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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

p743 Papyrus

Papyrus, the paper reed, the Cyperus Papyrus of Linnaeus, in ancient times widely cultivated in the Delta of Egypt, where it was used for various purposes, and especially as a writing material. The plant is now extinct in Lower Egypt, but is found in the Upper Nile regions and in Abyssinia. Theophrastus (Hist. plant. IV.10) states that it likewise grew in Syria; and, according to Pliny, it was also a native plant of the Niger and Euphrates. Its Greek title πάπυρος, Lat. papyrus, appears to be of Egyptian origin. By Herodotus it is always called βύβλος. The first accurate description of the plant is given by Theophrastus, from whom we learn that it grew in shallows of 2 cubits (about 3 ft) or less, its main root being of the thickness of a man's wrist and 10 cubits in length. From this root, which lay horizontally, smaller roots pushed down into the mud, and the stem of the plant sprang up to the height of 4 cubits, being triangular and tapering in form. The tufted head or umbel is likened by Pliny to a thyrsus.

The various uses to which the papyrus plant was applied are also enumerated by Theophrastus. Of the head nothing could be made but garlands for the shrines of the gods; but the wood of the root was employed in the manufacture of different utensils as well as for fuel. Of the stem of the plant were made boats, sails, mats, cloth, cords, and, above all, writing materials. Its pith was also a common article of food, and was eaten both cooked and in its natural state. Herodotus, too, notices its consumption as food (II.92), and incidentally mentions that it provided the material of which the priests' sandals were made (II.37). He likewise refers to the use of byblus as tow for caulking the seams of ships; and the statement of Theophrastus that King Antigonus made the rigging of his fleet of the same material is illustrated by the ship's cable, ὁπλον βύβλινον, wherewith the doors were fastened when Ulysses slew the suitors in his hall (Odyss. xxi.390). That the plant was itself used also as the principal material in the construction of light skiffs suitable for the navigation of the pools and shallows of the Nile, and even of the river itself, is shown by sculptures of the fourth dynasty, in which men are represented building a boat with stems cut from a neighbouring plantation of papyrus (Lepsius, Denkm. ii.12). It is to boats of this description that Isaiah probably refers in the "vessels of bulrushes upon the waters" (xviii.2). If the Hebrew gōmer(גמר) also is to be identified with the Egyptian papyrus, something may be said in favour of the tradition that the bulrushes of which the ark was composed in which the infant Moses was laid were in fact papyrus. But p744it seems hardly credible that the Cyperus papyrus could have sufficed for the many uses to which it is said to have been applied and we may conclude that several plants of the genus Cyperus were comprehended under the head of byblus or papyrus — an opinion which is supported by the words of Strabo, who mentions both inferior and superior qualities. The Cyperus dives is still grown in Egypt, and is used to this day for many of the purposes named by ancient writers.

The widespread use throughout the ancient world of the writing material manufactured from the papyrus plant is attested by early writers, and by documents and sculptures. Papyrus rolls are represented in ancient Egyptian wall-paintings; and extant examples of the rolls themselves are sufficiently numerous. The most ancient Egyptian papyrus now known contains accounts of the reign of King Assa (3580‑3536 B.C.); the earliest literary papyrus is that known, from the name of its former owner, as the Prisse papyrus, and now preserved at Paris, containing a work composed in the reign of a king of the fifth dynasty, and computed to be itself of the age of upwards of 2500 years B.C. The papyri discovered in Egypt have often been found in tombs, and in the hands, or swathed with the bodies, of mummies. The ritual of the dead is most frequently the subject. Besides the ritual and religious rolls, there are the hieratic, civil and literary documents, and the demotic and enchorial papyri, relating generally to sales of property. Coptic papyri mainly contain Biblical or religious texts or monastic deeds. Papyrus was also known to the Assyrians, who called it "the reed of Egypt."

The early use of Papyrus among the Greeks is proved by the reference of Herodotus (v.58) to its introduction among the Ionian Greeks, who gave it the name of διφθέραι, "skins," the material to which they had already been accustomed. In Athens it was doubtless in use for literary as well as for other purposes as early as the 5th century B.C. An inscription relating to the rebuilding of the Erechtheum in 407 B.C. records the purchase of two papyrus rolls, to be used for the fair copy of the rough accounts. The very large number of classical and other Greek papyri, of the Ptolemaic and later periods, which have been recovered in Egypt, are noticed in the article on Palaeography. The rolls found in the ruins of Herculaneum contain generally the less interesting works of writers of the Epicurean school.

