top of page

The Evolution of the Book in Italy 101: Ancient Technologies


Humanity's infatuation with the written word has echoed throughout the ages. The creation and development of the book was one of the most outstanding achievements in preserving the social, religious, and political values of societies throughout history. These series aim to provide insights into the technologies and cultural context that led to the advancement of the book from the Middle Ages to the Italian Renaissance. Examining the book's function and technologies helps better grasp the mutual influence between society and the written form. The series examines the book's materials, purpose, and values as a knowledge repository and communication channel. It also delves into the development of the printing press, its relationship to literacy, and its impact on the book economy and humanist agenda. Illustrating a shift in form and function of the book from Medieval to Renaissance Italy, this series explores how ecclesiastical and secular use of the written word liberated and enriched culture. It will also provide insight into how the book also served as a reflection of cultural values and ideologies throughout its evolution.

This 101 series is divided into six articles, including:

1. The Evolution of the Book in Italy 101: Ancient Technologies

2. The Evolution of the Book in Italy 101: Medieval Monks

3. The Evolution of the Book in Italy 101: Illuminated Manuscripts

4. The Evolution of the Book in Italy 101: Universities & the Rise of Humanism

5. The Evolution of the Book in Italy 101: Rise of the Printing Press

6. The Evolution of the Book in Italy 101: A New Age of Literature

Ancient Technologies of the Book

The advancement of society is made possible because of the ability of written technology to transcend time and borders and encourage knowledge and ideas to all members of civilization. The earliest books took on several forms, as the ancient Greeks and Romans hand-copied literary works and all matters concerning everyday life. These handwritten documents were called manuscripts, derived from the Latin manu scriptus, meaning ‘written by hand’ (Dixon, 2010). This article will explore how the ancient Mediterranean environment contributed to the production and development of writing materials and the early forms of the manuscript as a means of developing civilization.

In the 4th century B.C., the Sumerians introduced the clay tablet: the earliest and most common manuscript. To make the tablet, one would pat damp clay into the desired shape, typically rectangular but could take other forms (Schlager Lauer, 2001). In the ancient Mediterranean, clay was abundantly available, inexpensive, and exceptionally durable, which made it an ideal medium, so much that almost half a million tablets from antiquity have been discovered today. Varying wildly in size, the clay tablets depended on the amount that needed recording and its importance. Some tablets were just a few centimeters in length and width, while others that contained literary or historical evidence could be as large as 12x15 inches (Wallenfels & Sasson, 2000).

Scribes, or a person of the learned class who served as a writer, would smooth the surface of the clay and use a reed with a wedge-shaped tipcalled the stylus to imprint marks in the clay while it was still soft (Humphrey et al., 2020). The clay then hardened as it dried or was put in the fire to ensure extra durability for important written works, like royal inscriptions that contained the records of kings. Clay tablets were initially intended to maintain trace of the movement of goods and people. However, they served various purposes such as everyday lists, the maintenance of inventory, telling myths and legends, recording laws and treaties, and sending letters (Wallenfels & Sasson, 2000).

Figure 1: Clay tablet with oldest known engraving of Homer’s epic the Odyssey (n.d.)

The ancient Greeks adopted this method of writing, although it proved to have its limitations of weight, bulk, and the inability to make changes once the clay had dried. In the 8th century B.C., a new writing medium emerged as a predominant book form. The ancient Romans are credited with inventing the wax tablet, the equivalent of a modern-day notepad. With an abundance of beeswax due to the Mediterranean environment, the tablet became everyday use during Greco-Roman antiquity as it was cheap and reusableunlike clay (Humphrey et al., 2020). The wax tablet was two pieces of wood whose surfaces had been hollowed out, then filled with wax. The two pieces of wood were then fastened in the back with wires and hinges, allowing it to open and shut like a book. The tablet also had raised margins on both sides to prevent the wax from one tablet from rubbing against the other (Montague, 1890). Though less permanent, the wax tablet was incredibly versatile.

Students and scribes would use the stylus, now built as a straight-edge instrument made of metal or reed with a pointed edge to etch their writing into the wax and a broad flat edge for smoothing and erasure. Writers could add fresh wax or smooth out the old to begin writing something new, proving useful in daily lessons (Ammiratti, 2013). The wax tablet was primarily used for students and correspondence, but it was also highly valued for drafts, record-keeping, and documents that could have been more extensive (Montague, 1890). Tablets remained a common medium for writing that was only needed for a short period of time, like school lessons as the wax could be reused, but soon a new form of writing emerged that was more favorable for everyday writing needs.

As a result of its low expense, versatility, and practicality, papyrus became the ordinary means of recording all outlines, notes, letters, and literary works. Papyrus was exported from Egypt as early as the 11th century B.C., and from the 7th century, Ionia imported it into the Greek world.
Figure 2: Photograph of papyrus growing on the Nile river (n.d.)

