Saturday, July 9, 2016

How Long a Book? The Useful Life of Papyrus and Parchment Books

George Houston, in his work “Inside Roman Libraries,” surveyed book collections in antiquity, analyzed their contents, the date of composition, and the rough date of the discarding of the collection in a trash heap, or, in the case of the library at Herculaneum, the last known period of use. From these data Houston concluded that the useful life of papyrus bookrolls was on average 100-125 years and 300 to 500 years in extreme cases (pg. 257).

There is some difference, however, in the useful life of papyrus and parchment books in the various climates where they may be used for making books. In the later part of the second century, the physician Galen described the process of copying out books that were in a Roman library in order to preserve, for his own collection, copies of these works;
"These (books), then, did not cause me a small pain when copying them. As it is, the papyri are completely useless, not even able to be unrolled because they have been glued together by decomposition, since the region is both marshy and low-lying, and, during the summer, it is stifling." (Peri Alupias 19)
It is clear that in the more humid climate of Rome, the useful life of papyrus, if not properly cared for, was much reduced. As Galen so richly describes, the damp atmosphere quickly decomposed the organic papyrus material.
Library of Celsus in Ephesus (ca. 135 CE)
Examples From the Caesarean Library
In the more arid environment of the East, papyrus books could have a very long life. In the library of Caesarea in Palestine, Pamphilus (ca. 280 CE) set about making copies of Origen's works, in his own hand, in order to build the library's inventory. Apparently, these works were still present in the library, and in use, over 100 years later when Jerome wrote (ca. 392 CE);
Pamphilus the presbyter, patron of Eusebius bishop of Caesarea, was so inflamed with love of sacred literature, that he transcribed the greater part of the works of Origen with his own hand and these are still preserved in the library at Caesarea. (Jerome, Vir ill. 75; NPNF 2:377)
It is apparent that Pamphilus copied these works on papyrus because Jerome noted that Eusebius' immediate successors set about restoring the Caesarean Library's inventory in parchment codices.
"Euzoius was educated as a young man at Caesarea along with Gregory, the bishop of Nazianzus, under the rhetor Thespesius and later became bishop of the same city; with very great toil he attempted to restore on parchment (codices(?); membranis) the library of Origen and Pamphilus that had been damaged." (Jerome, Vir ill. 113; translation taken from Carriker, p. 23, n. 70)
Therefore, the works that Jerome had noted, that were in the hand of Pamphilus, were papyrus books that were still in use in the Caesarean library over 100 years later during Jerome's lifetime.

It is noteworthy, however, that Euzoius set about to restore the library's works in parchment codices, rather than papyrus. This was likely due to the fact that parchment was much more durable and had an incredibly long shelf life. As was noted in a previous post, the parchment Codex Sinaiticus, which was copied sometime ca. 350 CE, was still being used in the 6th or 7th centuries when scribes corrected the text to "an extremely old copy corrected in the hand of the holy martyr Pamphilus." Thus, the Codex Sinaiticus was still being used and consulted by scholars 200-300 years after its creation!

At least in the case of the Caesarean Library, papyrus books had a useful life of more than 100 years, and parchment many times longer.

Carriker, Andrew James. The Library of Eusebius of Caesarea. VCsup 67. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Houston, George W. Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2014.

Clare K. Rothschild and Trevor W. Thompson. "Galen: 'On the Avoidance of Grief,' " Early Christianity 2 (2011) 110-129

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