Papyrus also made its way into Italy, but at how early a period there is nothing to show. It may be presumed, however, that from the very first it was employed as the vehicle for Roman literature. Under the Empire its use must have been extensive, for not only was it required for the production of books, but it was universally employed for domestic purposes, correspondence and legal documents. So indispensable did it become that it is reported that in the reign of Tiberius, owing to the scarcity and dearness of the material caused by a failure of the papyrus crop, there was a danger of the ordinary business of life being deranged (Pliny, N.H.xiii.13).

The account which Pliny (N.H. xiii.11‑13) has transmitted to us of the manufacture of the writing material from the papyrus plant should be taken strictly to refer to the process followed in his own time; but, with some differences in details, the same general method of treatment had doubtlessly been practised from time immemorial. His text, however, is so confused, both from obscurity of style and from corruptions in the MSS., that there is much difference of opinion as to the meaning of many words and phrases employed in his narrative, and their application in particular points of detail. In one important particular, however, affecting the primary construction of the material, there can no longer be any doubt. The old idea that it was made from layers or pellicules growing between the rind and a central stalk has been abandoned, as it has been proved that the plant, like other reeds, contains only a cellular pith within the rind. The stem was in fact cut into longitudinal strips for the purpose of being converted into the writing material, those from the centre of the plant being the broadest and most valuable. The strips (inae, philyrae), which were cut with a sharp knife or some such instrument, were laid on a board side by side to the required width, thus forming a layer (scheda), across which another layer of shorter strips was laid at right angles. The two layers thus "woven" — Pliny uses the word texere in describing this part of the process — formed a sheet (plagula or net), which was then soaked in water of the Nile. The mention of a particular water has caused trouble to the commentators. Some have supposed that certain chemical properties of which the Nile water was possessed acted as a glue or cement to cause the two layers to adhere; others, with more reason, that glutinous matter contained in the material itself was solved by the action of water, whether from the Nile or any other source; and others again read in Pliny's words an implication that a paste was actually used. The sheet was finally hammered and dried in the sun. Any roughness was levelled by polishing with ivory or a smooth shell. But the material was also subject to other defects, such as moisture lurking between the layers, which might be detected by strokes of the mallet; spots or stains; and spongy strips (taeniae), in which the ink would run and spoil the sheet. When such faults occurred, the papyrus must be re-made. To form a roll the several sheets (κολληματα) were joined together with paste (glue being too hard), but not more than twenty sheets in a roll (scapus). As, however, there are still extant rolls consisting of more than the prescribed number of sheets, either the reading of vicenae is corrupt, or the number was not constant in all times. The scapus seems to have been a standard length of papyrus, as sold by the stationers. The best sheet formed the first or outside sheet of the roll, and the others were joined on in order of quality, so that the worst sheets were in the centre of the roll. This arrangement was adopted, not for the purpose of fraudulently selling bad material under cover of the better exterior, but in order that the outside of the roll should be composed of that which would best stand wear and tear. Besides, in case of the entire roll not being filled with the text, the unused and inferior sheets at the end could be better spared, and so might be cut off.

