its best — as it does today.

One reason for this is obvious — lack of paper. We have been taught in our history manuals the revolutionary effects of the invention of the printing press upon the history of western thought, but paper is just as important as the press. Imagine what it would be like if our libraries were stacked with chiselled slabs of stone or tablets of baked clay, if our newspapers were sun-dried 29 bricks. When papyrus, the paper of the ancient world, came to be used in Egypt, the writing changed, lost its slow, old pictures and became much like ours; and instead of a few walls or stelae covered with hieroglyphs, there were libraries filled with manuscripts. Stone, as a medium for writing, has a double disadvantage; it is not only hard to manipulate, it is practically immovable. One has to go to it to read. The inscription is part of a monument instead of a thing in itself, like the writing on a piece of papyrus. Babylonia never suffered from this handicap as Egypt did; owing to lack of stone it wrote on clay, inferior to papyrus but usable. It is hard to draw pictures or to write with a round hand on clay, so the Babylonian bricks and cylinders were scratched with straight little wedge-like marks. And the weight of brick or cylinder was such as to force the scribe to write with almost microscopic fineness.

It takes but a moment’s thought to realize how the medium for preserving literature conditions its scope, and its place in society. What is written depends in a great degree upon what it is written on. It is well, therefore, before surveying the early records of history, to examine hurriedly the manner and method of the composition, — the more so, as historiography seldom deigns to cast its eye on so purely material a basis for its existence.3

Stone and clay, the first two media of Egypt and Babylonia, were, as we have seen, definitely limited in their possibilities. There was need of a lighter, thinner substance, suitable for carrying around, yet strong enough not to break easily with general use.4 Egypt ultimately had recourse to the use of papyrus, Babylonia more to that of leather. But there was a primitive substitute for both of these which we must not forget. Leaves of trees sometimes furnish such a medium in tropical countries, particularly the tough-fibred palm-leaf, of use especially in India. The hieroglyphs 30 preserve traces of its use in Egypt as well.5 In temperate climates where even this fragile writing surface is not at hand, wood furnished the commonest substitute. Our barbarian ancestors in northern Europe, improving a little on the twigs, which the earliest savages notched for messages or memoranda, inscribed their runic markings on rudely cut branches of trees.6

A new era in literature was made possible with the use of the metallic saw. When boards became common, they offered a good and ready medium, and were in general use throughout the antique world, wherever lumber was plentiful. Small, square or oblong boards were especially in demand as tablets for note-taking or memoranda; as such they were used by school children far back in ancient Egypt.7 But, although also serving at times for recording literature, they were more generally used in Greece and Rome for matters of business and for correspondence, being lighter and cheaper than lead or other metallic tablets, — which were also used, — and cheaper than leather. In such cases it was customary to fold two tablets together,8 and the interior cover was commonly covered with wax. Boards were also used, however, for formal inscriptions, the most famous being the white tablet, known as the album, upon which the Pontifex Maximus inscribed the events of the year and which was displayed at the Regia, — the origin of the 31 official annals of Rome. In early Greece they were used to write down the works of the poets, which a still earlier age had committed to memory. Tradition has it that Greek tyrants, — presumably copying the example of the library of Ashur-bani-pal of the seventh century, — gathered libraries and employed scholars to edit the classical texts. But the scholarly activity could not achieve much when it would require two hundred wooden tablets to arrange and handle the two Homeric epics.9 It is clear that wood, like stone or brick, serves only for the preliminary and casual phases of the history of writing.10

It is doubtful if the antique world could have developed the classical literatures in all their variety and freedom of scope, had there been nothing better to write upon. Two substances saved the situation, papyrus and leather. Of these two, the latter played little part in the Mediterranean world during classical antiquity. In the Orient, leather was always in use, and in the fourth century of the Christian era that form of it known as parchment superseded everything else. But the paper of Greek and Roman times was papyrus.

As far back as the middle of the fourth millennium B.C., Egyptians knew how to cut through the stem of the papyrus reed, and, pasting two thin slips of its stringy marrow back-to-back, cross-ways on, secured a tough and satisfactory writing surface. As we have already pointed out, the scribe could write upon it with a flowing hand, which eliminated much of the toilsome picture-writing of the genuine hieroglyph upon the stone. But yet, so impressive were the monumental inscriptions, so rigid the strength of Egyptian traditions, that the home of the papyrus did not produce that last essential to writing — the alphabet.

