Revival of Ink

[This is taken from David N. Carvalho's Forty Centuries of Ink, originally published in 1904.]



LA CROIX’ preface to his “Science and Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” refers to the Dark Ages:

“In the beginning of the Middle Ages, at the commencement of the fifth century, the Barbarians made an inroad upon the old world; their renewed invasions crushed out, in the course of a few years, the Greek and Roman civilization; and everywhere darkness succeeded to light. The religion of Jesus Christ was alone capable of resisting this barbarian invasion, and science and literature, together with the arts, disappeared from the face of the earth, taking refuge in the churches and monasteries. It was there that they were preserved as a sacred deposit, and it was thence that they emerged when Christianity had renovated pagan society. But centuries and centuries elapsed before the sum of human knowledge was equal to what it had been at the fall of the Roman empire. A new society, moreover, was needed for the new efforts of human intelligence as it resumed its rights. Schools and universities were founded under the auspices of the clergy and of the religious corporations, and thus science and literature were enabled to emerge from their tombs. Europe, amidst the tumultuous conflicts of the policy which made and unmade kingdoms, witnessed a general revival of the scholastic zeal; poets, orators, novelists, and writers increased in numbers and grew in favor; savants, philosophers, chemists and alchemists, mathematicians and astronomers, travelers and naturalists, were awakened, so to speak, by the life-giving breath of the Middle Ages; and great scientific discoveries and admirable works on every imaginable subject showed that the genius of modern society was not a whit inferior to that of antiquity. Printing, was invented, and with that brilliant discovery, the Middle Ages, which had accomplished their work of social renovation, made way for the Renaissance, which scattered abroad in profusion the prolific and brilliant creations of Art, Science, and Literature.”

This author to some extent discredits himself, however, p. 455, where he remarks:

“Long before the invasions of the Barbarians the histories written by Greek and Latin authors concerning the annals of the ancient peoples had been falling into disfavor. Even the best of them were little read, for the Christians felt but slight interest in these pagan narratives, and that is why works relating to the history of antiquity were already so scarce.”

Another authority writing on the same subject discusses it from a different standpoint, remarking:

“As in the middle ages invention busied itself with instruments of torture, and as in our days it is taken up almost as much with the destructive engines of war as with the productive arts of peace, so in those early ages it applied itself to the fabrication of idols, to the mechanism and theatrical contrivances for mysteries and religious ceremonies.  There was then no desire to communicate discoveries, science was a sort of freemasonry, and silence was effectually secured by priestly anathemas; men of science were as jealous of one another as they were of all other classes of society.  If we wish to form a clear picture of this earliest stage of civilization, an age which represents at once the naiveté of childhood and the suspicious reticence of senility, we must turn our eyes to the priest, on the one hand, claiming as his own all art and science, and commanding respect by his contemptuous silence; and, on the other hand, to the mechanic plying the loom, extracting the Tyrian dye, practicing chemistry, though ignorant of its very name, despised and oppressed, and only tolerated when he furnished Religion with her trappings or War with arms. Thus the growth of chemistry was slow, and by reason of its backwardness it was longer than any other art in ridding itself of the leading-strings of magic and astrology. Practical discoveries must have been made many times without science acquiring thereby any new fact. For to prevent a new discovery from being lost there must be such a combination of favorable circumstances as was rare in that age and for many succeeding ages. There must be publicity, and publicity is of quite recent growth; the application of the discovery must be not only possible but obvious, as satisfying some want. But wants are only felt as civilization progresses. Nor is that all; for a practical discovery to become a scientific fact it must serve to demonstrate the error of one hypothesis, and to suggest a new one, better fitted for the synthesis of existing facts. But (some) old beliefs are proverbially obstinate and virulent in their opposition to newer and truer theories which are destined to eject and replace them. To sum up, even in our own day, chemistry rests on a less sound basis than either physics, which had the advantage of originating as late as the 17th century, or astronomy, which dates from the time when the Chaldean shepherd had sufficiently provided for his daily wants to find leisure for gazing into the starry Heavens.”

The observations of a still earlier commentator are of the same general nature. He says:

“In the first ages of Christianity, when the fathers of the Church, the Jews, and the Heathen philosophers were so warmly engaged in controversy, there is reason to believe that pious frauds were not uncommon: and that when one party suspected forgeries, instead of an attempt at confutation, which might have been difficult, they had recourse perhaps to a countermine: and either invented altogether, or eked out some obscure traditional scraps by the embellishments of fancy.

