The Book Before Printing: Ancient, Medieval and Oriental

The Book Before Printing: Ancient, Medieval and Oriental

by David Diringer

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"A remarkable work. . . . For sheer weight of information there is no equal to it." — The Spectator.
It is probable that the earliest "books" were written on wood or leaves as early as the fourth millennium B.C. These fragile materials, unfortunately, have not come down to us. In their absence, the earliest surviving books are the clay tablets of


"A remarkable work. . . . For sheer weight of information there is no equal to it." — The Spectator.
It is probable that the earliest "books" were written on wood or leaves as early as the fourth millennium B.C. These fragile materials, unfortunately, have not come down to us. In their absence, the earliest surviving books are the clay tablets of Mesopotamia, the oldest attributed to c. 3500 B.C. On these ancient clay shards, dense rows of cuneiform script record the seminal writings of mankind: the Gilgamesh epic, Sumerian literary catalogues, Babylonian astrology, Assyrian accounts of the Creation and the Flood, and the Lipit-Ishtar Law-Code (c. 2000 B.C.), predating Hammurabi and the oldest law code in human history.
Probably as ancient as the Mesopotamian writings, or nearly so, are Egyptian hieroglyphics. In a sense, it is the papyrus scrolls of the Egyptians — preserved by that country's hot, dry climate — that represent the true ancestors of the modern book. As the centuries passed, papyrus slowly gave way to parchment (the prepared skins of animals) as writing material. Indeed, the handwritten parchment or vellum codex is "the book" par excellence of the Middle Ages. Western European book production is only part of the story, and the author is at pains to illuminate the bibliographic contributions of numerous peoples and cultures: Greek and Roman book production, books made in central and southern Asia, the books of Africa, pre-Columbian America, and the Far East — material that is often not mentioned in Western histories of the book.
Based on years of painstaking research and incorporating a wealth of new material and conclusions, the text is enhanced throughout by abundant illustrations — nearly 200 photographic facsimiles of priceless manuscripts in museums and libraries around the world.

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Ancient, Medieval and Oriental

By David Diringer

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14249-4



IT is significant that man's intellectual progress and, particularly, the recording of his achievements—history in fact—are very late developments in his story as a whole. The modern anthropologist regards the human race as having had probably a million years' existence on this earth. Of this million years, only a small fraction —the last five thousand years or so—are recorded in any contemporary form.

Indeed, the earliest known books or their equivalents are the inscribed clay tablets of Mesopotamia and the papyrus rolls of ancient Egypt, both of which, in their primitive origins, are reputed to date at least from the early third millennium B.C.

If one goes further back, however, one might by a stretch of imagination regard as very nebulous beginnings of the book the Old Stone Age cave paintings—such as we find at Altamira or Lascaux—and other prehistoric or more recent picture-writings, as well as the oral tradition, aided by gesture and song, of prehistoric or other primitive peoples. Moreover, since so little is known of the origins and the early history of the book, it may be useful to follow up some clues afforded by language, which tenaciously preserves various terms originally denoting primitive writing materials. These primitive writing materials were not necessarily used earlier than the Mesopotamian clay tablets or the Egyptian papyri.

The present chapter dealing with such prodromes of the book, is thus divided into three sections, which will treat the following subjects: (1) oral tradition; (2) primitive human records and pictographic representations of stories; and (3) primitive writing materials, especially as evidenced by some modern terms. Numerous statements from classical and other early writers are included without any expression of opinion regarding their validity, because the beliefs of such men as Theophrastus or Livy or Pliny are of interest in themselves.

Oral Tradition

Unable to write, prehistoric man (like primitive men of today) relieved his soul by means of the spoken word aided by gesture—see Fig. I—1, a—and song. Whatever lore of nature and of well-being had been gained by one generation, was related by the pater familias or by story-tellers to the children, and lived with other traditions in their memories. Medicine men and story-tellers were selected for their personalities and exceptional gifts of memory. The first hymns, chants, jingles and tunes were invented by the story-teller to assist his memory in relating the general epics of the tribe, or by the medicine man for instruction in the mystic rituals.

Story-telling is thus one of the oldest cultural manifestations of man. From very early times, before the dawn of recorded history, man endeavoured to educate himself and his children, and told them of his and his father's adventures, of the lives and struggles of their gods and witches. His community was, of course, very much smaller than even many present-day villages. The feeling of community would be shared by all who would gather together in a convenient place of assembly, for instance, around a camp fire, where they would listen to the gifted story-teller relating the ancient traditions. The storyteller may have been a gifted singer who could recite his story in simple verse, and all would join in. Probably the story-teller or bard, growing old, would find a likely successor and pass on to him his store of stories, ballads or songs. Thus, for instance, Polynesian story-tellers trained their own memories and that of their sons so that they were able to hand down to posterity by word of mouth their people's history, especially their valuable migration traditions.