The chief writing material in Greco-Roman antiquity, papyrus, was a flat paper-like sheet made from the papyrus marsh plant, which grew copious amounts and was native to Egypt. By 3000 B.C., the Egyptians had learned to make papyrus from the inner stalks of the plant and began exporting it to neighboring Mediterranean regions. The plant's stem was split into thin strips and woven on a board moistened with water, as the sludge provided a binding force of glue. The papyrus was laid flat on the table, with each layer added perpendicular to the previous, then pressed together to make sheets about 16 inches wide and 8 inches long (Nardo, 2007). The sheets dried in the sun, and many were joined together at the edges and smoothed out with an ivory tool. They were then wound around a wooden dowel to form a scroll (Latin volumen, meaning “roll of a manuscript" or "that which is rolled”) which was usually 30 or more feet long and could hold ten to twenty thousand words (Lewis, 1983).

In order to write on these scrolls, the ancient writers developed a new pen and ink that would adhere to the papyrus. Black ink was predominant in the Ancient Mediterranean, typically made using carbon ink (soot). Many carbon molecule compounds needed were collected through the burning of organic and inorganic earthly materials, mainly wood and oil. This would then be mixed with a binding agent and suspended in water or another liquid form, such as vinegar. The binding agent primarily accumulated throughout the Mediterranean was Arabic gum, a dried-up sap (Christiansen, 2017). The ink created for papyrus could be sponged clean as needed as it dissolves in water. To make the pen suitable for this new medium, writers used pens made from dried reeds and trimmed one end to a point; then split to hold the ink (Humphrey et al., 2020). The use of ink and papyrus as the means of writing in common daily practice during the Greco-Roman period was formatted to suit the needs of the document.

Though in the early papyrus scroll, the scribes wrote using only capital letters and did not use spaces to separate words to conserve space. Moving from left to right, they would write in narrow columns using the inside of the roll, and only appeared on the outside of the work when it was incredibly long or the scribe could not afford to buy another roll of papyrus (Lewis, 1983). In the case of an error, a scribe who needed to include a forgotten word or make a change would write the new word at the bottom of the scroll, with an arrow showing where its proper placement should be (Diringer, 1967). This scroll made a cylinder, and the tops and bottoms were stained black, trimmed, then polished with a pumice stone (Montague, 1890). Upon completing the scroll, the scribe labeled it with a small tag that noted the work's title hanging from one of its ends. As a result of its low expense, versatility, and practicality, papyrus became the common means of recording all outlines, notes, letters, and literary works.

Figure 3: Ancient Greek papyrus written with black ink (n.d.)

The dry climate of Egypt and Greece proved favorable for papyrus. However, in northern regions elsewhere, such as Rome, it was highly susceptible to damping and was continuously ravaged by fire. As a result, “texts had to be continuously recopied to preserve them” (Pettegree, 2010). The need for a more suitable and durable means of writing contributed to two significant changes during the 3rd and 4th centuries. The scroll was substituted for the codex, and papyrus was primarily replaced by parchment, significantly contributing to the book’s development. The codex takes its name from the Latin word caudex, meaning “tree trunk” or “block of wood.” (Marcos, 2014). The wax tablet the ancient Romans developed is the codex’s earliest physical form; it was the equivalent of the modern-day notebook having two rectangular wooden board that could be written on and folded. However, the development of sewing a collection of folded sheets between two wooden boards became standard practice and is now commonly referred to as the codex. This development became popular and proved more convenient than the scroll; it required less space, was more durable, and could easily organize (Pettegree, 2010).

Parchment was considered the most beautiful and suitable material for writing, but the manufacturing process was laborious, intricate, and skilled.

The widespread use and success of the codex were significantly dependent on replacing papyrus with parchment, which was extensively used for several centuries. Parchment was the prepared skin of soft skin animals such as cattle, goats, and sheep, but the finer quality parchment was made from the skin of young calves and called vellum (Diringer, 1976). In preparation, the “untanned animal skin was first coated with caustic lime for several days, then bleached in lime water. The hair, epidermis, and any remains of the flesh were scraped off. The hide was once again cleaned in a lime bath, stretched on a frame, dried, and finally scraped smooth with pumice. Whiting was poured over the hide and rubbed in” (Bruckner, 2003). It is possible to distinguish the original hide’s flesh side from its hair, which was marked by follicles, though both sides could be used for writing and provided minimal pen resistance (Pettegree, 2010). Once prepared, sheets of parchment were folded and formed into a quire, or a collection of parchment, sewn together into a thin spine and placed between two wooden boards to form the codex manuscript.

Figure 3: The Parchment Maker (Weigel, 1698)

However, parchment proved to have its disadvantages, as it often required tens or hundreds of cattle to produce the required pages and the labor of many men from the countryside (Diringer, 1976). For this reason, texts would often be washed or scraped off and reused, although the faint remains of original markings could still be seen. A text reused in this nature is called a palimpsest (Montague, 1890). The ancient Mediterranean provided many environmental resources that contributed to creating new writing mediums. Papyrus persisted through much of the reign of parchment, though the reeds of the Nile River marsh plants could not contest the durability and convenience of the codex constructed of vellum and parchment. The ink developed for papyrus did not adhere to parchment and required a different ink, and in the 4th century B.C., iron gall ink was developed. Unlike carbon ink, iron gall ink etched to the writing surface and cannot be easily removed. Iron gall ink was made by mixing primarily oak gallsan oak tree’s defense against wasps—with an acidic solvent such as beer or wine that turns black upon oxidation and then mixed with Arabic gum and suspended in water (Christiansen, 2017).