By the twelfth century B.C., the business men of the market ports of Phœnicia, keen-witted as their Hellenic neighbors of a later day, seem to have realized the usefulness of Egyptian papyrus, as Egyptian records show that they imported it to their cities at 32 least as early as the middle of that century.11 No one can say whether it was this importation of papyrus which helped them to invent the alphabet or whether the invention of the alphabet brought the trade in papyrus; but, in any case, these two events, so important for the future — and the past — of the world’s culture, were interrelated.

The use of papyrus elsewhere seems to have spread relatively slowly. In western Asia it did not displace the widespread use of leather to any great extent. The Hebrew scriptures, for instance, were written on rolls of leather, not papyrus. The Greeks, too, were surprisingly slow to adopt it. Already by the middle of the sixth century B.C., they were familiar with the material, which they named “biblos” (βύβλος) from the Phœnician city which traded in it. Herodotus, however, in the fifth century, describes the papyrus growing in Egypt without mentioning its use as paper, and so has left an open conjecture as to what he had in mind when he referred to βύβλος.12 As a matter of fact the Greeks were always hampered by the scarcity of papyrus, which they had to import. This partly accounts for the extent to which their literature was cast in form for oral delivery rather than private reading, — as is seen even in the philosophical treatises, arranged in the shape of dialogues. There was apparently no great library at Athens, even under Pericles. The first public library in that city was not erected until the reign of Hadrian.13 It was in the land of the papyrus itself that the first great Greek library flourished. The date of the founding of the libraries of Alexandria is not quite certain, but the first was probably founded by Ptolemy I early in the third century B.C.14


The influence of these libraries of Alexandria, and of their librarians, upon the literature and thought of antiquity was very great. Even the seemingly trivial needs of the shelf-room classification had most important results; for, in order to arrange their writings readily, they cut them up.15 The average strip of papyrus which could be easily filed away and in which one could readily find references, was from twenty to thirty feet long. The parchment roll was therefore cut off to about this length. Since the older authors, those prior to the age of Alexandrian savants, had not composed their works with reference to any such bibliographical needs, the scholars deftly divided them into sections, “tomes” or books, to suit their needs. So the text of Herodotus was divided into nine sections, each set apart under the symbol of a Muse. Thucydides’ history was similarly broken up into eight books. The purely bibliographical character of such a device comes out even more clearly in the use of letters of the alphabet for the divisions of Homer and Aristotle. After the scholars had thus recast the literatures already written, the authors of more recent antiquity wrote with an eye to dividing their own texts so that the rolls would be of proper length and the pigeon-holes on the library walls would easily take them in. In this way the expedients of the ancient librarians affected the classics.

All the antique, classical literature was produced under these conditions. Yet, until the recent discoveries of archæology, not a classical text has reached us in the original form of papyrus roll. In fact papyrus itself disappears from common use, and its place is taken by parchment.16 The reason for this is not altogether clear. There was a decline in the output of the papyrus plant itself, and then it disappeared from the Nile delta altogether; but whether 34 this was due to the fact that papyrus culture and trade were under strict government control, — which in the later empire meant robbing the future to pay the present, — or whether the book trade was ruined — and hence papyrus culture — by a decline in the demand from readers, the fact remains that from the fourth century of our era the papyrus roll was replaced by an entirely different form of book, the parchment codex.

The name parchment comes from the city of Pergamum, on the coast of Asia Minor. There, in the second century B.C., a Greek tyrant, Eumenes II (197-159), made his capital of a state that had been built out of the Macedonian Empire. On the crest of a lofty hill, dominating the city, he placed a palace, a temple, and a library that was one of the wonders of the world.17 Legend had it, recorded by the antiquarian Varro,18 that the rival tyrant in Egypt, Ptolemy VI, refused to send papyrus and that, as a substitute, Eumenes invented parchment. The story, though still frequently quoted, does not hold; for the use of leather as writing material is as old as that of papyrus, or older; it was common throughout Asia, and was referred to already by Herodotus. But the name of Pergamum, attached to the sheets of leather (pergamena charta) seems to indicate a new process of tanning and preparation, and a centre of the trade at Pergamum.

For some five hundred years after the founding of the Pergamum library, papyrus still remained the common medium of writing. Finally, however, as we have seen, in the fourth century of our era, it was superseded by the parchment, no longer wound into long rolls, but cut like the leaves of a book and fastened together in somewhat the same form as the tablets of wood had been, in what was called a codex.19 Into these codices the works of antiquity were transcribed from the worn papyrus rolls by Christian scribes. What was not so transcribed was lost; for, as we have said above, no papyrus text survived. The fate of the classical literatures, and of much history, depended upon the smaller pages of the new form of book.