It is notable that in the oral traditions of primitive people there is no conception of accuracy or originality or plagiarism; lines or passages would be added or omitted, or other changes introduced. Generally, the importance of events was exaggerated; various episodes were connected with some great natural phenomenon or historical event (such as the Flood or the Trojan War), or with some mighty names (such as Gilgamesh or Samson or Ulysses or King Arthur). The natural surroundings, the phenomena of nature, the celestial bodies, the gods, the legendary heroes, the living spirits hidden in nature, all were given the attributes of human beings.

The mythology thus shaped and preserved by the minds of these primitive tribes is an ocean filled with pearls, but it is far from sufficient for the reconstruction of prehistoric life. It is surprising, indeed, in how short a time all memory may be lost of events which are not recorded in some form of writing. Thus, it may be safely affirmed that no ancient civilized people or modern primitive tribes preserved any distinct recollection of their own origin. All experience shows that what may be transmitted by memory and word of mouth, consists mainly of heroic poems and ballads in which the historical element is so overlaid by mythology and poetry that it is not always easy to distinguish between fact and fancy.

Even with myths of relatively recent times, such as the Arthurian legends, it is difficult to know what measure of history they represent; there may, indeed, have been an historical Arthur, perhaps a chief of Christianized Romano-Britons, who led a gallant resistance to the flood of Anglo-Saxon invasion, but he is certainly not the hero of romance that Medieval Ages have made him out to be.


To write real history, we require something very different—apart from the special qualities of the historian, with his powers of imaginative insight and keen analytical understanding; we require actual and reliable record. This, indeed, may be an ideal requirement, particularly if we include the idea of continuity in the record; but there is no doubt that we cannot entirely rely on a purely oral tradition, fostered as this would normally be by tribal feeling and pride, rather than by a concern for historical accuracy. At the very least, we require contemporary written documents.

As Professor R. A. Wilson points out, the world of mind advances by accumulative movement. "The library of the British Museum would illustrate adequately this cumulative movement of reason, where the various phases through which the world has passed in its previous evolution, themselves now vanished in time, are preserved in a permanent present, a pure world of mind though stored in the sensuous material of paper and ink. If we think of what a university, say, would be without a single book, and without blackboards, or notebooks, shut off from a vanished and irrecoverable past, we should have a picture of the limitations which time sets upon oral speech alone as instrument of conscious mind."

Primitive Human Records

G. H. Bushnell may be right in suggesting that presumably the first writing was done on soil by means of a human finger, followed by scratching upon trees and rocks, but, of course, there is no evidence to support any such suggestion and probably there never will be.

We do not know how "the book" began any more than we know how writing or language started. If we take "the book" to mean any kind of literary production, including story-telling, there is no people in all the world without books. If, on the other hand, we mean by "book" the handsome volumes we see in our modern libraries, we must realize that this use of the word is a relatively recent development.

Prehistoric Man probably did not think about true writing; even nowadays there are primitive tribes who can do without it. Indeed, various acoustic and optical devices (such as war-cries, signal horns, drums, gestures, and smoke-and-fire signals) suffice for their communication needs.


As man emerged from his primitive state, he must have felt a need of recording his knowledge in some permanent form, or of helping his memory in conveying important messages. Crude systems of conveying ideas or mnemonic devices are found extensively. (See The Alphabet, 2nd ed., 1949, pp. 21—31.) In these primitive devices of communication the symbols employed—see Fig. I—1, b and c—are mere memory aids and need the interpretation of the messenger; they may, therefore, be considered a preliminary stage of writing.


It is probable that the earliest examples extant of human attempts to scratch, draw or paint highly naturalistic or schematic pictures of animals, geometric patterns, crude pictures of objects, on cave walls or rocks or bones in the Upper Palaeolithic period and successive ages, belonging perhaps to 20,000—5,000 B.C., are also to be considered a preliminary stage of writing (see Fig. I—2). These carvings and paintings may have had religious significance, or may have served as fetishes or charms, such as hunting charms.

The marvellous cave paintings—some of them astonishingly vivid and lifelike and wonderfully distinct in detail—of Altamira, Northern Spain; of Cambarelles, and Font-de-Gaume, Southern France; and of various other places in Northern Spain and Southern France, "are generally situated in the deep recesses of limestone caves, whither no daylight can penetrate. No families have ever lived in these fastnesses; they are often very difficult of access. And in executing the drawings the artist had often to adopt most uncomfortable attitudes, lying on his back or standing on a comrade's shoulders in a narrow crevice" (Prof. Gordon Childe).

These paintings show animals standing, and are merely "portraits" of those which the Palaeolithic Man hunted.


It is not likely that any cf these splendid paintings were made just for show or for the purpose of decorating these dark recesses. Sometimes they are executed one on top of the other, without any apparent order. What, then, is their meaning and purpose? Even in modern times and in "civilized" countries, the burning of images of enemy leaders is not unfamiliar; somewhere there remains the primitive feeling that what one does to the image, is done to the person it represents; it is a remnant of those ancient superstitions which still survive amongst many primitive tribes of Africa, Asia and Australasia. Medicine men and witches have been known to try to "work" magic in this way; they make an effigy of an enemy and then pierce it through the heart, or burn it, hoping that the enemy will suffer a similar fate. It would seem probable, indeed, that all these prehistoric paintings were done neither for purposes of art nor for transmitting records, but for performing magic.

