1902 Encyclopedia > Papyrus


PAPYRUS, the paper reed, the Cyperus Papyrus of Linneaus, was in ancient times widely cultivated in the Delta of Egypt, where it was used for various purposes, and especially as a writing material. As, however, the plant is now extinct in Lower Egypt, it is believed that it was not indigenous there, but was probably introduced from Bubia, where it is found at the present time, as well as in Abyssinia. Theophrastus (Hist. Plant., iv. 10) adds that it likewise grew in Syria; and, according to Pliny, it was also a native plant to the Niger and Euphrates. From one of its ancient Egyptian names, P-apu, was derived its Greek title papuros, Lat. papyrus. By Herodotus, it is always called byblos [Gk.], a word which was apparently also of Egyptian origin. The first accurate description of the plant is given by Theophrastus, from whom we learn that it grew in shallows of 2 cabits (about 3 feet) or less, its main root being of the thickness of a man’s wrist, and 10 cubits in length. From this root, which lay horizontally, smaller roots pushed down into the mud, and the stem of the plant sprang up to the height of 4 cubits, being triangular and tapering in form. The tufted head or umbel is likened by Pliny to a thysus.

Papyrus image

Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) with (in the background) a column of hieroglyphics

The various uses to which the papyrus plant was applied are also enumerated by Theophrastus. Of the head nothing could be made but garlands for the shrines of the gods; but the wood of the root was employed in the manufacture of different utensils as well as for fuel. Of the stem of the plant were made boats, sails, mats, cloth, cords, and, above all, writing material (ta biblia, [Gk.]). The pith was also a common article of food, and was eaten both cooked and in its natural state. Herodotus too notices its consumption as food (ii. 92), and incidentally mentions that it provided the material of which the priests’ sandals were made (ii. 37). He likewise refers to the use of bybus as tow for caulking the seams of ships; and the statement of Theophrastus that King Antigonus made the rigging of his fleet of the same material is illustrated by the ship’s cable, hoplon byblinon [Gk.], wherewith the doors were fastened when Ulysses slew the suitors in his hall (Odyss., xxi. 390). That the plant was itself used also as the principal material in the construction of light skiffis suitable for the navigation of the pools and shallows of the Nile, and even the river itself. Is shown by sculptures of the period of the fourth dynasty, in which men are represented in the act of building a boat with stems cut form a neighbouring plantation of papyrus (Lepsius, Denkm., ii. 12). It is to boats of this description that Isaiah probably refers in the "vessels of bulrushed upon the waters" (xviii. 2). If the Hebrew gome (____, [Heb.]) also is to be identified with the Egyptian papyrus, something may be said in favour of the tradition that the bulrushes of which the ark was composed in which the infant Moses was laid, in the flags by the river’s brink, were in fact the latter plant. Ancient authors have likewise referred to the adaptation of the papyrus to other domestic purposes, both culinary and medicinal. But it seems hardly credible that the Cyperus Papyrus could alone have sufficed for the many uses to which it is said to have sufficed for the many uses to which it is said to have been applied. Wilkinson has pointed out (Anc. Egyptians, ii. 121) that, the cultivation of this variety being limited to certain districts, where, moreover, it was a monopoly of the purposes; and we may therefore conclude that several plants of the genus Cyperus were comprehended under the head of byblus or papyrus -- an opinion which is supported by the words of Strabo, who mentions both inferior and superior qualities. The Cyperus dives is still grown in Egypt, and is used to this day for many of the purposes named by ancient writers.

The widespread use of papyrus as a writing material throughout the ancient world is attested by early writers, and by documents and sculptures. In addition to the names of the plant, which were also applied to the material, the latter was also known as khartes [Gk.], charta [Lat.]. Papyrus rolls are represented in ancient Egyptian wall-paintings; and extant examples of the rolls themselves are sufficiently numerous. The most ancient of these, known, from the name of its former owner, as the Prisse papyrus, and now preserved at Paris, contains a work composed in the reign of a king of the fifth dynasty, and is computed to be itself of the age of upwards of 2000 years B.C. The papyri discovered in Egypt have generally been found in tombs, and in the hands, or swathed with bodies, of mummies. The ritual of the dead, which in its entirely or in an abridged form was buried with every person of consequence from the eighteenth dynasty to the Roman period, is most frequently the subject. And, besides the ritual and religious rolls, there are the hieratic, civil and literary, documents, and the demotic and enchorial papyri, relating generally to sales of property. Coptic papyri usually contain Bibilical or religious tracts or monastic deeds.

