Sacrificial Lambs: Livestock, Book Costs, and the Premodern Parchment Trade


History From Below

pic05 Copenhagen, Royal Library. Ms. 4, 2o f. 183v. Image via Medieval Manuscript Manual.

Pliny the Elder remarks on a conflict that arose between King Eumenes of Pergamum and Ptolemy V, the Egyptian pharaoh, around 191 BCE. The naturalist notes the regal rivalry in his section on writing materials from the ancient world (NH 13.21). During an epic battle to build each other’s libraries bigger and faster (would that this were the nature of building competitions today!), Ptolemy prohibited the export of papyrus. As trade embargoes can do (e.g. the embargo placed on Tyrian purple after the sack of Constantinople), it sparked invention in what is today Western Turkey. By necessity, parchment was developed as an alternative to Egyptian papyrus–or so the legend goes. Here Pliny uses the Latin word membrana (‘skin’, Gr.μεμβράνα) to describe the use of animal skins as a writing surface. Later, the Latin word pergamenum developed in order to describe…

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