Pictographic Representations of Stories

Pictography or picture-writing, which is the most primitive stage of true writing, may be subdivided into the following three classes:

(1) Iconography, which gives a static impression; the pictures, known as pictograms, represent the objects in a motionless state: the sketch of an animal would represent the animal, and, for example, a circle might represent the sun. Today with our action photographs and films, our comic strips and illustrations, the putting of action into pictures seems a small thing; actually it was a tremendously important development when the "artist" began to "write" picture-stories, i.e. when he began to make pictures tell stories—see Fig. I—3. It was, perhaps, the true beginning of the book.

(2) Thus, at any rate, arose synthetic or ideographic writing. This can best be studied in the relatively recent pictographic scripts of primitive peoples of Polynesia, West Africa, Central America, South-Western Asia, and among the Yukaghirs of N.E. Siberia (see The Alphabet, pp. 31—5), but the most famed among the pictorial documents are those of North American Indians, so beautifully described by Longfellow in The Song of Hiawatha, xiv.

A good example of these "picture-books" are the wan'iyetu wo'wapi, or "winter counts" of the Dakota tribes: they "count" the times by winters, which, however, they do not number, but apply to them a name taken from the main event marking the given winter, e.g. "plenty-stars-winter" for the winter of 1833—4: a great meteoric shower occurred in the evening of 12.11.1833 (Fig. I—3, d).

Fig. I—3, d, shows the winter count of Shunka-ishnala (Lonely Dog) of the Yanktonnai tribe of the Dakotas, living in 1876 near the Fort Peck, Montana. The "chronicle" painted on a buffalo hide consists of ideographic pictures, each of them representing one winter or year, and starts with the winter (1800—1) representing the "thirty-Dakotas-killed-by-Absarokas (or Crow Indians)", indicated by a symbol made up of thirty vertical strokes in three rows. In spiral direction from right to left, the symbols represent the "chronicle" of the years 1800—1 to 1870—1. The second symbol —"smallpox-used-them-all-up-againwinter"—represents the winter 1801—2; the last symbol, showing the "battlebetween-Uncpapas-and-Absarokas-winter", is depicted at the top left hand, while the last but one represents the total eclipse of the sun (a dark sun with stars around it) of the winter 1869—70.

As to the spiral direction of writing, it is extremely interesting to compare this "chronicle" with the Phaistos disc—see p. 64 and Fig. I—4, a. No suggestion is made that the two documents, separated by over three and a half millennia of time and thousands of miles of space, have any relationship whatever. Curiously enough, as regards shape, the Phaistos disc can be compared with the "stone calendar" of the ancient Aztecs, these documents also being separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles; for the ancient Aztecs see p. 71 ff.

(3) Analytic Writing. Neither iconographic nor synthetic writing constitutes a complete system of writing, as does an analytic script, in which definite pictures, conventional and simplified, selected by custom from many experimental pictures, become fixed pictorial symbols, representing single objects or words.

Most of the important systems of writing may belong to this category: see next chapter. They are the Sumerian script, predecessor of the cuneiform writing, the Egyptian hieroglyphic script, the Cretan pictographic scripts, the Indus Valley script, the Hittite hieroglyphic, the Chinese, the Maya, and the Aztec scripts; perhaps also the Easter Island writing (The Alphabet, pp. 136—40) as well as some other medieval and modern scripts (ibid., pp. 141—51) belongs to this class.

Not all these systems of writing, however, are purely pictographic and ideographic, although all of them may have been so in origin. In the later stages of development, Sumerian and cuneiform scripts, the Egyptian scripts, the Cretan and other systems are generally, but improperly, called ideographic, and are sometimes considered transitional, representing, as they do, the stage between pure ideographic writing and the pure phonetic system, and making use of the two, side by side. It is to be noted, however, that the term "transitional" is hardly appropriate to systems of writing lasting as long as three thousand years.

Nevertheless, from the point of view of the history of "the book", some of these systems can be regarded either as primitive or prehistoric, or as transitional. While in their initial stages they were not employed for book purposes as we use our writing, and were thus in a certain sense prehistoric, in their later stages they were often used for writing books, although these had a quite different form from that of the modern book.

Primitive Writing Materials, especially as evidenced by some Modern Terms

Since so little is known of the origins and the early history of "the book", it may be useful to follow up some clues which language affords us. A study of words reveals that many familiar expressions in our language, no less than in other languages, are used in senses other than those in which they were used originally.

Inference from the presence or absence of certain words is a common practice known for many years to critics and historians of literature, and is often used for what is known as "internal evidence"; but in general very little use has been made of language itself, that is to say, of the historical forms and meanings of words as interpreters of the distant cultural past.


Excerpted from THE BOOK BEFORE PRINTING by David Diringer. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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