The ease with which the vellum or parchment could be washed or scraped to clean off its past writing and the surface used again for more pressing needs, recommended it especially to the mediæval scribes, since writing materials were so very scarce. Such palimpsests20 still bore traces of their former use, and in this manner the half-obliterated original was often preserved, when a feebler texture like papyrus would not have retained it. The papyrus leaves could be cleaned by a sponge, but were not strong enough to be used a second time for lasting documents. The practice of scraping the wax tables is also referred to by Cicero, and must have been common, whatever the material used, so long as it was difficult to procure. The mediæval palimpsests show by the fragmentary character of the original texts they preserve that “the scribes were indiscriminate in supplying themselves with material from any old volumes that happened to be at hand.”21 Fragmentary as they are, however, these old texts, treated chemically and read critically by modern scholars, have restored many a precious passage of the lost literatures of antiquity. It is one of the ironies of history that books of devotion, used for centuries in the service of the Church which denounced the vanities of pagan thought and practice, should keep for the modern humanist those very texts of myth or history which otherwise would have passed into complete oblivion.

The use of the codex lasted through the Middle Ages, and gave the suggestion for the modern book. Fortunately, during the century preceding the invention of the printing by movable types, another substance began to be sufficiently common to cope with the increasing demand for writing materials. Paper is originally a Chinese invention, but was brought into Europe through the Mohammedan cultures of the Near East and Spain. As early as the twelfth century, sheets of it drifted into Christendom, through those two open doors, the Moorish and Italian trade, but it was not until the latter part of the fourteenth century that paper became the general medium for writing. It still remained comparatively rare — and generally good — until the invention of a machine at the close of the eighteenth century enabled manufacturers to make more than a sheet at a time, — which is the way with the old 36 hand process, still in use in rare papers, bank notes and the like. But with the vast and rapid increase in the output of paper in our own day comes an attendant danger to contemporary history, of which historians and librarians have warned repeatedly in vain. For the paper made today is the most fragile stuff upon which any civilization has ever intrusted the keeping of its records. All but a tiny fraction of the vast output of our printing presses is crumbling and discolored waste a few years after it is printed upon. We are writing not upon sand but upon dust-heaps. The thought is a sobering one to any one who looks back, even in so short and superficial a survey as this, over the fate of other civilizations and the slight and fragmentary traces they have left.

We have mentioned, in passing, that the form of writing has to some extent depended upon the materials used. But writing has a history of its own, a history of so great importance to the historian that the study of the history of handwriting is a science in itself, palæography.22 Even after the alphabet supplants hieroglyphics, and so becomes the mere barren framework of words, its style changes with different cultures, and only those can read it who have made it a special study. For it requires constant familiarity with the crabbed and compressed text, with the forms of abbreviations and devices for shortening the interminable labor of transcription, to decipher the ancient manuscripts. Into this field, fundamental as it is to historical research, it is impossible to enter here. Fortunately the student of history today is able to travel far toward his goal, even in mediæval and ancient history, without having to decipher manuscripts for himself. For, especially during the last hundred years, generations of scholars have been at work preparing the texts, and others have been equally busy criticising them, so that the day is almost past when the historian has to make his pilgrimage from archive to archive to compare and copy the major texts of his sources, and so be his own palæographer. The discipline involved is one which may always be indulged in to advantage, but the results to be obtained are growing steadily less, as the great collections of sources, edited by the most eminent of scholars, fill up the shelves of our libraries at home.


All writing is in a sense historical, in that its purpose is to record something. So far we have been treating it almost as though it were an end in itself, but it is only a means for doing something else, such as stimulating thought or action. When we turn from the means to the end, we are brought face to face with the origins of history.

The earliest markings were largely aids to memory, such as are in use throughout the savage world, — scratches on sticks or leaves or bark of trees, runic signs, wampum belts, ensuring that both parties to an agreement remember alike, spreading news or recording it. One of the most important of such devices is the indication of rights of property by symbols denoting ownership. Thus the Maoris of New Zealand marked their lands by wisps of grass on boundary tress. Trespassers knew that the inclosed spaces were taboo to all but the owner — by reason of curses, of which the wisp of grass was the symbol. A much more definite symbol of ownership would naturally be the representation of the proprietor’s name, or that of his tribe. The common use of this was possibly long impeded by the fear that an enemy might secure such a name-picture for evil magic, — for if he secures your name and anything of yours, he can have power over you. In spite of such fear, — which must have hindered not only literature but the development of private property, — the use of totem signs is common to indicate the name of a tribe or clan.