When we consider, amongst many literary impositions of later times, that Psalmanazar’s history of Formosa was, even in this enlightened age and country (England, about 1735), considered by our most learned men as unquestionably authentic, till the confession of the author discovered the secret, I think it is not difficult to conceive how forgeries of remote events, before the invention of printing and the general diffusion of knowledge might gain an authority, and especially with the zealous, hardly inferior to that of the most genuine history.”

De Vinne, however, in his “Invention of Printing,” New York, 1878, best explains the status quo of those times, relative not only to book (MSS.) making, and methods of circulation, but the causes which led up to their eventual disappearance and the literary darkness which ensued. His remarks are so pertinent that they are quoted at length:

“The civilization of ancient Rome did not require printing. If all the processes of typography had been revealed to its scholars the art would not have been used. The wants of readers and writers were abundantly supplied by the pen. Papyrus paper was cheap, and scribes were numerous; Rome had more booksellers than it needed, and books were made faster than they could be sold. The professional scribes were educated slaves, who, fed and clothed at nominal expense, and organized under the direction of wealthy publishers, were made so efficient in the production of books, that typography, in an open competition, could have offered few advantages.

“Our knowledge of the Roman organization of labor in the field of bookmaking is not as precise as could be wished; but the frequent notices of books, copyists and publishers, made by many authors during the first century, teach us that books were plentiful. Horace, the elegant and fastidious man of letters, complained that his books were too common, and that they were sometimes found in the hands of vulgar snobs for whose entertainment they were not written. Martial, the jovial man of the world, boasted that his books of stinging epigrams were to be found in everybody’s hands or pockets. Books were read not only in the libraries, but at the baths, in the porticoes of houses, at private dinners and in mixed assemblies. The business of bookmaking was practiced by too many people, and some were incompetent. Lucian, who had a keen perception of pretense in every form, ridicules the publishers as ignoramuses. Strabo, who probably wrote illegibly, says that the books of booksellers were incorrect.

“The price of books made by slave labor was necessarily low. Martial says that his first book of epigrams was sold in plain binding for six sesterces, about twenty-four cents of American money; the same book in sumptuous binding was valued at five denarii, about eighty cents. He subsequently complained that his thirteenth book was sold for only four sesterces, about sixteen cents. He frankly admits that half of this sum was profit, but intimates, somewhat ungraciously, that the publisher Tryphon gave him too small a share. Of the merits of this old disagreement between the author and publisher we have not enough of facts to justify an opinion.  We learn that some publishers, like Tryphon and the brothers Sosii, acquired wealth, but there are many indications that publishing was then, as it is now, one of the most speculative kinds of business.  One writer chuckles over the unkind fate that sent so many of the unsold books of rival authors from the warehouses of the publisher, to the shops of grocers and bakers, where they were used to wrap up pastry and spices; another writer says that the unsold stock of a bookseller was sometimes bought by butchers and trunk makers.

“The Romans not only had plenty of books but they had a manuscript daily newspaper, the Acta Diurna, which seems to have been a record of the proceedings of the senate. We do not know how it was written, nor how it was published, but it was frequently mentioned by contemporary writers as the regular official medium for transmitting intelligence. It was sent to subscribers in distant cities, and was, sometimes, read to an assembled army. Cicero mentions the Acta as a sheet in which he expected to find the city news and gossip about marriages and divorces.

“With the decline of power in the Roman empire came the decline of literature throughout the world. In the sixth century the business of bookmaking had fallen into hopeless decay. The books that had been written were seldom read, and the number of readers diminished with every succeeding generation. Ignorance pervaded in all ranks of society. The Emperor Justin I, who reigned between the years 518 and 527, could not write, and was obliged to sign state papers with the form of stencil plate that had been recommended by Quintilian.  Respect for literature was dead. In the year, 476, Zeno, the Isaurian, burned 120,000 volumes in the city of Constantinople. During the year 640, Amrou, the Saracen, fed the baths of Alexandria for six months with the 500,000 books that had been accumulating for centuries in its famous library of the Serapion. Yet books were so scarce in Rome at the close of the seventh century that Pope Martin requested one of his bishops to supply them, if possible, from Germany. The ignorance of ecclesiastics in high station was alarming. During this century, and for centuries afterward, there were many bishops and archbishops of the church who could not sign their names. It was asserted at a council of the church held in the year 992, that scarcely a single person was to be found in Rome itself who knew the first elements of letters. Hallam says, ‘To sum up the account of ignorance in a word, it was rare for a layman of any rank to know bow to sign his name.’ He repeats the statements that Charlemagne could not write, and Frederic Barbarossa could not read.  John, king of Bohemia, and Philip, the Hardy, king of France, were ignorant of both accomplishments.  The graces of literature were tolerated only in the ranks of the clergy; the layman who preferred letters to arms was regarded as a man of mean spirit.  When the Crusaders took Constantinople, in 1204, they exposed to public ridicule the pens and inkstands that they found in the conquered city as the ignoble arms of a contemptible race of students.

