Early printers at work.
The book family is a very old and a very noble one, and has rendered great service to mankind, although, as with other great houses, all its members are not of equal worth and distinction. But since books are so common nowadays as to be taken quite as matters of course, probably few people give any thought to the long chain of events which, reaching from the dim past up to our own day, has been necessary for their evolution. Yet if we look round on our bookshelves, whether we measure their contents by hundreds or by thousands, and consider how mighty is the power of these inanimate combinations of “rag-paper with black ink on them,” and how all but limitless their field of action, it is but a step further to wonder what the first books were like. Given the living, working brain to fashion thoughts and create fancies, to whom did it first occur to write a book, what language and characters and material did he use, when did he write, and what did he write about? And although these questions can never be answered, an attempt to follow them up will lead the inquirer into many fascinating bye-ways of knowledge. It is not, however, the purpose of these pages to deal at length with the ancient history of the manuscript book, but, after briefly noticing the chief links which connect the volumes of to-day with primeval records, to present to the reader a few of the many points of interest offered by the modern history of the printed book.
The Beginning of Writing.—Books began with writing, and writing began at the time when man first bethought himself to make records, so that the progenitor of the beautiful handwriting and no less beautiful print of the civilised world is to be looked for in the rude drawing which primeval man scratched with a pointed flint on a smooth bone, or on a rock, representing the beast he hunted, or perhaps himself, or one of his fellows. The exact degree of importance he attached to these drawings we cannot hope to discover. They may have been cherished from purely æsthetic motives, or they may have served, at times, a merely utilitarian end and acted, perhaps, as memoranda. However this may be, these early drawings are the germs from which sprang writing, the parent of books, and liberator of literature, that great force of which a book is but the vehicle. How these drawings were gradually changed into letters, in other words, the story of the alphabet, has been already told in this series by Mr. Edward Clodd, and therefore we need not deal further with the subject here.
Writing once learned, and alphabets once formulated, the machinery for making books, with the human mind as its mainspring, was fairly in motion. “Certainly the Art of Writing,” says Carlyle, “is the most miraculous of all things man has devised.… With the art of Writing, of which Printing is a simple, an inevitable and comparatively insignificant corollary, the true reign of miracles for mankind commenced.” That these words only express the feeling of our far away ancestors, a cursory glance into the mythology of various peoples will prove. For wherever there is a tradition respecting writing, that tradition almost invariably, if not always, connects the great invention with the gods or with some sacred person. The Egyptians attributed it to Thoth, the Babylonians and Assyrians to Nebo, the Buddhists to Buddha, the Greeks to Hermes. The Scandinavians honoured Odin as the first cutter of the mysterious runes, and the Irish derived their ogham from the sacred Ogma of the Tuatha de Danaan. And it is noteworthy how, from time immemorial, writing, and the making of books, have been considered high and honourable accomplishments, and how closely they have ever been connected with the holy functions of priesthood.
Materials for Writing and Books.—The early forms of books were various, and, to modern eyes, more or less clumsy. Wood or bark was one of the oldest substances used to receive writing. Stone was no doubt older still, but stone inscriptions are outside our subject. The early Greeks and Romans employed tablets of soft metal, and wooden leaves coated with wax, when they had anything to write, impressing the characters with a stilus. Thus Pausanius relates that he saw the original copy of Hesiod’s Works and Days written on leaden tablets. The wooden leaves, when bound together at one side, foreshadowed the form of book which is now almost universal, and were called by the Romans caudex, or codex (originally meaning a tree-stump), in distinction to the volumen, which was always a parchment or papyrus roll. The oldest manuscript in existence, however, is on papyrus, which, as is well known, was the chief writing-material of the ancient world. Although the discovery that skins of animals, when properly prepared, formed a convenient and durable writing-material, was made at a very early date, the papyrus held its own as the writing-material of literary Egypt, Greece, and Rome, until about the fourth or fifth century of our era.
The books of Babylonia and Assyria took the form of thick clay tablets of various sizes. The wedge-shaped characters they bore were made by impressing the wet, soft clay with a triangular-pointed instrument of wood, bone, or metal. The tablet was then baked, and as recent discoveries prove, rendered exceedingly durable. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether the form of the original documents of the Old Testament was that of the Babylonian tablets, or of the Egyptian papyrus rolls, or of rolls of parchment. Perhaps all three were employed by the various biblical writers at different times.
