Ancient Texts

Today’s post collects interesting articles on the subjects on ancient texts. From high-tech reading of ancient Roman scrolls to medieval books made now available (and down to some really pissed-off bronze age customers), we have an amazing selection for lovers of words.

Protect yourself!

First, let’s start with a bit of fun. Every author these days is hit by our books appearing on digital content piracy sites. I’ve mentioned before that I put a blessing for pirates at the preamble of my books (and I didn’t even go with my Jewish-grandma, passive-aggressive style). Perhaps, though, I should have taken a page out medieval scribes’ books (not literally!). Here’s how to Protect Your Library the Medieval Way, With Horrifying Book Curses. One certainly condones such calamities on those who steal or deface books.

From antique scrolls…

For the Romanophiles here, you’d know that Romans loved their books of scrolls, and many who could afford to kept libraries at home (there was a also public lending library in Rome; a different subject). So it’s not surprising that the denizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum kept some around. What is surprising is that some survived the eruption of Vesuvius.

Though badly burned, scraps from Herculaneum have survived. Attempts in the 19th century to unroll them caused obvious, irreparable damage. Now scientists are are using high tech solutions to peek inside and decipher the writing. Who knows what lost works might be found? And even if it’s copies of known works, considering how scribes over the ages worked by manually copying and introducing errors in the process, these scraps of papyrus will undoubtedly reveal important details about the 1st century AD.

I found two different articles on the subject. First, a long piece on The Smithsonian from 2018 that gives the history and techniques used: Buried by the Ash of Vesuvius, These Scrolls Are Being Read for the First Time in Millennia. Next comes a short update from The Telegraph from June this year: Herculaneum scrolls to be sent to dentist for ‘virtual unwrapping’ to decipher texts from early days of Western civilization, listing some of the progress made. The scrolls have still not been deciphered, but it’s heartening to see how close we’re getting to unlocking previously lost manuscripts!

BTW, reading those scrolls was also a bit of a chore in their original Greek and Roman times, because they didn’t really use any punctuation. Letters were just one long stream, line breaks happened at the end of the line – even if it was the middle of the word, and the readers usually mumbled aloud to get an understanding of what the text was about. Caesar was notoriously a smarty-pants, because he could decipher a text on first reading and without moving his lips! This sheer genius was unheard of elsewhere. So how did we get all the punctuation marks which we authors use to make our editors’ eyes twitch? Read this BBC article on the mysterious origins of punctuation and find out!


… to modern book-binding

Following are other interesting tomes, mostly medieval, and some facts I never knew about the printing press — plus the first ever recorded dissatisfied customer eff-you to a vendor!

Digitised content

First, a trove of books from the 16th to the early 20th centuries are now freely available online! Read about it here: 1,600 Occult Books Now Digitized & Put Online, and find the actual manuscripts here. More books are being digitised and added to the collection.

Now, after all this fighting, it’s likely that you’ll need a medic. This tome of remedies might come in handy then: 1,000-Year-Old Illustrated Manuscript of Herbal Remedies Available Online. Of course, it’s in Old English, so might hamper your efforts a bit, but if you’re comfortable with that it’s a marvellous resource for anyone looking into Anglo-Saxon lives.

Full text online here. If your Old English is as good as mine, you’d likely be interested in the modern translation

Next , the Irish Book of Kells (an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Volgate New Testament Gospels, with some passages taken from earlier texts, plus various prefatory texts) is now also digitised online.

Of course, I’m usually more interested in combat than religious texts. You can find a whole slew of Medieval fighting manuals here. These are not the digitised texts (though you can find most of those online too), but rather a description of the books with video “commentary” about the fighting style each represents. Watching these makes for a fascinating rabbit hole, if you like medieval (and fantasy) combat.

Modern Printing: Movable-type and Book-binding

If you ask almost anyone about the modern printing, and the name Gutenberg will pop up like a predictable Jack in the box. The man is credited with revolutionising the production and consumption of written materials, and therefore having a deep impact on education and literacy that changed our world. Only, Gutenberg Didn’t Actually Invent the Printing Press. In the far east, not only were printing presses extant since the 9th century, the exact same movable-type arrangement was there two centuries before Gutenberg, with some copies manuscripts printed this way that are a century older than the Gutenberg title still survive. Considering the Mongol were actively moving people and technology from the Far East to Eastern Europe at the time, it’s not a stretch to see how that technology was practically next door. Fascinating article, and I highly recommend it!

Still, give the man his due. It was his technology (even if we debate the invention part), that proliferated through Europe and contributed to progress. We always liked our books, always did, from scrolls to codices. Printing just introduced new challenges: all these quantities of texts had to be bound somehow. Since book printing became a mass-market thing, binding them became not just an artisanal work of single volume, but a massive operation in its own right. It wasn’t long before this was recognised as an opportunity for advertising content and catching reader’s eyes. (And we all know that “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” is a lie — everyone does). Here’s a gorgeous collection about The Art of Book Covers in the 19th century (1820–1914, to be specific).

The obligatory humorous ending

Last but not least, I did promise the old known account of a pissed off customer expressing his mind in no uncertain terms. This seems to be a A 3,766-Year-Old Babylonian Tablet, written in cuneiform. It’s actually more than a single tablet, but a collection of such. Seems like the copper merchant in whose house (presumably) the collection was found was a bit on the dodgy side. Some of them do remind me of modern customer letters and internal corporate memos… Perhaps not as must has changed in the last four millennia as we’d like to think.

Jokes aside, it’s a fascinating article that explains the context of Mesopotamian culture around it, its history and the history of its archaeology. Highly recommended read, if you’re at all curious about the dawn of human civilization.


That’s it for now! I’ve always been fascinated by written words, and I hope you found something interesting here.

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