It came from the East: the greatest gift of the wise men

Paper before Print
January 17, 2003

Paper was invented in China in the 1st century CE. About 1,300 years later, its cheapness and availability were factors in the success of printing in Europe. What happened in between is fairly straightforward: Muslim technicians learned to make it and brought it westwards across Asia. Jonathan Bloom fills in the gap in short order, belying his sumptuous book's subtitle, in its first chapter, and the book's title, in its last.

Bloom loves reading encyclopedias. He writes them, too: many of his references to Grove's Dictionary of Art (1996), turn out to be articles that he and/or his wife, the formidable expert on Islamic calligraphy Sheila Blair, contributed, though you would not know it from the way they are cited. And if he uncovers a titbit of information that cannot be shoehorned into his main text, he pops it into a sidebar. There are 17 of these: paper, papyrus, parchment, felt, Japanese paper, mills, milling, molds, body linen, zigzags, watermarks, the Islamic book, Spanish paper, wire drawing, laid and chain lines, Italian papermaking and Hollander beater.

Paper should be almost invisible; it is the ground on which everything else is figured. If you notice it, it has not realised its purpose. Hence the illustrations here might seem too small, so that the texts often cannot be read easily, or sometimes at all. Just as I am frustrated by books about illuminated manuscripts that trim the pictures so that little of the surrounding text is shown, so must Bloom have been frustrated by books about calligraphy that trim the pictures and also the margins of the page. Here we are forced to see pages as pages.

Chapter two offers the literary and physical evidence for the spread of paper-making across the Islamic lands. This is perhaps the driest but most useful section, bringing together material not otherwise readily available. Even here, much gives pause: only with understanding of the paper-making process can we appreciate the achievement represented in the sheer size of the most sumptuous Korans and, from secular Iran, Shahnamas.

The next three chapters are devoted to the importance of paper within Islamic civilisation. Foremost is the Koran. Bloom describes the history and tradition of its recording, assembly and transmission. He emphasises the synergy of new paper-making techniques, ink formulas and calligraphic styles. The next section, "An explosion of books", refers to philosophers and cookbooks, history and poetry, leading to an account of libraries. Chapter four takes up systems of notation, while chapter five's consideration of the visual arts makes the point that the depiction of the human figure is prohibited only in religious works. Bloom points out, too, that manuscript illumination was a late development, flourishing only in the 13th century: "The distinctive visual language of representationI was first developed not on paper but in other media." While he takes the opportunity to picture ceramics, architecture and carpets, from whose decorative traditions manuscript illustration and illumination benefited, he gives calligraphy short shrift.

The last chapter resumes the historical thread, describing the transfer of paper and paper-making to Christian Europe, where papyrus had not succumbed to parchment before parchment succumbed to paper. The second half of the 11th century seems to be the date for both transitions.

An epilogue describes the complementary introduction from Europe to the Islamic world of printing from movable type (wood-block printing was known from 10th-century Egypt). Jews and Armenians were printing Hebrew, Judeo-Persian and Armenian in Istanbul throughout the 16th century, but the Arabic-script languages were not printed in the Muslim world until the early 18th century, and sacred texts were not printed outside Europe until still later.

Bloom's survey of paper before print is also a survey of that world's intellectual traditions. It provides a highly readable introduction to a millennium of the civilisation that has enriched half the world, but which is misunderstood because of the barbaric acts of a handful of fanatics who have chosen to ignore a millennium and a half of those intellectual traditions.

Peter Daniels is an independent scholar of writing systems.

Paper before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World

Author - Jonathan M. Bloom
ISBN - 0 300 08955 4
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 0

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments