From the Archives: Word with a Past–Parchment

One of these days I’m going to come out the other side of this book, honest. Luckily I have 10+ years of blog posts to draw on in the meantime.

I had forgotten all about this one from 2013.


For hundreds of years papyrus was the principal material on which books (or at least hand-copied scrolls) were written. Since it could only be made from the pith of freshly harvested papyrus reeds, native to the Nile valley, Egypt had a monopoly on the product–and a potential monopoly on the written word.

In the second century BCE, the kingdoms of Egypt and Pergamum* got into an academic arms race.

The library at Alexandria had been an intellectual power house since it was founded by King Ptolemy I Soter in 295 BCE. Ptolemy set out to collect copies of all the books in the inhabited world. He sent agents to search for manuscripts in the great cities of the known world. Foreign ships that sailed into Alexandria were searched for scrolls, which were confiscated and copied.**

Thirty years later, King Eumenes of Pergamum founded a rival library in his capital. Both kingdoms were wealthy and the two libraries competed for sensational finds.

In 197 BCE, King Ptolemy V Epiphanies took the rivalry to a new level by putting an embargo on papyrus shipments to Pergamum. The idea was that without papyrus, scholars in Pergamum could not make scrolls and therefore could not copy manuscripts. The Pergamum library would be crippled.

In response, Pergamum turned to a more expensive, but more durable, material made from the skin of sheep and goats. We know it as parchment, from the medieval Latin phrase for “from Pergamum”.

Librarians are a resourceful lot.

* “Where?” you ask. Here:

As you can see, not a small place.
** Alexandria kept the originals*** and gave the owners the copies. Piracy of intellectual property is not new.
*** According to Galen, they were catalogued under a special heading: “books of the ships”.

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