In addition to black ink, the Ancient Romans had red ink made of a red-colored lead oxide called minium which was used for writing the titles of books and accentuating specific passages. (Pettegree, 2010). Ink made of rubrica (“red ochre”) similarly used red ink and later became the color used for writing the headings of laws. The Roman Emperor and close relatives would then sign the law with “an expensive red ink which the law forbade others to use” (Montague, 1890). Ultimately, the development of papyrus and parchment as a writing medium would not have been possible without the manufacturing of ink and the stylus pen, all of which were vastly provided by the resources of the Mediterranean environment.

Figure 4: Ink-well with remnants of carbon black ink (n.d.)

The ancient book was cherished as a repository of knowledge, and the developments of the scroll and codex gave the oral culture a fixed form that permitted a sophisticated means of intellectual engagement for ancient Greek society. The buying and selling of books began in Athens by 400 B.C., exporting through trade networks throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea. The regular trade of books in Rome began around 100 B.C., which became a leader of the industry (Humprey et al., 2020). Roman booksellers maintained large staffs of scribes, who were generally skilled enslaved people and rapidly copied all texts as no copyright laws prohibited them from doing so. Bookstores were found throughout the city, advertising their inventory through list posts on their doors. Many private individuals collected books for private libraries and considered the palatial home’s best feature (Montague, 1890). Rome also founded many public libraries to provide resources to the lower classes who could not afford books.

The construction of the codex in the ancient Mediterranean brought some of the most significant advancements of civilization possible by allowing for the freedom of accessible knowledge and information. Literacy began to decline as the Roman Empire collapsed during the 5th and 6th centuries, and the threat of losing the literature of the classical era became imminent. The preservation of knowledge and education became reliant upon the Church to institutionalize this art form. Monasteries became the refuge of literacy and were primarily responsible for the rapid development of the manuscript into the book from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

Bibliographical References


Bruckner, A. (2003). Book, The Medieval. In New Catholic Encyclopedia (2nd ed., Vol. 2, pp. 515-520). Gale.

Christiansen, T. (2017). MANUFACTURE OF BLACK INK IN THE ANCIENT MEDITERRANEAN. The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, 54, 167–195.

Clay Tablets. (2000). In R. Wallenfels & J. M. Sasson (Eds.), The Ancient Near East: An Encyclopedia for Students (Vol. 2, pp. 1-3). Charles Scribner's Sons.

The Development of Writing Materials: 2000 B.C. to A.D. 699. (2001). In N. Schlager & J. Lauer (Eds.), Science and Its Times (Vol. 1). Gale.

Dixon, H. (2010). Manuscripts. In E. Bispham, T. Harrison, & B. A. Sparkes (Eds.), The Edinburgh Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome (pp. 251–261). Edinburgh University Press.

Humphrey, J. W., Nikolic, M., Sherwood, A. N., Oleson, J. P. (2020). Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook of Translated Greek and Roman Texts. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis Group.

Lewis, N. (1983). Papyrus and Ancient Writing: The First Hundred Years of Papyrology. Archaeology, 36(4), 31–37.

Marcos, J.J. (2014). Paleographic Fonts: Fonts for Latin Paleography.

Montague, A. P. (1890). Writing Materials and Books among the Ancient Romans. American Anthropologist, 3(4), 331–340.

Nardo, D. (2007). Writing Materials. In R. B. Kebric (Ed.), The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece (pp. 351-352). Greenhaven Press.

Pettegree, A. (2010). The Book in the Renaissance. Yale University Press.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: [Illustration of various ancient writing tools and materials] (n.d.) Pompeii Networks.

Figure 1: [Photograph of Clay tablet with oldest known engraving of Homer’s epic the Odyssey] (n.d.) BBC News.

Figure 2: [Photograph of papyrus growing on the Nile river]. (n.d.)

Figure 3: [Photograph of discovered ancient Greek papyrus scroll] (n.d.) British Museum.

Figure 4: Weigel, C. (1698) [The Parchment Maker] Berufe Dieser Welt.

Figure 5: [Photo of ink-well with remnants of carbon black ink] (n.d.) British Museum.

1 Comment

Carol Lawrence
Carol Lawrence
Dec 21, 2023

Absolutely captivated by the profound exploration of the written word's evolution and its transformative impact on society throughout history. This series beautifully unravels the intricate relationship between the book, societal values, and technological advancements from the Middle Ages to the Italian Renaissance. For those seeking an eloquent expression of ideas in the form of essays, I'd like to recommend checking out the insightful reviews on the best essay writing services at with the best essay writing services reviews. Navigate through their comprehensive reviews in the middle of the page to make informed choices about the best essay writing services available. Dive into the rich world of words and witness the fascinating journey of the written form from its origins…

Author Photo

Kyra Nelson

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page