The earliest inscriptions, out of which grow the records of history, were, like these, mere monograms of names. They were, of course, the monograms of royal names, stamped on Egyptian stone or Babylonian brick, much as the letter boxes of England bear the symbol G. R. to indicate the reigning king. Such monograms, chiselled into the rock over five thousand years ago, retain for us the name of the reputed founder of the first dynasty of Egypt. Recovered only a few years ago, they prove to us that Menes of Memphis, that shadow figure which headed the long list of shadow kings, and was already legend by the days of Herodotus, was a real man. The first inscriptions of Babylonia are similar royal names and titles. They are historical records only by courtesy. Imagine the history of Anglo-Saxon England based upon nothing but the Alfred jewel, or a historian of the distant future 38 reconstructing the history of the Victorian era from a few stray stones on which the full titles of the empress queen were engraved! In time, however, the titles expand, indicating conquests by including new dignities and enumerating the lands over which the monarch rules. As the years go on the titles grow more specific and detailed, and now and then in the boastful phrases of an epitaph (which had been carefully prepared during the lifetime of the king), we have almost a summary of the main events of the reign. This, for instance, is as far as the records of the old Babylonian kingdom seem to have gone.

As we have seen, the narrative grows out of the simple inscription almost unconsciously. Indeed it exists to some extent in the titles themselves, since the graphic hieroglyph tells the story as it depicts the results. The lord of the upper Nile smites the cowering inhabitants, the conqueror of Syria carries away the Semitic victims in chains. But the narrative also develops, alongside the public inscriptions, in tombs and temples; in tombs for the gods to read, in temples for the priests. Here, at last, we are on the verge of history; the temple record is the origin of annals. We are not beyond the verge, however, for these bald narratives are not histories, in the strictest sense. History is retrospective; these are mere lists of contemporary happenings. As the calendar developed, the events were entered year by year, giving us annals. But still that did not make them history. They were a sort of primitive journalism or official record, marking the present, not the past. The annalist writes down what is happening or has just taken place. He enters on the temple lists the death of a priest or king when it occurs, or registers conquests under the royal command of the conqueror himself. It is only because the present is eternally becoming the past that these notes of contemporary events take on the character of history — as today’s evening papers will be history tomorrow.

But the annal is also potentially historical. The past, not the present, gives it its value and interest. Moreover, the step from the annal to the chronicle is a short one. Add a few genealogies or the legendary deeds of the sovereign’s divine ancestors and the narrative becomes historical. Where such a narrative follows a rigid scheme of years, as in the annal, we term it a chronicle. To 39 the reader of the narrative there is little difference, and the two terms are used loosely and interchangeably throughout the history of History. Moreover a pure annal, containing nothing except the mention of contemporary events, would be hard to find. Even the official annals of Rome inscribed by the pontiffs with the yearly exploits of the citizens or prodigies of the gods, contained portions of the earlier years rewritten from later sources.

The subject matter of the annal or chronicle was therefore a miscellany, woven out of religion, war, catastrophe, legendary exploits or mere business items. Genealogies, for instance, which patriarchal illiteracy perpetuated in the sing-song verses, were more safely embalmed in writing. These were especially valued by noble houses, who, in imitation of royalty, were sure to reach the gods at the other end. Needless to say, while they afford many a hint to the student of today, they were not more reliable than those prepared for some of our fellow-citizens at present.

Since the annalists were generally the priests they early kept temple records, mainly from a business instinct. Donations from pharaohs or kings were sure to be entered, votive tablets recording miracles accomplished at a shrine fitted the scheme, as well as accounts of prodigies and portents; and along with these developed lists of priest and priestesses in long succession. But most important of all, they noted the festivals of the gods, and in watching the recurring seasons, with the changing moon and the lucky and unlucky days, they began to measure Time. This, along with the discovery of writing itself, was the most decisive forward step in the history of History — perhaps hardly less in the history of civilization. We must turn aside to consider it in some detail.


1  Cf. A. W. Howitt, Notes on Australian Message Sticks and Messengers, in The Journal of the Archæological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. XVIII (1889), pp. 314-332.

