Parchments, Paper and Palimpsests

The word ‘palimpsest’ is not usually found in an eleven-year’s vocabulary, even a word-loving kid, as I was. I learnt it only because my family were living in England My mother had, with the idea of keeping her children occupied and also engaged with the history around us, got us brass-rubbing. Armed with heelball from the cobbler’s and Macklin’s Memorial Brasses, we descended upon the medieval churches of Britain. “St Giles,” I would say from the front seat of the car, Macklin in hand, “has a chrysom, an eccles, and a palimpsest. And it’s only 12 miles off our route.”

Translation? Chrysom is a baby who died in the month after it was baptised. Eccles is a cleric, ecclesiastic (I much preferred medieval ladies, with their elaborate headgear and long dresses). Palimpsest comes from the Green palimp, to re-use, recycle. The flat brass of the memorial has been turned over, and another memorial incised on the undorned reverse.

The term also applies to book history. For reasons of biblioclasm or mere thrift, the text of a book has been partially erased, with another text written on top of it. A modern example might be considered to be A Humument, justified by art. The practice is ancient, dating from when books were painstakingly inked onto parchment, prepared blank leather. It lasts longer than paper, but can be scraped clean, recycled, the original erased.

In my teens, I held an actual palimpsest book in my hand, the size of my palm. A family friend asked my father to translate its 16th-century French. The book was made of pages cut from a manuscript, probably a medieval bible, scraped clean and sewn together. Undeneath the pages of spidery handwriting could be seen traces of letters, the large coloured colophons, their bright pigment harder to erase. What had been written on top turned out to be an alchemical text: ”of no great importance,” said my father.

The Archimedes palimpsest

I think of these objects, the recycled brasses, and the books written on vellum, erased, then reused. What have we lost through these practices? One very famous example is the Archimedes Palimpsest. It is ostensibly a thirteenth century prayer book, in manuscript, but underneath the pious exhortations are erased texts, vital to the history of mathematics, of which no trace otherwise exists: Archimedes’ The Method and Stomachion. These texts were disseminated through the libraries of the ancient world. In the course of history the only surviving manuscript fell into the hands of a scribe who could not read the language in which it was written. Unaware he had a treasure of science, he painstakingly scraped the parchment and washed it for reuse. Not very well: the erasure was incomplete. Between the lines could be read, faintly, the ancient Greek, Archimedes’ mathematical diagrams. Using photography taken in various lights (X-ray, ultraviolet), and digital processing, Archimedes’ work can be retrieved and read.As an adult, I did work experience in the Rare Books section of a library. The first day was eventful–the third book I touched proved to have been owned by Gothic author and collector Horace Walpole: it bore his bookplate, with the name latinized as Horatius Walpole. The library knew that they owned several books from Walpole’s library, but not this one. It was a direct link to The Castle of Otranto, an influential if very bad book, and its writer. That this physical link existed was due to the books in the Rare Book room being created for durability, to survive centuries: their paper was made from linen rags, which remains as white and firm now as when they were inked. Mass-market publishing, with wood-pulp paper, grows yellow and flakes within decades. It is a reflection of my mortaility, and my own words’ mortality, that my first publications are foxing, yellowing, beginning the decay process inescapable also in my own human body.

Babylonian writing

What I am leading to is this reflection: that the form in which words are preserved is crucial to an eternal battle between knowledge and the forces of entropy. Some of the most ancient words written are the most enduring: from clay tablets inscribed in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago, we know the name and work of the oldest named poet: Enheduanna, a princess and priestess. From another clay tablet we know the name of the oldest chemist: Tapputi-Bellatekallim, a Babylonian perfumier whose recipe shows that she understood and experimented with the process of distillation. I wrote a story about her: “Alchemy”. Other writers have proved less durable, with only special circumstances preserving the birchbark, papyrus and linen on which they wrote. We have traces of Sappho, but many other ancient writers are only names to us. It applies to more recent names, even the famous: not all of Shakespeare’s plays have survived.

Paper is one of the least durable forms on which words are written, vulnerable to flames, and with wood pulp paper, inevitable decay unless specially preserved. Its frailty was famously noted by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451, drawing upon a familiar image of totalitarianism–book-burning. Indeed, the destroying of alternate, dissenting views and voices is made easier if their form is easily combustible, unlike clay tablets.

I am not Enheduanna: 3000 years later I doubt my name and words will survive. I exist among a continual babble of authors, competing for success, for immortality. I wrote on paper to begin with, but increasingly in electronic form. Writing for the net, for Twitter and Facebook, is like diving amongst krill, for the words and voices are in a constant state of flux. As such they constitute electronic ephemera. Who will collect Facebook entries for future biographies, or text messages? And how durable are the books downloaded into the e-book readers of the world? I think of how the product Kindle recalls the word Kindling…and imagine smouldering e-readers, their plastic melting in flame.

We know Enheduanna and Tapputi, because of the durability of the clay tablet, buried, the lost language deciphered, even after the collapse of their Mesopotamian civilisations. The Archimedes Palimpsest has tested the limits of science, like a species returned from the brink of extinction. But if the collapse of our civilisation happens, as seems increasingly likely with our wanton squandering of resources, the ignorance and ioconoclasm justified by religions of various kinds, how decipherable or retrievable are the word stored on a computer? If we descend into a

new Dark Age, who will sift through the innards of a computer and rescue our words? Rescue the words on disc and datakey now turned into palimpsest tribal jewellery, perhaps?

Nobody, not even kindly alien beings from distant systems, I fear.

I first came to know Melbourne based writer and columnist, Lucy Sussex, when she wrote to ask me for a story for a collection she was putting together about women in fantasy land. I had something I liked very much, but I felt it would be a hard story to categorise so. I wrote to her that I had something but that it was probably too weird. She wrote back that she liked weird and that I should send it. I was startled and intrigued.

