Writing and books

MuseumEducational materials and outreachWriting and books

Martin Bodmer’s collection is a fascinating reconstruction of how writing and writing materials developed over the centuries. The choice of material is essential for transmitting written texts. The museum explores the diversity of materials used since the beginning of time: stone, metal, clay, textile, papyrus, parchment, paper, electronic devises….

The French word for book is livre. It comes from the Latin liber, sapwood (Latin alburnum, from albus, ‘white’). It is the thin white layer between the trunk and the bark of the tree that, together with stone, was first used for writing. Later, when liber was no longer used, the name remained. Other supports were used during Antiquity: clay tablets in Mesopotamia (where the many rivers and rich clay soil were ideal for making clay tablets, bricks and pottery); elsewhere bone, textile, wax and wooden tablets, palm leaves, animal hide, stone and a wide variety of different metals.

The Greek word for book, biblion, comes from biblos, the reed-pen used for writing. Biblion is also the origin of the word Bible (biblia, ‘book of saints’).

Papyrus, made from the plant of the same name that grew along the banks of the Nile, was first used in the 3rd century BC and soon became the most commonly used writing material of Antiquity. Its fibrous stem, cut into thin strips, formed ‘sheets’ that revolutionized the way of writing. As it was not easy to fold and could only be written on one side, the first books were rows of sheets glued together and rolled around a stick. The Latin word for roll is volumen.

At the beginning of our era, between the 2nd and 4th centuries, book forms changed from volumen to codex. The codex was a set of quires sewn together. They were easy to stock, less ‘voluminous’ and could be written on both sides.

Nativité de Marie, Manuscrit grec Papyrus, Egypte, IIIe siècle - PB V

Nativity of Mary, Greek manuscript, Papyrus, Egypt, 3rd century, PB V

Thanks to parchment, another kind of raw material of animal origin, the codex gained ground. Parchment (from the Greek pergamēnē) was first produced in Pergamon, Mysia, in the 2nd century BC. It would be used for more than a thousand years.

Folded and bound, the book was born!


>  Egyptian scripts
Invention of the alphabet
Hebrew writing
The Greek miracle
From Rome to the Middle Ages
Arabic calligraphy
Indian Devanagari
Medieval manuscripts
Manuscripts and illuminations