Incunabula - The Earliest Printed Books

a mediaeval scribe

The Latin word incunabulum (plural incunabula, and often anglicized as incunable) literally means cradle, and more loosely refers to the infancybirthplace or origin of something. It is most often used in reference to early printed books, and in this sense an incunabulum is further defined even more specifically as being a book printed using moveable type prior to the year 1501 AD.

Before the invention of printing using moveable type, books were copied by hand, word for word, letter by letter, by scribes, generally onto parchment or vellum. Obviously, this was an extremely laborious and time-consuming method, and the level of production was minimal — not to mention the potential for errors during transcription. Later, the method of block printing was devised (i.e. in Europe, as this method had been used for centuries in the Orient) wherein the entire text for a page was cut into wood and thus printed, although even this method was rather labour-intensive as well. However, great care was often undertaken in the reproduction of books in both of these ways, and the pages were often subsequently “illuminated” with wonderful illustrations and ornaments. Some of the most beautiful books ever made come from the time before the invention of printing with moveable type, and the first books which were printed using this latter method endeavoured to emulate that beauty and form.

[cited 6/25/10]

Tags: collage

Papercutting in China

Circa 6th Century CE

Paper cutting is the art of cutting designs in paper (black, white, or colored), then gluing them to a contrasting surface or a transparent surface. Paper cutting is intended to be decorative, i.e., a thing with which to adorn something else, not as a free-standing work of art, though today they are of course framed, in much the same way that a painting would be framed, by lovers of papercuttings worldwide.

Though the art of paper cutting evolved differently in different cultures, it appears to have originated in China – since paper itself originated in China* – possibly as early as the 2nd century CE, or shortly after paper itself was invented. The oldest example of a papercutting is from the 6th century CE and stems from Xinjiang Province in China. This uniquely Chinese art remained a secret to the outside world until around the 8th or 9th century CE, where it appeared in areas of West Asia and in what was once called Asia Minor (the area comprising modern-day Turkey). From there it spread to Europe and then to the rest of the world. The art of paper cutting remains one of the most popular traditional arts in China.

The themes involved in the art of Chinese paper cutting are as diverse as they are colorful, reflecting a multitude of regional and national motifs. The themes vary from scenes of everyday life, with which people are quite familiar, to scenes of a future life of good fortune to which people aspired – or at least dreamt of – to symbols suggesting good health, prosperity, etc. The art of paper cutting originated – and continues to this day – as a true folk art immediately accessible to the masses. The subject matter of these works of art provide an insight into the simple, unadulterated feelings of working peoples everywhere throughout time, having evolved uniquely in different parts of the world to meet the needs of the local culture.

[cited 6/24/10]

Tags: collage

The Transition from Papyrus to Parchment

Circa 300 CE

By the fourth century, the use of parchment for books was so widespread in the West that we can speak of a general transition from papyrus to parchment in the book-making process. This was of decisive importance for the preservation of literature because only very few papyrus fragments from medieval libraries have survived, since the European climate is inimical to this material. Nonetheless, in the sixth century AD the law codes of Justinian I were distributed from Byzantium in papyrus as well as in parchment manuscripts. One of the latest western papyrus books preserved (c. saec. VII-VIII) [circa 7-8th century] is a Luxeuil codex containing works of Augustine, in which interleaved parchment leaves protect the middle and the outside of the gatherings” (Bischoff, Latin Palaeography, Antiquity and the Middle Ages [1990] 8).



[cited 6/24/10]


The Oldest Bible

The world’s oldest Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, has been digitized online after being housed in four separate locations for over 150 years.


The surviving sections of the world’s oldest Bible have been pieced together and unified online Monday, creating a unique opportunity for scholars to learn more about the centuries-old manuscript.

As part of a four-year joint project, the Codex Sinaiticus, has been digitized for the first time, reuniting sections held by the British Library in London, the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, Egypt, the National Library of Russia and Leipzig University Library in Germany, according to Reuters.

The Codex Sinaiticus was hand-written in Greek by four scribes in the mid-fourth century, around the time of Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who embraced Christianity.