The different kinds of papyrus writing material and their dimensions are also enumerated by Pliny. The best quality, formed from the middle and broadest strips of the plant, was originally named hieratica, but afterwards, in flattery of the emperor Augustus, it was called, after him, Augusta; and the charta Livia, or second quality, was so named in honour of his wife. The hieratica thus descended to the third rank. The first two were 13 digiti, or about 9¾ in. in width; the hieratica, 11 digiti or 8 in. Next came the charta amphitheatrica, named after the principal place of its manufacture, the amphitheatre of Alexandria, of 9 digiti or 6¾ in. wide. The charta Fanniana appears to have been a kind of papyrus worked up from the amphitheatrica, which by flattening and other methods was increased in width by an inch, in the factory of a certain Fannius at Rome. The Saitica, which took its name from the city of Sais, and was probably of 8 digiti or 5¾ in., was of a common description. The Taeniotica, named apparently from the place of its manufacture, a tongue of land (ταινία) near Alexandria, was sold by weight, and was of uncertain width, perhaps from 4¾ to 5 in. And lastly there was the common packing-paper, the charta emporetica, of 6 digiti or 4 in. Isidore (Etymol. vi.10) mentions yet another kind, the Corneliana, first made under C. Cornelius Gallus, prefect of Egypt, which, however, may have been the same as the amphitheatrica or Fanniana. The name of the man who had incurred the anger of Augustus may have been suppressed by the same influence that expunged the episode of Gallus from the Fourth Georgic (Birt, Antik. Buchwesen, p250). In the reign of the emperor Claudius also another kind was introduced and entitled Claudia. It had been found by experience that the charta Augusta was, from its fineness and porous nature, ill suited for literary use; it was accordingly reserved for correspondence only, and for other purposes was replaced by the new paper.

The charta Claudia was made from a composition of the first and second qualities, the Augusta and the Livia, a layer of the former being backed with one of the latter; and the sheet was increased to nearly a foot in width. The largest of all, however, was the macrocollon, probably of good quality and equal to the hieratic, and a cubit or nearly 18 in. wide. It was used by Cicero (Ep. ad Attic. xiii.25; xvi.3). The width, however, proved inconvenient, and the broad sheet was liable to injury by tearing.

An examination of extant papyri has had the result of proving that sheets of large size, measuring about 12 in., were sometimes used. A large class of examples run to 10 in., others to 8 in., while the smaller sizes range from 4 to 6 in.

An interesting question arises as to the accuracy of the different measurements given by Pliny. His figures regarding the width of the different kinds of papyri have generally been understood to concern the width (or height) of the rolls, as distinguished from their length. It has, however, been observed that in practice the width of extant rolls does not tally in any satisfactory degree with Pliny's measurements; and a more plausible explanation has been offered (Birt, Antik. Buchwesen, pp251 seq.) that the breadth (not height) of the individual sheets of which the rolls are composed is referred to.

The first sheet of a roll was named προτοκολλον; the last, ἐσχατοκολλιον. Under the Romans, the former bore the name of the comes largitionum, who had control of the manufacture, with the date and name of place. It was the practice to cut away the portion thus marked; but in case of legal documents this mutilation was forbidden by the laws of Justinian. On the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century, the manufacture was continued, and the protocols were marked at first, as it appears, with inscriptions in both Greek and Arabic, and later in the latter language alone. There are several examples extant, some being in the British Museum, ranging between the years 670 and 715 (see facsimiles in C. H. Becker, Papyri Schott-Reinhardt, i. (Heidelberg, 1906); and cf. "Arabische Papyri des Aphroditofundes," in Zeitsch. für Assyriologie, xx. (1906), 68‑104. The Arab inscriptions are accompanied by curious scrawls on each side, which may be imitated from words used in the Latin inscriptions of the Roman period.

Papyrus was cultivated and manufactured for writing material by the Arabs in Egypt down to the time when the growing industry of paper in the 8th and 9th centuries rendered it no longer a necessity (see Paper). It seems to have entirely given place to paper in the 10th century. Varro's statement, repeated by Pliny [XIII.69], that papyrus was first made in Alexander's time, should probably be taken to mean that its manufacture, which till then had been a government monopoly, was relieved from all restrictions. It is not probable, however, that it was ever manufactured from the native plant anywhere but in Egypt. At home there was certainly some kind of industry in papyrus, the charta Fanniana, already referred to, being an instance in illustration. But it seems probable that this industry was confined to the re-making of material imported into Italy, as in the case of the charta Claudia. This second manufacture, however, is thought to have been detrimental to the papyrus, as it would then have been in a dried condition requiring artificial aids, such as a more liberal use of gum or paste, in the process. The more brittle condition of the Latin papyri found at Herculaneum has been instanced as the evil result of this re-making of the material.

