Connected Histories

Paper as a New Technology in Muslim Lands

About This Resource

Parchment is so eighth-century, an Abbasid scholar explains. Al-Jahiz (ca. 776–869 CE)  was a writer, copyist, teacher who also served as an adviser to the Abbasid court at Baghdad. His literary career coincided with the transfer of papermaking technology from China to Muslim lands by way of Central Asia. He wrote this essay, “The Disadvantages of Parchment,” in response to a patron who requested a work written on parchment. Papermaking technology is an example of connected histories on many levels. Paper was made of relatively inexpensive fibers such as cotton, linen, and recycled rags, while parchment required expensive sheepskin. Paper’s lower cost therefore made books and writing materials more readily available, and accelerated the spread of knowledge. Scientific and mathematical advances from China, India, and Greece became widespread in the Muslim world thanks to paper, not parchment.  Also, because hydraulic power was needed to process fiber for paper, the idea that water could be used to drive industrial processes became familiar in the Muslim world and elsewhere. The image from 1568, a German woodcut of a papermaker from the Book of Trades, illustrates this process of making paper as it spread to Europe.

The impact of the introduction of paper to the Muslim world is also discussed in one of the titles on the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf, Jim Al-Khalili’s The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance (see chapter 3).

Text

Al-Jahiz, “The Disadvantages of Parchment”

What is it to you that all my books are written on China paper or Khurasan paper? Explain why you have pressed on me the advantages of using parchment and urged me to write on hide, when you know very well that parchment is heavy and cumbersome, is useless if it gets damp, and swells in wet weather so much so that were its sole disadvantage to make its users hate rainy days, and its owners regard a shower as a nightmare, this alone would be reason enough for giving up the stuff. You know very well that on rainy days copyists do not write a single line or cut a single skin.

Parchment has only to get moist, let alone left out in the rain or dipped in water, for it to bulge and stretch; and then it does not return to its original state, but dries noticeably shrunk and badly wrinkled. What is more, it smells worse, is more expensive, and lends itself more readily to fraud: Wasit skins are passed off as Kufa ones, and Basra ones as Wasit ones. You are obliged to leave it to age in order to get rid of the smell and for the hair to fall out; it is fuller of lumps and flaws, more is wasted in scraps and clipping it turns it yellow sooner, and the writing very quickly disappears altogether. If a scholar wished to take with him enough parchment for his journey, a camel-load would not suffice, whereas the equivalent in qutni [cotton-fiber paper] could be carried with his provisions.

You said: “You should use parchment because it stands up better to scratching out and correction, and also to repeated borrowing and handling; then unwanted sheets are still worth something, palimpsests can be reused, and second-hand parchment does the same job as new. Writing-books of qutni are of little value on the market, even if they contain the most original texts, the choicest rarities and the most priceless learning. If you went to sell books of an equivalent number of parchment pages containing nothing but the feeble poetry and the idlest gossip, they would be in much greater demand.” And you added: “Hide is entrusted with the accounts of the administrative system, with title-deeds, diplomas, contracts and surveys; sculptors’ sketches are made on it, postal pouches are made out of and it is used for making bags, lids for jars and stoppers for bottles.” You did me a grave disservice when you made me take to using parchment instead of paper, and were the cause of my misfortune when you made me exchange light writing-books for volumes too heavy to hold, that crush people’s chests, bow their backs and make them blind.

Source

Pellat, Charles, trans. The Life and Works of Al-Jahiz: Translations of Selected Texts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969, pp. 154–155. Image: Chartarius. Der Papyrer. [The Paper Maker]. Panoplia omnium illiberalium mechanicarum... (Book of Trades), Print made by Jost Amman. Published by Sigmund Feierabend in Frankfurt, 1568. Registration number 1904,0206.103.21, AN501908. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #156: Paper as a New Technology in Muslim Lands", January 18, 2018 http://bridgingcultures.neh.gov/muslimjourneys/items/show/156.

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,