The Codex, which was originally around 1,400 pages long, is now a collection of 800 pages and fragments.

The text was written on vellum, a type of animal hide, and the pages that have survived include the entire New Testament and the earliest surviving copy of the Gospels, written after Christ’s death by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Half of a copy of the Old Testament is also among the pages that remain. The rest has been lost over time.

"The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the world’s greatest written treasures," Scot McKendrick, head of Western manuscripts at the British Library, told Reuters.

"This 1,600-year-old manuscript offers a window into the development of early Christianity and first-hand evidence of how the text of the Bible was transmitted from generation to generation," said McKendrick.

The pages include numerous revisions, corrections and additions, thought to have been added as the manuscript was passed down over time.

With each page measuring 16 inches tall by 14 inches wide, the Codex “is arguably the oldest large bound book to have survived,” McKendrick told Reuters.

"Critically, it marks the definite triumph of bound codices over (papyrus) scrolls – a key watershed in how the Christian Bible was regarded as a sacred text," he stated.

Reuniting the remaining pages of the Codex has helped to reveal other mysteries surrounding the oldest Bible, including more information about who made it and how it was produced.

Experts at the British Library told Reuters that the project has already produced evidence that suggests that a fourth scribe worked on the texts. Three other scribes have previously been recognized as authors.

Each institution owns various amounts of the Codex, but the British Library, which was the first to digitize pages of the book in London, possesses the most.

The joint project to compile all the pages online began in 2005, with the objective of preserving the ancient manuscript and creating an online archive.

The collection will also include previously unpublished pages of the Codex, which were found in a blocked-off room in 1975 at St. Catherine’s Monastery. Several of these pages are in poor condition, which has made them difficult to study.

McKendrick said the project should finally allow scholars to be able to view the documents as part of a whole, making their studies more complete and comprehensive.

While there are still many unknown answers about the origins of the Codex – such as how the manuscript came to be, which religious order commissioned it, and how long it took to produce – unifying the book on the Internet will hopefully initiate new research into the manuscript.

"It is our hope this will provide the catalyst for new research and it is already creating great interest," Juan Garces, project manager of Greek manuscripts at the British Library, told Reuters.

The Bible can be viewed online for free at . The collection includes modern Greek translations, in addition to certain sections which have been translated into English.

Read more:

[Cited 6/28/10]

Tags: collage

The Invention of Paper

The Birth of Papermaking

AD 105 is often cited as the year in which papermaking was invented. In that year, historical records show that the invention of paper was reported to the Chinese Emperor by Ts’ai Lun, an official of the Imperial Court. Recent archaeological investigations, however, place the actual invention of papermaking some 200 years earlier. Ancient paper pieces from the Xuanquanzhi ruins of Dunhuang in China’s northwest Gansu province apparently were made during the period of Emperor Wu who reigned between 140 BC and 86 BC. Whether or not Ts’ai Lun was the actual inventor of paper, he deserves the place of honor he has been given in Chinese history for his role in developing a material that revolutionized his country.

Early Papermaking in China

Early Chinese paper appears to have been made by from a suspension of hemp waste in water, washed, soaked, and beaten to a pulp with a wooden mallet. A paper mold, probably a sieve of coarsely woven cloth stretched in a four-sided bamboo frame, was used to dip up the fiber slurry from the vat and hold it for drying. Eventually, tree bark, bamboo, and other plant fibers were used in addition to hemp.

The first real advance in papermaking came with the development of a smooth material for the mold covering, which made it possible for the papermaker to free the newly formed sheet and reuse the mold immediately. This covering was made from thin strips of rounded bamboo stitched or laced together with silk, flax, or animal hairs. Other Chinese improvements in papermaking include the use of starch as a sizing material and the use of a yellow dye which doubled as an insect repellent for manuscript paper.