As to cultivation of the plant in Europe, according to Strabo the Romans obtained the papyrus plant from Lake Trasimene and other lakes of Etruria, but this statement is unsupported by any other ancient authority. At a later period, however, a papyrus was cultivated in Sicily, which has been identified by Parlatore with the Syrian variety (Cyperus syriacus), far exceeding in height the Egyptian plant, and having a more drooping head. It grew in the east and south of the island, where it was introduced during the Arab occupation. It was seen in the 10th century, by the Arab traveller Ibn‑Haukal, in the neighbourhood of Palermo, where it throve luxuriantly in the pools of the Papireto, a stream to which it lent its name. From it paper was made for the sultan's use. But in the 13th century it began to fail, and in 1591 the drying up of the Papireto caused the extinction of the plant in that district. It is still to be seen at Syracuse, but it was probably transplanted thither at a later time, and reared only as a curiosity, as there is no notice of it to be found previous to 1674. It is with this Syracusan plant that some attempts have been made in modern times to manufacture a writing material similar to ancient papyrus.

Even after the introduction of vellum as the ordinary vehicle for literature papyrus still continued to some extent in use outside Egypt, and was not entirely superseded until a late date. It ceased, however, to be used for books sooner than for documents. In the 5th century St. Augustine apologizes for sending a letter written on vellum instead of the more usual substance, papyrus (Ep. xv); and Cassiodorus (Var. xi.38), writing in the 6th century, indulges in a high-flown panegyric on the plant and its value. Of medieval literary Greek papyri very few relics have survived, but of documents coming down to the 8th and 9th centuries an increasing number is being brought to light among the discoveries in Egypt.

Medieval Latin MSS. on papyrus in book form are still extant in different libraries of Europe, viz.: the Homilies of St. Avitus, of the 6th century, at Paris; Sermons and Epistles of St. Augustine, of the 6th or 7th century, at Paris and Geneva; works of Hilary, of the 6th century, at Vienna; fragments of the Digests, of the 6th century, at Pommersfeld; the Antiquities of Josephus, of the 7th century, at Milan; Isidore, De contemptu mundi, of the 7th century, at St. Gall; and the Register of the Church of Ravenna, of the 10th century, at Munich. The employment of this material in Italy for legal purposes is sufficiently illustrated by the large number of documents in Latin which were preserved at Ravenna, and date from the 5th to the 10th century. In the papal chancery it was used at an early date, evidence of its presence there being found in the biography of Gregory I. But of the extant papal deeds the earliest to which an authentic date can be attached is a bull of Adrian I of the year 788, while the latest appears to be one of 1022. There is evidence to show that in the 10th century papyrus was used, to the exclusion of other materials, in papal deeds. In France it was a common writing substance in the 6th century (Gregory of Tours, Hist. Franc. v.5). Of the Merovingian period there are still extant several papyrus deeds, the earliest of the year 625, the latest of 692. Under Charlemagne and his successors it was not used. By the 12th century the manufacture of papyrus had entirely ceased, as appears from a note by Eustathius in his commentary on the Odyssey, xxi.390.

Authorities.— Melch. Guilandino's commentary on the chapters of Pliny relating to papyrus, Papyrus, hoc est commentarius, &c. (Venice, 1572); Montfaucon, "Dissertation sur la plante appelée Papyrus," in the Mémoires de l'académie des inscriptions (1729), pp592‑608; T. C. Tychsen, "De chartae papyraceae in Europa per medium aevum usu," in the Comment. Soc. Reg. Scient. Gottingensis (1820), pp141‑208; Dureau de la Malle, "Mémoire sur le papyrus," in the Mém. de l'institut (1851), pp140‑183; P. Parlatore, "Mémoire sur le papyrus des anciens," in the Mém. à l'acad. des sciences (1854), pp469‑502; Blumner, Technologie und Terminologie der Gewerbe und Künste bei Griechen und Römern, i.308‑327 (Leipzig, 1875); C. Paoli, Del Papiro (Florence, 1878); G. Cosentino, "La Carta di papiro," in Archivio storico siciliano (1889), pp134‑164. See also W. Wattenbach, Das Schriftwesen im Mittelalter (Leipzig, 1896); T. Birt, Das antike Buchwesen (Berlin, 1882); F. G. Kenyon, The Palaeography of Greek Papyri (Oxford, 1890); and W. Schubart, Das Buch bei den Griechen und Römern (Berlin, 1907).

[E. M. T.]


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