DDBspotlight: That’s going too far! – Papyrus, Parchment and Ancient Library Wars

By Wiebke Hauschildt (Online Editor)

In February 2016 Great Britain was shaken by a scandal. To save costs, the dual original copies of new legislative texts for Parliament and the National Archives were no longer to be printed on parchment, but only on paper. This decision was made by the House of Lords. Arguments followed: with regard to cost savings, a threat to livelihoods, using parchment as a long-term storage medium, and it was not only politicians who expressed concern on account of the decision.

However, this was not the first time in history that parchment was to become a political issue. Even the history of its origins is – according to legend – characterized by drama, namely by the ancient library war between Alexandria and Pergamum.

Thiersch, August; Serapeum of Alexandria – view of the library, north side, Architekturmuseum der TU München (Architectural Museum of Munich Technical University)(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International)

About imprisoned scholars and the value of papyrus

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, his empire stretched from Macedonia up to the border with Western India. During the Wars of the Diadochi, which followed his death, the empire was divided up into three large dynasties; the Antigod Dynasty in Macedonia, the Seleucid Dynasty in Western Asia and the Ptolomaic Dynasty in Egypt. Each of these kingdoms wanted to become the lawful successor to Alexander the Great, which led to extraordinary flourishing competitive efforts: one of these was the establishment of great libraries.

The Library of Alexandria was probably built between 290 and 282 BC by Ptolemy I. The library had a distinct advantage over other institutions due to Egypt’s wealth – successful agriculture, trade and fishing, including papyrus manufacture. There was, however, another important library, the Library of Pergamum (today Bergama in Turkey), which wanted to claim the title of the most important scientific institution for itself. This wasn’t built until a century after the Library of Alexandria and King Eumenes II wanted to quickly attain, and exceed, the size and importance of the former.

"Base of a statue of the poet Homer from the Library of Pergamum: poem with the dispute between cities about the poet’s place of birth“, photo: Gerhard Kunze, Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Collection of Classical Antiquities, National Museums in Berlin)(CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Germany)

This led to fierce competition: both libraries competed for the same books, the same scholars and the same Homer poems (whose estate played a major role at this time), constantly comparing which of the poems were older and more authentic. The best scholars were to be bribed by correspondingly high salaries and, if this had no effect, they would be imprisoned if there was a suspicion that they wanted to change to the respective other library.

Ptolemy V took the most drastic action in support of his Library of Alexandria: he stopped the papyrus export trade with Pergamum, hoping to deprive the library of its book production basis by doing so. But this strategy backfired on him. As the Roman scholar and author Marcus Terentius Varro writes: “The rivalry between King Ptolemy and King Eumenes because of the libraries caused the export of papyrus to be stopped – so the citizens of Pergamum invented parchment.”

"Büffel, Blatt VIII", Foto: Jörg P. Anders, Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Deutschland)

From papyrus to parchment: The more probable version of the story

That the citizens of Pergamum invented parchment has since been refuted, for writings on stretched animal skin already exist from much earlier times. What is more probable is that the citizens of Pergamum improved the methods of manufacturing and writing on parchment, and thus it became a material which was preferred as a long-term storage medium over papyrus.

Papyrus is a material of which there is evidence of it first being used at the beginning of the third millennium BC. It was the preferred material of the Pharaonic Era in Egypt, despite its complex manufacture from the stem of the papyrus plant. And yet papyrus, stored in rolls, was not exactly a space-saving medium and, outside of Egypt’s dry and warm climate, it was fragile and not particularly long-lasting.

On the other hand parchment is obtained from animal skins, mostly from calves, young sheep or goats, since the skin of adult animals is too thick. For this reason the German figure of speech “das geht auf keine Kuhhaut” (literally, that can’t be done on cowskin) is not entirely correct. The skin is soaked in a lime solution, which softens it, then dried and stretched, so that it can be smoothed and powdered with chalk. Parchment is not only long-lasting, it is also reusable. It can be used again by scraping off the inscriptions and thus becomes “palimpsest”: the Greek word palimpsestos means “scraped again”.

Even in ancient times there was the trend towards data compression on ever smaller space-saving storage media: parchment could be cut up to form layers which were stored between protective bindings, also known today as books. Papyrus was not suitable for this, since it was too thick and had an irregular surface. Hence the fate of papyrus was sealed: it “disappeared … so thoroughly from the market, that the formula for its manufacture had to be rediscovered as recently as in the 20th century” writes Joachim Willeitner.

"Papyrus - BSB Pap.graec.mon. 287", Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International)

Laws on parchment

When the House of Lords decided to abolish original copies of laws on parchment, one of the few remaining manufacturers of this material, Paul Wright, spoke up: “If the Magna Carta had been written on paper, it would only be a small packet of dust today. And if earlier civilisations had not used parchment, we would know practically nothing about our past”. The guarantee of durability of paper is limited to 250 years; parchment, on the other hand, can last for up to 5000 years when properly stored. The decision was rescinded and Great Britain will continue to write its laws on parchment.

And the library wars? These led to the ancient libraries receiving the funds and attention which they so urgently needed.


Spektrum.de: "Ein Datenträger für die Ewigkeit"
Atlas Obscura: "The fierce, forgotten library wars of the ancient world"
Wikipedia: "Pergament"
Kleine Papiergeschichte