Thomas F. Glick

title.none: Bloom, Paper Before Print (Thomas F. Glick)

identifier.other: baj9928.0404.009 04.04.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Thomas F. Glick, Boston University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Bloom, Jonathan M. Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001. Pp. xvi, 270. $45.00. ISBN: 0-300-08955-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.04.09

Bloom, Jonathan M. Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001. Pp. xvi, 270. $45.00. ISBN: 0-300-08955-4.

Reviewed by:

Thomas F. Glick
Boston University

Bloom's elegant book, while providing a broad survey of the introduction and use of paper in the medieval Islamic world, is focused on writing as a set of literary and artistic techniques that interact with the different media upon which are they applied. Buddhism, in his view, was the great motor of paper's diffusion westward across Asia. In order to spread the religion, Buddhists had to learn writing-related Chinese techniques that included the making of paper, but also of brushes and inks. Before commenting on the novel aspects of Bloom's approach from the vantage point of art history, I would like first to review the diffusion of paper as it has been seen from within the history of technology.

Both paper manufacture and sugar refining were industrial processes that required a large capital investment, factory-like establishments to treat the raw materials, a large labor force, and water mills with cam shafts to drive the mallets that macerated the rags for paper and the cane for sugar. In China there was a unified package of manufacturing and refining industries that used vertical water mills with cam-mounted mallets connected to the axis of the power wheel, which crushed the raw material to the point where the process could be continued by hand. These industries included those that produced oils of various types, paper, sugar, indigo, lacquer, and tea. As a result, the manufacture of paper and sugar diffused westward simultaneously, and the vertical wheel with mallets that they used was the same mechanism used to hull rice, a crop that the Arabs transmitted from east to west during the same period.

Paper was a Chinese technique imported into the Islamic world by Chinese craftsmen--prisoners of war, as legend has it--who began making paper in Samarqand in 757. Chinese artisans also established a paper mill in Baghdad around 794. There is an extremely interesting and significant interaction between the arrival of paper in near east and the explosion of translations of Greek scientific and philosophical manuscripts into Arabic in the late eighth century. The arrival of paper also set off an administrative revolution in the Abbasid empire. Paper replaced both papyrus, which was expensive and much less durable, and parchment--durable but also bulky and relatively scarce, and therefore expensive. By the eleventh century it had all but disappeared from use in the Islamic world.

The introduction of paper made it possible to store more documents and to store them for longer periods of time, substantially increasing the "administrative memories" of governments that used it, particularly in regard to the collection of taxes. Papyrus had permitted the portability required to govern vast territories from a central administration, but it lacked the capacity to be stored over long periods of time. In governmental systems based on administrative precedent the lack of durability was an impediment.

Paper, because of its cheapness, promoted the democratization of knowledge. In the medieval Muslim world, a book customer simply went to a bookstore, where scribes were employed to copy manuscripts, and ordered a copy of the text he wanted. In the great medieval Muslim cities, private individuals of the merchant-scholar class could build collections of books on paper that were very large, even by today's standards. In Europe, by contrast, the elite tightly controlled book production. Most manuscript books were produced in monastic copying centers, called scriptoria, and since parchment was the writing medium, the cost was prohibitive to most individuals. In consequence, European private libraries (those of scholars and aristocrats) tended to be quite small.

In Bloom's perspective, paper's success was closely linked to the development to a kind of Arabic writing (broken cursive script) for which paper was the best medium, when writing was applied with carbon-black ink. The happy fit of these three features was the practical basis underlying the explosion of book production under the Abbasids. Book production itself was public and collective. Authors read publicly as scribes first transcribed their words, then read them back to check for accuracy. This method explains both the proliferation of books, compared to the lapidary pace of solitary European monastic scribes, and higher level of accuracy.

Bloom's pages on the relationship between paper on both weaving and ceramic decoration are especially instructive: because Islamic textile patterns were complex, frequently involving Arabic script, a prior sketch drawn on paper was required; in draw loom weaving, particularly of silken cloth, the pattern must be carefully plotted in advance and actually recorded on the loom, like a template. Ornate ceramic design was an adaptation to a clay medium of methods previously devised for painting on paper.

Finally, Bloom reformulates, in the tradition of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, the broader aspects of paper technology as a medium of communication having far reaching social, political and cultural consequences. For Bloom, paper made possible a shift from a mnemonic system based on orality and memory to one based on a written record. At this point, "physical texts...could be referred to independently of their human transmitters". (123) That independence has far-reaching consequences as writing systems penetrate entire societies, affecting masses of persons who do not know how to write: "The changes in modes of thinking brought about by dealing with written texts are not the result of underlying differences between the mental capacities of oral and literate peoples; rather they stem from a fundamental alteration in the tools available to each. The graphic representation of speech is a tool that encourages reflection on information and the organization of information; it also changes the nature of representations in the world, even for those in the culture who cannot write." (123) Although the shift from memory to a written mnemonic system was never completed in the Islamic world, Bloom feels that a watershed was reached in the twelfth century; paper was its main stimulus, and the principal result was the text-based structure of authority in Islam that has persisted to this day.