The early use of papyrus among the Greeks is proved by the reference of Herodotus (v. 58) to its introduction among the Ionians. An inscription of 407 B.C. records the sale of two sheets (khartai duo [Gk.]) at Athens, for two drachmas and four obols. Greek papyri have been found in Egypt of great importance both for their palaeographical an literary worth. The first installment which came to light, as late as the year 1778, consisted of some fifty rolls, which were discovered in the neighnourhood of Memphis; but all, with one single exception, were carelessly destroyed. More fortunate were the documents found near the Serapeum of Memphis, and connected with that temple; and further discoveries of valuable texts of Homer, Hyperides, and other classical writers have rewarded later searches (see PALAEOGRAPHY). The numerous rolls found in the ruins of Herculaneum generally contain the less interesting works of writers of the Epicurean school.

Papyrus also made its way into Italy, but al how early a period there is nothing to show. Under the empire its use must have been extensive, for not only was it required for the production of books, but it was also universally employed for domestic purposes, correspondence, and legal documents. So indispensable did it become that it is reported that in the reign of Tiberius the scarcity and dearness of the material, caused by a failure of the papyrus crop, nearly brought on a riot (Pliny, N.H., xiii. 13).

The account which Pliny (N.H., xiii. 11-13) has transmitted to us of the manufacture of the writing material form the papyrus plant should be taken strictly to refer to the process followed in his own time; but, with some differences in details, the same general method of treatment had doubtlessly been practiced from time immemorial. His text, however, is so confused, both form obscurity of style and from corruption in the MSS., that there is much difference of opinion as to the meaning of many words and phrases employed in his narrative, and their application in particular points of detail. In one important particular, however, affecting the primary construction of the material, there can no longer be any doubt. The old idea that it was made from layers or pellicules growing between the rind and a central stalk has been abandoned, as it has been proved that the plant, like other reeds, contains only a cellular pith within the rind. The stem was in fact cut into longitudinal strips for the purpose of being converted into the writing material, those form the center of the plant the broadest and most valuable. The strips (philyrae), which were cut with a sharp knife or some such instrument, were laid on a broad side by side to the required width, thus forming a layer (scheda), across which another layer of shorter strips was laid at right angles. The two layers thus "woven" -- Pliny uses the word texere in describing this part of the process -- formed a sheet (plagula, or net), which was then soaked in water of the Nile. The mention of a particular water has caused trouble to the commentators. Some have supposed that certain chemical properties of which the Nile water was possessed acted as a glue or cement to cause the two layers to adhere; others, with more reason, that glutinous matter contained in the material itself was solved by the action of water, whether from the Nile or any other source; and others again read in Pliny’s words an implication that a paste was actually used. Be this as it may, the sheet was finally pressed and dried in the sun. Any roughness was leveled by polishing with ivory or a smooth shell. But the material was also subject to other defects, such as moisture lurking between the layers, which might be detected by stroked of the mallet; spots or stains; and spongy strips (taeniae), in which the ink would run and spoil the sheet. When such faults occurred, the papyrus must be re-made. To form a roll the sheets were joined together with paste (glue being too hard), but not more than twenty sheets in a roll (scapus). As, however, there are still extant rolls consisting of a more than the prescribed number of sheets, either the reading of vicenae is corrupt, or the number was not constant in all times. The best sheet formed the first or outside sheet of the roll, and the others were joined on in order of quality, so that the worst sheets were in the center of the roll. This arrangement was adopted not for the purpose of fraudulently selling bad material under cover of the better exterior, but in order that the outside of the roll should be composed of that which would best stand wear and tear. Besides, in case of the entire roll not being filled with the text, the unused and inferior sheets at the end could be better spared, and so might be cut off.