It is stretching a point, perhaps, to include among writing materials the tablets of bamboo bark which bore the earliest Chinese characters, since the inscriptions were carved. The Chinese, however, soon discarded such primitive uses, and the paper which is so indispensable to-day was invented by them at a very early date, though it remained unknown to Europe until the Arabs introduced it about the tenth century, A.D. One of the earliest extant writings on paper is an Arabic “Treatise on the Nourishment of the Human Body,” written in 960 A.D., but it seems to have been printing which really brought paper into fashion, for paper manuscripts are rare compared with those of parchment and vellum.
It is easier to find the beginning of writing than the beginning of literature. Although we know for certain that the ancient nations of the world had books and libraries, that they preserved traditions, stored records and knowledge, and assisted memory by means of their tablets, their monuments, and their papyri, we shall probably never know when the art of writing was first applied to strictly literary purposes, and still less likely is it that we shall ever discover when works of the imagination were first recorded for the edification of mankind. It is not very rash, however, to assume that as soon as the art had developed the ancients put it to much the same uses as we do, except, perhaps, that they did not vulgarise it, and no one wrote who had not something to write about. But we are not without specimens of antique literatures. Egypt has preserved for us many different specimens of her literary produce of thousands of years ago—historical records, works of religion and philosophy, fiction, magic, and funeral ritual. Assyria has bequeathed to us hundreds of the clay books which formed the great royal library at Nineveh, books of records, mythology, morals, grammar, astronomy, astrology, magic; books of reference, such as geographical tables, lists of temples, plants, birds, and other things. In the Old Testament we have all that now remains of Israelitish writings, and the early literatures of China and India are also partly known to us. After these the writings of Greece and Rome are of comparatively recent origin, and moreover, they are nearer to us in other respects besides the merely chronological. The literature of Greece, dating from the far Homeric age, grew up a strong and beautiful factor in Greek life, and Rome, drawing first her alphabet and then her literature from the land before which she stooped, even while she conquered it, passed them on as an everlasting possession to the peoples of the western world. The fact of the literary pre-eminence of Greece partly helps to explain why Greek manuscripts form the bulk of the early writings now extant.
In considering how early literature has been preserved, therefore, we are hardly concerned with Egyptian papyri or cuneiform tablets, but with the writings of Greece and Rome, or writings produced under Greek or Roman influence. And it is curious that while the libraries and books of older nations have survived in comparatively large numbers, there should be no Greek literary manuscripts older than about 160 B.C., and even these are very fragmentary and scarce. The earliest Latin document known is dated 55 A.D., and is an unimportant wax tablet from Pompeii. For this lack of early documents many causes are responsible, and those who remember that it is not human beings only who suffer from the vicissitudes inseparable from existence will wonder, not that we have so few ancient writings in our present possession, but that we have any. The evidence of many curious and interesting discoveries of manuscripts made from time to time goes to show that accident, rather than design, has worked out their preservation, and that the civilised world owes its present store of ancient literature more to good luck than good management, to use a handy colloquialism. It is true, of course, that in early days there were many who guarded books as very precious things, but in times of wars and tumults people would naturally give little thought to such superfluities. Fire and war have been the agencies most destructive of books, in the opinion of the author of Philobiblon, but carelessness and ignorance, wanton destruction and natural decay, are also accountable for some part of the great losses which have wasted so large a share of the literary heritage, and although we are deeply indebted to monastic work for the transmission of classic lore as well as of Christian compositions, we can hardly conclude that the monkish scribes wrote solely for the benefit of posterity. Their immediate purpose, no doubt, and naturally so, was much narrower, and identified the service of God with the enrichment of their houses. Besides, they did not hesitate to erase older writings in order that they might use the parchment again for their own, whenever it suited them to do so.
