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Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V17, Page 618 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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MANUSCRIPT, a term applied to any document written by the human hand (Lat. manic scriptum) with the aid of pen, pencil or other instrument which can be used with cursive facility, as distinguished from an inscription engraved with chisel or graver, worked laboriously. By usage the word has come to be employed in a special sense to indicate a written work of the ancient world or of the middle ages; collections of such " ancient manuscripts " being highly prized and being stored for preservation in public libraries. Down to the time of the invention of printing, and until the printed book had driven it out of the field, the manuscript was the vehicle for the conservation and dissemination of literature, and discharged all the functions of the modern book. In the present article a description is given of the development of the ancient manuscript, particularly among the Greeks and Romans, leading on to the medieval manuscripts of Europe, and bringing down the history of the latter to the invention of printing; the history of the printed volume is dealt with in the article BooK (q.v.). Materials.—The handbooks on palaeography describe in full the different materials-which have been employed from remote time to receive writing, and may be referred to for minuter details. To dispose, in the first place, of the harder materials that have been put under requisition, we find metals both referred to by writers and actually represented by surviving examples. Thin leaves of gold or silver were recommended for the inscription of charms in particular. Leaden plates were in common use for incantations; the material was cheap and was supposed to be durable. On such plates were scratched the dirae or solemn devotions of obnoxious persons to the infernal deities; many examples have survived. As an instance of the use of soft substance afterwards hardened may be cited the practice by the Babylonians and Assyrians of writing, or rather of puncturing, their cuneiform characters on clay tablets while moist, which were afterwards dried in the heat of the sun or baked in the oven. Potsherds, or ostraka, were employed for all kinds of temporary purposes. Thousands of them have been found in Egypt inscribed with tax receipts and ephemeral drafts and memoranda, children's dictation lessons, &c. Analogous to the clay documents of western Asia are the tablets coated with wax in vogue among the Greeks and Romans, offering a surface not to be inscribed with the Een but to be scratched with the sharp pointed stilus. These will be described more fully below. With them we class the wooden boards, generally whitened with a coating of paint or composition and adapted for the pen, which were common in Egypt, and were specially used for educational purposes. Such boards were also employed for official notices in Athens in the 4th century B.C. Of the more pliant, and therefore generally more convenient, substances there were many, such as animal skins and vegetable growths. Practically we might confine our attention to three of them: papyrus, parchment or vellum, and paper, the employment of which, each in turn, as a writing material became almost universal. But there are also others which must be mentioned. In a primitive state of society leaves of plants and trees strong enough for the purpose might be taken as a ready-made material to receive writing. Palm leaves are used for this purpose to the present day in parts of India; and the references in classical authors to leaves as early writing material among the Greeks and Romans cannot be dismissed as entirely fanciful. The bark of trees, and particularly the inner bark of the lime-tree, .:IeXupa, tilia, was employed. The fact that the Latin word liber, bark, eventually meant also a book, would be sufficient proof that that material was once in common literary use, even if it were not referred to by writers. Linen, too, was a writing material among the early Romans, as it was also among the Etruscans, and as it had been to some extent among the Egyptians. Skins of animals, tanned, have doubtless served as a writing material from the very earliest period of the use of letters. The Egyptians occasionally employed this material. Instances of the use of leather in western Asia are recorded by ancient authors, and from Herodotus we learn that the Ionian Greeks applied to the rolls of the later-imported papyrus the title &4.BEpai, skins, by which they had designated their writing material of leather. The Jews, also, to the present day hold to the ancient Eastern custom and inscribe thelaw upon skin rolls. But generally these materials were superseded in the old world by the famous Egyptian writing material manufactured from the papyrus plant, which gradually passed beyond the boundaries of its native land and was imported at a remote period into other countries. Into Greece and into Rome it was introduced at so early a time that practically it was the vehicle for classical literature throughout its . course. A description of the manufacture and use of this material will be found under PAPYRUS. Here it need only be noted that papyrus is associated in Greek and Roman literature with the roll form of the ancient manuscript, as will be more fully explained below, and that it was the supersession of this material by parchment or vellum which led to the change of shape to the book form.' The introduction of the new material, parchment or vellum, was not a revival of the use of animal skins as followed by the old world. The skins were now not tanned into leather, but were prepared by a new process to provide a material, thin, strong, flexible, and smooth of surface on both faces. This improved process was the secret of the success of the new material in ousting the time-honoured papyrus from its high position. The common story, as told by Pliny, that Eumenes II. of Pergamum (197–158 B.C.), seeking to extend the library of his capital, was opposed by the jealousy of the Ptolemies, who forbade the export of papyrus, hoping thus to check the growth of a rival library, and that he was thus compelled to have recourse to skins as a writing material, at all events points to Pergamum as the chief centre of trade in the material, prep- /.n v$, charta pergamena. The old terms &4:O pal, membranae, applied originally to the older leather, were transferred to the newly improved substance. In describing MSS. written on this material, by common consent the term parchment has in modern times given place to that of vellum, properly applicable only to calfskin, but now generally used in reference to a medieval skin-book of any kind. Parchment is a title now usually reserved for the hard sheepskin or other skin material on which law deeds are engrossed. (See
End of Article: MANUSCRIPT

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