Reading and Writing in Babylon

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Overview

Over 5,000 years ago, the history of humanity radically changed direction when writing was invented in Sumer, the southern part of present-day Iraq. For the next three millennia, kings, aristocrats, and slaves all made intensive use of cuneiform script to document everything from royal archives to family records.

In engaging style, Dominique Charpin shows how hundreds of thousands of clay tablets testify to the history of an ancient society that communicated broadly through letters to gods, insightful commentary, and sales receipts. He includes a number of passages, offered in translation, that allow readers an illuminating glimpse into the lives of Babylonians. Charpin’s insightful overview discusses the methods and institutions used to teach reading and writing, the process of apprenticeship, the role of archives and libraries, and various types of literature, including epistolary exchanges and legal and religious writing.

The only book of its kind, Reading and Writing in Babylon introduces Mesopotamia as the birthplace of civilization, culture, and literature while addressing the technical side of writing and arguing for a much wider spread of literacy than is generally assumed. Charpin combines an intimate knowledge of cuneiform with a certain breadth of vision that allows this book to transcend a small circle of scholars. Though it will engage a broad general audience, this book also fills a critical academic gap and is certain to become the standard reference on the topic.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This introduction to the birth of cuneiform writing in the Babylonian empire is an engaging primer on the lexicon of linguistics. Cuneiform writing, with its three dimensional requirement of light and shade, included 600 characters, all possessing either a syllabic (phonetic) or logographic value that showed both sound and meaning. It's all about communication: clay tablets were put in clay envelopes; to learn characters, students traced them; and scholars copied manuscripts to preserve them. Tablets of contracts, laws, and even literary works were archived and collected in libraries. Thus we have the Epic of Gilgamesh from the second millennium, telling us the story of the deluge. By the first millennium, it wasn't only scribes who could read and write but also administrators, generals, and even their wives. The fires of war baked the clay tablets, safeguarding them for future research (there is an inventory of 500,000 texts). Charpin has written a scholarly work of incredible breadth; read with reference books at the ready to discover an ancient world not so different from our own. (Nov.)
Times Literary Supplement

[Reading and Writing in Babylon] is a groundbreaking and fascinating contribution to the study of ancient literacy, readable by all-comers.
— Eleanor Robson

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Charpin has written a book that is accessible to those outside the small academic field of Assyriology. The work is remarkable for its level of detail and the breadth of its concern. Charpin is able to keep one eye on the specifics of numerous texts and their archaeological contexts. At the same time, he is able to situate the written legacy of these ancient cultures in a broad sociological context, while arguing in some places for a generally new approach to reading and integrating the wealth of material into cognate fields.
— Phillip Michael Sherman

Karel Van Der Toorn
Many books have been written on the origins of the cuneiform script and the role of reading and writing in Mesopotamia. But Charpin's book has no rival that could even stand in its shade.
Times Literary Supplement - Eleanor Robson
[Reading and Writing in Babylon] is a groundbreaking and fascinating contribution to the study of ancient literacy, readable by all-comers.
Bryn Mawr Classical Review - Phillip Michael Sherman
Charpin has written a book that is accessible to those outside the small academic field of Assyriology. The work is remarkable for its level of detail and the breadth of its concern. Charpin is able to keep one eye on the specifics of numerous texts and their archaeological contexts. At the same time, he is able to situate the written legacy of these ancient cultures in a broad sociological context, while arguing in some places for a generally new approach to reading and integrating the wealth of material into cognate fields.
Times Literary Supplement
[Reading and Writing in Babylon] is a groundbreaking and fascinating contribution to the study of ancient literacy, readable by all-comers.
— Eleanor Robson
Library Journal
Charpin (Mesopotamian history, Sorbonne, Paris) takes up a subject that's been debated by Assyriologists for many years: Did scribes alone have the knowledge to read and write cuneiform, the earliest writing, invented by the Sumerians around 3200 B.C.E.? Charpin focuses on what may be called the "classical" period of Mesopotamian civilization, the period between the Babylonian rulers Hammurabi (1792–1750 B.C.E.) to Nebuchadnezzar (604–562 B.C.E.). Charpin's work at Ur some 20 years ago convinced him that what was thought to be a school was in fact a residence for clergy who home trained their children and apprentices to read and write cuneiform. His research has convinced him that literacy was not limited to professional scribes. The depth and range of material Charpin includes is indeed impressive. In sections that will be of particular interest to lay readers and students, Charpin goes into detail about reading a cuneiform tablet and the apprenticeship of a scribe. He informs the reader that the oral, spoken word—Sumerian or Akkadian—was most important in Mesopotamian society, and it was the survival of the written over the spoken word that produced the expansion of writing. VERDICT Required reading for scholars in the field and their students.—Joan W. Gartland, Macomb Community Coll. Libs., Warren, MI
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674049680
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Dominique Charpin is Professor of Mesopotamian History at the Sorbonne, Paris.
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