They Died So We Could Read by Tim Brinkhof

Tim Brinkhof

They Died So We Could Read


Nowadays, the average reader gives little thought to the actual material their books are made of, perhaps because those materials are unimportant to the text itself. Back in the Middle Ages, however, the relationship between writing and writing surface was a bit more complicated, with the former shaping the latter and vice versa.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at one book-making material in particular: parchment. Called pergamenos in Greek and charta pergamena in Latin, parchment is believed to have originated in Pergamum, a city in Asia Minor, as an alternative to papyrus. The main writing surface of the ancient world, papyrus became increasingly scarce after its principal producer, Egypt, put a ban on exports during the second century BC. Parchment – made from animal skin instead of plant fibres – proved a suitable replacement and remained in use for much of the Middle Ages.

Without parchment, literature might have evolved very differently. Because parchment is stronger and more flexible than papyrus, early medieval bookmakers were able to do something that hadn’t really been done before: place writing on both sides of a page. More exciting still, they were able to take multiple pages and

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Princeton - Shame

Follow Literary Review on Twitter