Papermaking Spreads Throughout Asia

From China, papermaking moved to Korea, where production of paper began as early as the 6th century AD. Pulp was prepared from the fibers of hemp, rattan, mulberry, bamboo, rice straw, and seaweed. According to tradition, a Korean monk named Don-cho brought papermaking to Japan by sharing his knowledge at the Imperial Palace in approximately AD 610, sixty years after Buddhism was introduced in Japan. The Japanese first used paper only for official records and documentation, but with the rise of Buddhism, demand for paper grew rapidly.

Taught by Chinese papermakers, Tibetans began to make their own paper as a replacement for their traditional writing materials. The shape of Tibetan paper books still reflects the long, narrow format of the original palm-leaf books. Chinese papermakers also spread their craft into Central Asia and Persia, from which it was later introduced into India by traders. The first recorded use of paper in Samarkand dates from a battle in Turkestan, where skilled Chinese artisans were taken prisoner and forced to make paper for their captors.

[cited 6/24/10]

Tags: collage

Writing on Bamboo and Silk

 Circa 250 BCE

An example of Lishu, or Clerkly Script, developed by Chinese Bureaucrats to be written with a brush.

In China until the end of the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty (256 BCE), through China’s classical period, writing was done with a bamboo pen, with ink of soot, or lampblack upon slips of bamboo or wood, with wood being used mainly for short messages and bamboo for longer messages and for books.

“Bamboo is cut into strips about 9 inches long and wide enough for a single column of characters. The wood was sometimes in the same form, sometimes wider. The bamboo strips, being stronger, could be perforated at one end and strung together, either with silken cords or with leather thongs, to form books…   

“The invention of the writing brush of hair, attributed to the general Meng T’ien [Meng Tian] in the third century B.C., worked a transformation in writing materials. This transformation is indicated by two changes in the language. The word for chapter used after this time means ’roll’; the word for writing materials becomes ’bamboo and silk’ instead of ’bamboo and wood.’ There is evidence that the silk used for writing during the early part of the Han dynasty consisted of actual silk fabric. Letters on silk, dating possibly from Han times, have been found together with paper in a watchtower of a spur of the Great Wall.

“But as the dynastic records of the time state, ’silk was too expensive and bamboo too heavy.’…The emperor Chin’in Shih Huang [Qui Shi Huang]  set himself the task of going over daily a hundred and twenty pounds of state documents. Clearly a new writing material was needed.

“The first step was probably a sort of paper or near-paper made of raw silk. This is indicated by the character for paper, which has the silk radical showing material, and by the defintion of that character in the Shuo wen, [Shuowen Jiezi] a dictionary that was finished about the year A.D. 100” (Carter, The Invention of Printing in China and its Spread Westward, 2nd ed.  [1955] 3-4).

[cited 6/24/10]

Tags: collage

Paper in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica


Circa 500 BCE

Natives of pre-Columbian Mesoamericamanufactured Amatl (Nahuatlāmatl, Spanish: amate or papel amate) during the first millenium BCE. It is a form of paper made by boiling the inner bark of several species of trees, particularly fig trees (genusFicus) such as F. cotinifolia and F. padifolia. The resulting fibrous material is pounded with a stone to produce a stretchy and somewhat delicate paper, colored light brown with corrugated lines.

"Iconography (in stone) dating from the period contains depictions of items thought to be paper. For example, Monument 52 from the Olmec site of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlánillustrates a personage adorned with ear pennants of folded paper.” (Wikipedia article on Amatl)

[cited 6/24/10]

Tags: collage

The Word Bibliography is Derived from a Greek Word for Papyrus

Circa 3,100 BCE – 3,050 BCE

The pith of the papyrus plant was used in Egypt at least as far back as the First dynasty, for boats, mattresses, mats and as a writing surface. The Egyptian word papyrus, meaning “that of the king,” may indicate a Pharonic monopoly in the period.

"The English word papyrus derives, via Latin, from Greek πάπυρος papyros. Greek has a second word for papyrus, βύβλος byblos (said to derive from the name of the Phoenician city of Byblos). The Greek writer Theophrastus, who flourished during the 4th century BC, uses papuros when referring to the plant used as a foodstuff and bublosfor the same plant when used for non-food products, such as cordage, basketry, or a writing surface. The more specific term βίβλος biblos, which finds its way into English in such words as bibliographybibliophile, and bible, refers to the inner bark of the papyrus plant. Papyrus is also the etymon of paper, a similar substance” (Wikipedia article on Papyrus, accessed 01-03-2010).