Before noting some of the ways by which ancient literature has come down to the present day, let us for a moment transport ourselves into the past, and see how a wealthy Roman lover of letters would set about gathering a collection of books. Having no lack of means, all that is best in the literary world will be at his service. He will first take care that the works of every Greek writer which can possibly be obtained, as well as those of Roman authors, are represented in his library by well-written papyrus rolls containing good, correct texts. If he can obtain old manuscripts or original autographs of famous writers, so much the better; but whereas ordinary volumes will cost him comparatively little, on these he must expend large sums. If a book on which he has set his heart is not to be purchased, he may be able to obtain the loan of it, so that it may be transcribed for him by his librarius or writing-slave. If he can neither borrow nor purchase what he desires, he may commission the bookseller to send for it to Alexandria, where there is an unrivalled store of books and many skilled scribes ready to make copies of them.
But it is not easy to estimate with any degree of certainty the quantity of literary material available, say, at the time of the establishment of the first public library in Rome, which was probably about 39 B.C. Books were common and booksellers flourished. Greek and Roman writings were preserved on papyrus, not neglected or lost, and the various parts of what we now call the Old Testament probably existed in the Hebrew synagogues. We may, perhaps, assume that the Roman book collector, did he choose to take the necessary trouble, might add to his collection some of the writings of ancient Egypt. But no doubt Greek and Latin authors only are of value in his eyes. At this point it is dangerous to speculate further, and we must leave the imaginary Roman, and, advancing to our own time, where we are on surer ground, ask what remnants of old records and literature have come down to us, and how have they been preserved?
It will be disappointing news, perhaps, to those to whom the facts are fresh, that no original manuscript of any classical author, and no original manuscript of any part of the Bible, Old Testament or New, has yet come to light. Nothing is known of any of these documents except through the medium of copies, and in some cases very many copies indeed intervene between us and the original. For instance, the oldest Homeric manuscript known, with the exception of one or two fragments, is not older than the first century B.C., and the most ancient Biblical manuscript known, a fragment of a Psalter, is assigned to the late third or early fourth century A.D. The earliest New Testament manuscript extant, the first leaf of a book of St. Matthew’s Gospel, is also no older than the third century. It is curious, too, that no ancient Greek manuscripts have been found either in Greece or Italy excepting some rolls discovered in the ruins of Herculaneum. One reason for this is no doubt the fact that when Roman armies assailed Athens and other Greek cities they despoiled them not only of their statues and works of art, but of their books as well. These went to furnish the libraries of Rome, though it is probable that certain of them found their way back to Greece in company with some of Rome’s own literary produce when Constantine set up his capital and founded a library at Byzantium. Another means by which Greek manuscripts left the country was afforded by the eagerness of Ptolemy II. to extend the great library of Alexandria, to which end he bought books in all parts of Greece, and particularly in Athens and Rhodes.
The Roman libraries did not survive the onslaughts of the barbarians, who seem to have carried out a very thorough work of destruction in the Eternal City. But it is not unlikely that in some cases books, among other portable treasures, were carried away when their owners sought refuge in less troubled localities, such as Constantinople or Alexandria. Still, the fact remains that the contents of the Roman libraries have disappeared, and that for the ancient manuscripts now in our possession we are indebted to the tombs, the temples, the monasteries, and the sands of Egypt. Sometimes—to show the strange adventures of some of these manuscripts—the cartonnage cases in which mummies of the later period were enclosed, were made of papyrus documents, which apparently had been treated as waste paper and put to all sorts of undignified uses. The two oldest classical papyri known, consisting of fragments of Plato’s Phœdo and of the Antiope of Euripides, were recovered from mummy-cases, and are supposed to date from the third century B.C. Other important Greek texts which have been preserved by Egypt are Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens, the Mimes of Herodas, the Odes of Bacchylides, the Gospel and Apocalypse of Peter, the Book of Enoch, &c.
But here we have to take into consideration a new and important factor in literary as in other matters—the spread of Christianity. With such obvious exceptions as the cuneiform records, or the Egyptian writings, and similar remains, the bulk of the manuscripts (as manuscripts, not as compositions) is the work of (Christian) religious houses, and it is easy to see that we owe much to the labours of the monks and ecclesiastics who have transmitted to us not only the earliest and most valuable works of the Church’s own writers, but also the chief part of the literature of Greece and Rome. As Mr. Falconer Madan says in his Books in Manuscript, “the number and importance of the MSS. of Virgil and the four Gospels is greater than of any other ancient authors whatever,” and it is safe to assume that all these Gospel MSS., and perhaps all the Virgil MSS. also, were the handiwork of churchmen.