The different kinds of papyrus writing material and their dimensions are also enumerated by Pliny. The best quality, formed from the middle and broadest strips of the plant, was originally named hieratica, but afterwards, in flattery of the emperor Augustus, it was called, after him, Augusta; and the charta Livia, or second quality, was so named in honour of his wife. The hieratica thus descended to the third rank. The first two years were 13 digiti, or about 9 1/2 inches in width; the hieratica, 11 digiti or 8 inches. Next came the charta amphitheatrica, anmed after the principal place of its manufacture, the amphitheatre of Alexandria, of 9 digiti or 6 1/2 inches wide. The charta Fanniana appears to have been a kind of papyrus worked up from the amphitheatrica, which by flattening and other methods was increased in width by an inch, in the factory of a certain Fannius at Rome. The Saitica, which took its name from the city of Sais, and was probably of 8 digiti or 5 3/4 inches, was of a common description. The Taeniotica, named apparently form the place of its manufacture, a tongue of land (tainia [Gk.]) near Alexandria was sold by weight and was of uncertain width, perhaps from 4 3/4 to 5 inches. And lastly there was common packing-paper, the charta emporetica, 6 digiti or 4 3/5 inches. Idisore (Etymol., vi. 10) mentions yet another kind, the Corneliana, first made uner C. Cornelius Gallus, prefect of Egypt, which, however, may been the same as the amphitheatrica or Fanniana. The name of the who had incurred the anger of Augustus may have been suppressed by the same influence that expunged the episode of Gallus form the Fourth Georgic (Birt, Antik. Buchwesen, p. 250). In the reign of the emperor Claudius also another kind was introduced and entitled Claudia. It had been found by experience that the charta Augusta was, from its fineness and porous nature, ill suited for literary use; it was accordingly reserved for correspondence only, and for the other purposes was replaced by the new paper. The charta Claudia was made from a composition of the first and second qualities, the Augusta and the Livia, a layer of the former being lacked with one of the latter; and the sheet was increased to nearly a foor in width. The largest of all, however, was the macrocollon, probably of good quality and equal to the hieratic, and a cubit or nearly 18 inches wide. It was used by Cicero (Epp. ad Attic., xiii. 25; xvi. 3). The width, however, proved inconvenient, and the broad sheet was liable to injury by tearing.

An interesting question arises as to the accuracy of the different measurements given by Pliny. His figures regarding the width of the different kinds of papyri have generally been understood to concern the width (or height) of the rolls, as distinguished form their length. It has, however, been observed that in practice the width of extant rolls does not tally in any satisfactory degree with Pliny’s measurements; and a more plausible explanation has been lately offered (Birt, Antik. Buchwesen, pp. 251 sq.) that the breath (not height) of the individual sheets of which the rolls are composed is referred to.

The first sheet of a roll was named protokollon [Gk.]; the last eskatokollon [Gk.]. Under the Romans, the former bore the name of the comes largitionum, who had control of the manufacture, with the date and name of place. It was the practice to cut away the portion thus marked; but in case of legal documents this mutilation was forbidden by the laws of Justinian. On the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century, the manufacture was continued, with the substitution of Arabic in marking the protocol. An instance of one these Arab signatures is preserved in a bull of Pope John VIII of the year 876.

Varro’s statement, repeated by Pliny, that papyrus was first made in Alexander’s time, should probably be taken to mean that its manufacture, which till the had been a Government monopoly, was relieved form all restrictions. It is not probable, however, that it was ever manufactured from the native plant anywhere but in Egypt. At Rome there was certainly some kind of industry in papyrus, the charta Fanniana, already referred to, being an instance in illustration. But it seems probable that this industry was confined to the re-making of material imported into Italy, as in the case of the charta Claudia. This second manufacture, however, is thought to have been detrimental to the papyrus, as it would then have been in a dried condition requiring artificial aids, such as a more liberal use of gum or paste, in the process. The more brittle condition of the Latin papyri found at Herculaneum has been instanced as the evil result of this re-marking of the material.

According to Strabo the Romans obtained the papyrus plant from Lake Trasimene and other lakes of Etruria, but this statement is unsupported by any other authority and appears to have been made in error. At a later period, however, a papyrus was cultivated in Sicily, which has been identified by Parlatore with the Syrian variety (Cyperus syriacus), far exceeding in height the Egyptian plant, and having a more dropping head. It grew in the east and south of the island, where it was probably introduced during the Arab occupation. It was seen in the 10th century, by the Arab traveler Ibu-Haukal, in the neighbourhood of Palerno, where it throve luxuriantly in the pools of the Papireto, a stream to which it lent its name. From it paper was made for the sultan’s use. But in the 13th century it began to fail, and in 1591 the drying up of the Papireto caused the extinction of the plant in that district. It is still to be seen at Syracuse, but it was probably transplanted thither at a later time, and reared only as a curiosity, as there is no notice of it to be found previous to 1674. It is with this Syracusan plant that some attempts have been made in recent years to manufacture a writing material similar to ancient papyrus.