[cited 6/24/10]

Tags: collage

Perhaps the Oldest Map in the World 10,000 BCE

Map-making appears to predate written language. What may be the oldest map in the world, discovered in Ukraine in 1966, may date from about this time. Inscribed on a mammoth tusk, the map was found in Mezhirich, Ukraine. It has been interpreted to show dwellings along a river.

[cited 6/24/10]

Cartocacoethes: Why the World’s Oldest Map Isn’t a Map

[cited 6/24/10]

The First Landscape Painting is a Twin Peaked Volcano

By: Angela Grogan-Henehan

On the central Anatolian plateau in Turkey, within view of the majestic 10,600 feet tall twin peaked volcano, Hasan Dag, there has been found the remains of an organized and planned Neolithic society. Within the city, among the many pieces of artwork discovered there, is a wall painting unlike any up to that time. The painting in Catal Hoyuk contains no animals or humans and is the first known landscape painting c. 9,500 BCE.

The archeological site shows a city that was well built and religious, with many of the plastered rooms painted with animals and humans. The population of this multiracial city has been estimated at around 6000 people. The once glorious, New Stone Age city of Catal Hoyuk,  produced pottery, jewelry, baskets, cloth, and sculpture.

The wall painting was discovered by James Mellart who excavated and studied the area between 1958 and 1964. The city is in view of a twin peaked volcano, showing that the idea of the volcano was not conjured from imagination of the people but inspired by the real volcano, Hasan Dag. The squares represent the many rooms, homes, and cathedrals that made up the city, with the darker squares being the entrance and exits. The painting is a common scene of the city brought inside to display with all of the other artwork found in Catal Hoyuk.

The artist of the first landscape painting did not take their location, its natural majesty, or nature’s power for granted; moved by the grand scene viewed many times by the people originating, traveling, and trading there. The distant view of the city is captured along with the everyday fear of living under the active volcano.  An abundance of artistic materials available and the inspiration facilitated by the decorative society of Catal Hoyuk, Turkey, allowed the creator of the wall painting to provide something never experienced before, the oldest known landscape painting.

[cited 6//24/10]

World’s Oldest Map: Spanish Cave Has Landscape from 14,000 Years Ago

Archaeologists have discovered what they believe is man’s earliest map, dating from almost 14,000 years ago.

By Fiona Govan in Madrid Published: 7:30AM BST 06 Aug 2000

A stone tablet found in a cave in Abauntz in the Navarra region of northern Spain is believed to contain the earliest known representation of a landscape.

Engravings on the stone, which measures less than seven inches by five inches, and is less than an inch thick, appear to depict mountains, meandering rivers and areas of good foraging and huntin.

A team from the University of Zaragoza spent 15 years deciphering the etched lines and squiggles after unearthing the artefact during excavation of the cave in 1993.

"We can say with certainty that it is a sketch, a map of the surrounding area," said Pilar Utrilla, who led the research team.

"Whoever made it sought to capture in stone the flow of the watercourses, the mountains outside the cave and the animals found in the area."

"The landscape depicted corresponds exactly to the surrounding geography," she said. "Complete with herds of ibex marked on one of the mountains visible from the cave itsel

The research, which is published in the latest edition of the Journal of Human Evolution, furthers understanding of early modern human capacities of spatial awareness, planning and organised hunting.

"We can’t be sure what was intended in the making of the tablet but it was clearly important to those who populated the cave 13,660 years ago," said Ms Utrilla. "Maybe it was to record areas rich in mushrooms, birds’ eggs, or flint used for making tools."

The researchers believe it may also have been used as a storytelling device or to plan a hunting expeditio.

"Nothing like this has been discovered elsewhere in western Europe," she said.

[cited 6/24/10]