Lucy ended up publishing the story Long Live the Giant, and I started reading her works and articles with interest. I also often found mysef betweent he covers of other people’s anthologies with her, so I read a lot of her short stories. In her own writing and thinking, Lucy is a profound and original thinker and a meticulous writer, so I was not surprised when her offering for the eVolution forum was erudite, pithy and poetic. If you enjoy her essay as much as I did, you can read your way through the twenty published books she has written, including the award-winning novel The Scarlet Rider. She is also a weekly newspaper columnist for the Fairfax press.

You can find out more about her work here at Lucy Sussex’s homepage.

7 Responses

    1. Vauny says:

      I’ve never really thought about the longevity of texts in that way, I’ve tended to believe that once its on the net it will exist forever through the Internet’s perpetual-ness (memes for example) but I guess the second the net crashes or there is some variety of global apocalypse this hub of ideas, thoughts (and porn) could be dead forever. As a person who works in the digital space this is a truly frightening concept I find it difficult to imagine not being able to google an answer to a question or to see pictures of food my friends post on Facebook or how to make complaints at companies without twitter! Then again, looking back at some of the things I wrote on the Internet as a teenager a part of me sees the downfall of this knowledge machine as a good thing 😛

      • Min Dean says:

        I honestly see it as a very, very unlikely thing to happen – the internet by design has extremely good fault tolerance and consists of billions of servers.

        If all of these computers were spam attacked, hit by a solar flare, EMP pulsed and kicked to pieces – if the internet, if we perceive it for a moment to be a single entity (which it isn’t), went down – I think we’d have much bigger problems on our hands 😛

        We do have clay tablets that have endured since the ages, but as it’s also been mentioned above, a lot of history has been lost, because it was available only in a biodegradable format.

        Who will save the internet to disc if the near-impossible happens? Google. They do it already – they cache everything. They have backups. When you do a google search and see the word ‘Cached’ next to a site? This means you can go back in time on that site, and see it in it’s previous incarnation. You can also access their cached version whenever you want with the link I’ve put below.
        As much as everyone likes to moan about google’s monopoly on the interwebs, a lot of what they do is excellent and they do it for the general public for free.
        Try it – paste the below into the address bar, then replace with a website you want to see the cached copy of –

        Edit: Also – this:
        Type in any website into the Wayback machine’s search field, hit “Take me back”, and it’ll show you a HEAP of archived versions of the site. I just tried it out with and was delighted (and somewhat horrified at the state of it) to find versions going back as far as 2001 have been saved.

        No system is foolproof, of course. But like I said before – if it does come to a time when the internet’s content is completely, 100% lost to us – we’re going to have much bigger problems.

      • Emily Craven says:

        It’s funny, it seems the only thing that truly survives is stone and even then it can be weathered, melted, buried, and broken. There have been comments about losing e-reader data, how hard cover books seem more real, the stories more precious because they are physical. But everything as you said Lucy eventually falls to entropy. I see this as a note that in the end the vessel doesn’t matter as it will not exist forever, but if we can find a way to pass on the stories rather then replicating the old for the new…

    2. maureen mcCarthy says:

      I really loved your piece Lucy. Just loved it. For a start it taught be a lot that I didn’t know. Then it got me thinking about the gut level discomfort I’ve been feeling lately – and try not to feel I might add! – with the wide-eyed, innocent love affair people are having with their latest gadget/ phones and social sites etc. So much babble! Hang on! This is the written word, I find myself thinking, have some respect!
      Just to take it off on another tangent. About ten years ago I read that most people in the world had yet to make a single phone call! – Much less had access to the internet) Can that still true and if it is then what does it say about our 1st world obsessions?

    3. David Dawkins says:

      Wow, what an interesting childhood! And lots to think about. I often get the feeling that with the E-Age we have actually reconstructed the Tower of Babel – and there’s an ancient text in itself. Jeanette Winterson, speaking to Jennifer Byrne last Tuesday, said she dislikes electronic books because they are so easy to censor, by simply blocking the netscape. But I rather think that the new age Tower of Babel is too big to pull down. I do like books, and these days (apart from novels from an incredibly good second-hand shop) buy only ones I think will provide scarce knowledge in years to come. I do hope their pages last longer than you indicate.

    4. David E. Cowen says:

      Wonderful post. It would be nice to believe that Gutenberg’s press eliminated the mass destruction of ancient knowledge but it goes on. You have to wonder if the digital age is even more fragile than those ancient texts. How many of us have attempted to back up photos only to find that they were lost when the backup memory was fried or corrupted by something. Think of Greylands fading into its own mirrors because of a power surge.

      Not all of the purging of ancient knowledge was through negligence. The Spaniards burned Mayan Codex because they considered them to be meaningless and satanic. It was only through the efforts of a few persons that a few survived which were translated. The Rosetta Stone survived because it was, after all, made of stone. How much of human knowledge and history has been lost and saved on an afterthought.

      Sadly, for those of us who love paper, we also know that the reading of a book can wear it down as much as the passage of time.

      Wonderful series here.

    5. Virginia Lowe says:

      Dear Lucy, i think you’re correct about civilisation collapsing – you can’t ‘progress’ forever in a finite world. If there is no electricity being manufactured (is that what one does in creating electricity?) there will be no computers, not no one will be able to access the internet, even if it does still exist – which i doubt. And yes, Min, we are going to have even bigger problems, like how are we going to eat? but nevertheless, knowledge and stories matter too – when the remnants of humanity get some form of civilisation back eventually, where will they find the stories and the knowledge. We just have to hope that some books have been saved from entropy!
      I didn’t know that brasses could also be palimpsests though I did know about manuscripts! Fascinating!