Even after the introduction of vellum, papyrus still continued in use among the Romans, and was not entirely supersede until a late date. It ceased, however, to be used for books sooner than for documents. In the 5th century St Augustine apologizes for sending a letter written on vellum instead of the more usual substance, papyrus (Ep. xv.); and Cassiodorus (Varr., xi. 38), writing in the 6th century, indulges in a high-flown panegyric on the plant and its value, and refers to the abolition of the tax on paper by the emperor Theodoric. Of mediaeval Greek papyri a very few remains containing Biblical or patristic matter have survived, and one or two fragments of Graeco-Latin glossaries have been published. Of Greek documents, apart from monastic deeds discovered in Egypt, there are row which are well know, viz., the fragmentary epistle of Donstantine V. to Pepin le Bref, of 753 or 756, now preserved at Paris, and the papyrus containing the subscriptions to the council of Constantinople of 680, at Vienna. Mediaeval Latin MSS. on papyrus in book form are still extent in different libraries of Europe, viz: -- the Homilies of St Avitus, of the 6th century, at Paris; Sermons and Epistles of St Augustine, of the 6th or 7th century, at Paris and Geneva; works of Hilary, of the 6th century, at Vienna; fragments of the Digests, of the 6th century, at Pommersfeld; the Antiquities of Josephus, of the 7th century, at Milan; Isidore, De Contemptu Mundi, of the 7th century, at St Gall; and the Register of the Church of Ravenna, of the 10th century, at Munich. Of Latin documents on papyrus (tomus was the technical word of the Middle Ages to designate such a document), the first to be mentioned are the fragments of two imperial rescripts addressed to an official in Egypt in the 5th to the 10th century. In the papal chancery too it was used at an early date, evidence of its presence there being found in the biography of Gregory I. But of the extent papal deeds the earliest to which an authentic date can be attached is a bull of Stephen III. of the year 757, while the latest appears to be one of 1004. There is evidence to show that in the 10th century papyrus was used, to the exclusion of the other materials, in papal deeds. In France it was a common writing substance in the 6th century (Gregory of Tours, Hist. Franc., v.5). Of the Merovingian period there are still extant several papyrus deeds, the earliest of the year 625, the latest of 692. Under Charlemagne and his successors it was not used. By the 12th century the manufacture of papyrus had entirely ceased, as appears from a note by Eustathius in his commentary on the Odyssey, xxi, 390.

See Melch. Gullandino’s commentary on the chapters of Pliny relating to papyrus, Papyrus, hoc est Commentarius, &c., Venice, 1572; Montiaucon, "Dissertation sur la plante appellée papyrus," in the Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions, 1729, pp. 592-608; T. C. Tychsen, "De Chartae papyraceae in Europa per medium aevum usu," in the Comment. Soc. Reg. Scient. Gottingensis, 1820, pp. 141-208; Dureau de la Malle, "Mémoire sur la Papyrus, " in the Mem. de l’Institut, 1851, pp. 140-183; Ph. Parlatore, "Mémoire sur le Papryrus de anciens," &c., in the Mém. à l’Acad. des Sci., 1854, pp. 469-502; Blummer, Technologie und Terminologie der Gewerbe und Künste bei Griechen und Römern, Leipsic [Leipzig], 1875, i. pp. 308-327; Ces Paoli, Del Papiro, Florence, 1878. See also W. Wattenbach, Das Schriftwesen in Mittelalter, Leipsic [Leipzig], 1875, pp. 80-91; and T. Birt, Das antike Buchwesen, Berlin, 1882, pp. 223-273. (E. M. T.)

The above article was written by: Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, K.C.B., D.C.L., LL.D.; Director and Principal Librarian, British Museum; Keeper of the MSS. and Egerton Librarian, 1878; Sandars Reader in Bibliography, Cambridge, 1895-96; editor of Chronicon Angliae; edited Letters of Humphrey Prideaux, Diary of Richard Cocks in Japan, 1615-1622, etc.; joint editor of publications of Palaeographical Society, and of the Facsimile of the Laurentian Sophocles.

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