2  Cf. C. Menhof, Zur Enstehung der Schrift in Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, Vol. XLIX (1911), pp. 1 sq.

3  The literature on this interesting background of history is not extensive, and mainly goes back to the capital work of T. Birt, Das antike Buchwesen (1882).

See also K. Dziatzko, Untersuchungen über ausgewählte Kapitel des antiken Buchwesens (1900), and other references below.

4  The distinction between the hard, heavy media for inscriptions and the lighter kind, furnishes the basis of a distinction between epigraphy and palæography, the former dealing with monumental writing, the latter with writing in its more general forms. Epigraphy properly belongs with archæology; palæography, however, carrying the history of writing parallel with successive epochs of culture, is a constant aid to history.

5  A good example is the scene of the gods writing the name of Ramses II on the leaves of a sacred tree, in R. Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten and Aethiopien (12 vols., 1849-1859), Sect. III, Vol. VI, Plate 169, and A. Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt (tr. 1894), p. 347.

6  Cf. Venantius Fortunatus (Opera Omnia, Part I, Bk. VII, Chap. XVIII), who wrote at the end of the sixth century:

Barbara fraxineis pingatur, runa tabellis
Quodque papyrus agit, virgula plana valet.

On the other hand, runic characters have now been found inscribed on various substances, stone and metal.

7  Cf. K. Dziatzko, Untersuchungen über ausgewählte Kapitel des antiken Buchwesens, pp. 6, 19, 23. The Greeks, as well as the Romans, used them almost exclusively in the earlier days.

8  These tablets were also sometimes of lead or other metals. The two folded together were known as the diptych. Often it was ornamented on the outer covers. Used widely for correspondence, diptychs were also sent around by consuls and other officials upon assuming office, to appraise their friends of the dignity and title. The Christian church, adopting this use, kept diptychs with the names of clergy, saints, and martyrs at their altars. The relation of these with mediæval annals is of much interest in this connection.

9  Cf. K. Dziatzko, op. cit., p. 26.

10  If we rely upon etymology, the Romans, like some semi-barbarous people, once used the inner bark of the tree to write upon, for that is the meaning of their word for “book,” liber. The word book itself, with its several Teutonic variants, comes from the same root as that of the beech tree.

11  Cf. J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt (5 vols., 1906-1907), Vol. IV. p. 284. It seems likely that they also manufactured a paper from other reeds, perhaps from some grown nearer home. This may explain the treatment by Herodotus.

12  From Biblos comes our word Bible. The paper itself, before it was written upon, was called χάρτης or charta, which also suggests a changed history. A length of papyrus was termed τόμος or tomus, from the fact that it was “cut off,” or, in Latin, a volumen, from the fact that it was wound up. The Latin word liber refers to the whole book and is identical with volumen. Cf. T. Birt, op. cit,., Chap. I.

13  Cf. Pausanias, Attica, Bk. I, Chap. XVII, Sect. 9; J. W. Clark, The Care of Books (2d ed., 1909) p. 6..

14  There were two: one apparently connected with the palace; the other with the temple of Serapis. The chief benefactions are attributed to the son, Ptolemy II.

15  The standard work on this whole subject of ancient books is T. Birt, Das antike Buchwesen. See also E. Maunde Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palæography (rev. ed., 1912), or F. W. Hall, A Companion to Classical Texts (1913) for good short accounts. There is a good account of libraries in J. W. Clark, The Care of Books.

16  Papyrus paper was still used to some extent through the first part of the Middle Ages. For instance, it was used at the papal court until the eleventh century. But parchment was much more durable. The ancients regarded a papyrus two or three centuries old as rare. Cf. K. Dziatzko, art. Buch, col. 939 sqq., Vol. III, in Pauly-Wissowa, Real Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft (1894-1918).

17  Cf. J. W. Clark, The Care of Books, pp. 8 sqq.

18  Cf. Pliny, Naturalis Historiae Libri XXXVII, Bk. XIII, Chap. XI. Jerome repeats the story, with slight variation, Ep. VII ad Chromatium. Cf. T. Birt, op. cit., pp. 50 sqq.

19  The word caudex or codex first meant the tree trunk.

20  From the Greek πάλιν, again, and ψάω, scrape.

21  Article Palimpsest in Encyclopædia Britannica (by E. Maunde Thompson).

22  From παλαιός, old, and γράφειν, to write.