Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Cassiodorus On Papyrus Paper

A leaf from P46, an early copy of Paul's epistles on papyrus.

During his service as a Praetorian Praefect under Theodoric The Great (ca. 533-538 CE), Cassiodorus maintained an extensive official correspondence. In a letter to Joannes, Canonicarius of Thuscia, Cassiodorus extensively praised papyrus paper;
"A wonderful product in truth is this wherewith ingenious Memphis has supplied all the offices in the world. The plants of Nile arise, a wood without leaves or branches, a harvest of the waters, the fair tresses of the marshes, plants full of emptiness, spongy, thirsty, having all their strength in their outer rind, tall and light, the fairest fruit of a foul inundation. 
Before Paper was discovered, all the sayings of the wise, all the thoughts of the ancients, were in danger of perishing. Who could write fluently or pleasantly on the rough bark of trees, though it is from that practice that we call a book Liber ? While the scribe was laboriously cutting his letters on the sordid material, his very thought grew cold: a rude contrivance assuredly, and only fit for the beginnings of the world. 
Then was paper discovered, and therewith was eloquence made possible. Paper, so smooth and so continuous, the snowy entrails of a green herb; paper which can be spread out to such a vast extent, and yet be folded up into such a little space; paper, on whose white expanse the black characters look beautiful; paper which keeps the sweet harvest of the mind, and restores it to the reader whenever he chooses to consult it; paper which is the faithful witness of all human actions, eloquent of the past, a sworn foe to oblivion." (Letters 11.38)
The popularity and utility of papyrus is also reflected in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament writings. A significant portion of New Testament manuscripts that date to the time of Cassiodorus and earlier are preserved on papyrus. Therefore, in the case of the New Testament writings, we can agree with Cassiodorus that "Before Paper was discovered, all the sayings of the wise, all the thoughts of the ancients, were in danger of perishing."
Hodgkin, Thomas, trans. The Letters of Cassiodorus. London: Henry Frowde, 1886. (pg. 483)