“During this period of intellectual darkness, which lasted from the fifth until the fifteenth century, a period sometimes described, and not improperly, as the dark ages, there was no need for any improvement in the old method of making books. The world was not then ready for typography.  The invention waited for readers more than it did for types; the multitude of book buyers upon which its success depended had to be created.  Books were needed as well as readers. The treatises of the old Roman sophists and rhetoricians, the dialectics of Aristotle and the schoolmen, and the commentaries on ecclesiastical law of the fathers of the church, were the works which engrossed the attention of men of letters for many centuries before the invention of typography. Useful as these books may have been to the small class of readers for whose benefit they were written, they were of no use to a people who needed the elements of knowledge.”

In the more ancient times, however, when MSS. books (rolls) were not quite so plentiful there was seemingly no difficulty in obtaining large sums for them.

Aristotle, died B. C. 322, paid for a few books of Leusippus, the philosopher, three Attick talents, which is about $3,000. Ptolemy Philadelphus is said to have given the Athenians fifteen talents, an exemption from tribute and a large supply of provisions for the MSS.  of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides written by themselves.

Arbuthnot, discussing this subject, remarks that Cicero’s head, “which should justly come into the account of Eloquence brought twenty-five Myriads of Drachms, which is the equivalent of $40,000. Also, “the prices of the magical books mentioned to be burnt in the Acts of the Apostles is five. Myriads of Pieces of Silver or Drachms.”

Picolimini relates that the equivalent of eighty golden crowns was demanded for a small part of the works of Plutarch.

If we are to believe any of the accounts, the environment of the art of handwriting and handwriting materials at the beginning of the fifth century had contracted within a small compass, due principally to the general ignorance of the times.

As practiced it was pretty much under the control of the different religious denominations and the information obtainable about inks from these sources is but fragmentary. What has come down to us of this particular era is mostly found on the old written Hebrew relics, showing that they at least had made no innovations in respect to the use of their ritualistic deyo.

The invention of the quill pen in the sixth century permitted a degree of latitude in writing never before known, the inks were made thinner and necessarily were less durable in character. Greater attention was given to the study and practice of medicine and alchemy which were limited to the walls of the cloister and secret places. The monk physicians endeavored by oral instructions and later by written ones to communicate their ink-making methods not only of the black and colored, but of secret or sympathetic inks, to their younger brethren, that they might thus be perpetuated. All the traditional and practical knowledge they possessed was condensed into manuscript forms; additions from other hands which included numerous chemical receipts for dyeing caused them to multiply; so that as occasion required from time to time, they were bound up together book-like and then circulated among favored secular individuals, under the name of “Secreta.”

The more remote of such treatises which have come down to us seem to indicate the trend of the researches respecting what must have been in those times unsatisfactory inks. Scattered through them appear a variety of formulas which specify pyrites (a combination of sulphur and metal), metals, stones and other minerals, soot, (blue) vitriol, calxes (lime or chalk), dye-woods, berries, plants, and animal colors, some of which if made into ink could only have been used with disastrous results, when permanency is considered.

The black ink formulas of the eighth century are but few, and show marked improvement in respect to the constituents they call for, indicating that many of those of earlier times had been tried and found wanting. One in particular is worthy of notice as it names (blue) vitriol, yeast, the lees (dregs) of wine and the rind of the pomegranate apple, which if commingled together would give results not altogether unlike the characteristic phenomena of “gall” ink.  Confirmation of the employment of such an ink on a document of the reign of Charlemagne in the beginning of the ninth century on yellow-brown Esparto (a Spanish rush) paper, is still preserved. Specimens of “pomegranate” ink, to which lampblack and other pigments had been added of varying degrees of blackness, on MSS., but lessening in number as late as the fourteenth century, are still extant in the British Museum and other public libraries.





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