Paper masks

The oriental origin of paper

The history of paper.

Often it is the simple things that we take for granted that make all of the difference to history, and one of them is paper. How many sheets containing written information are on your desk, in your house or even in your bag?  Then there is all of the other uses we put paper to in our lives, cleaning, ticketing, containing, wrapping; the list (on paper of course) is nearly endless.  It is one of the inventions that made its way from China to the West via the amazing conduit of ideas, ideal and objects:  The Silk Road.

In the ancient and medieval world the paperless office was a real thing. Papyrus, as used by the ancient Egyptians, was nearly paper…sort of! The big problem with papyrus is that it is fragile, and the older it gets the more fragile it becomes, making it unsuited for long term storage of writings, which is presumably why it never replaced parchment in Europe. Other cultures used strips of bamboo or timber (China, India), bark (Russia and Meso-America) and Palm fronds (Burma) and of course clay tablets. Medieval Europeans did have books, except that all the pages were made from parchment or velum  which is heavily treated sheep or cow leather. Not only was it expensive, it made books rather heavy! If you think having a kindle is a big improvement on trying to read a book on the bus, imagine trying to cart around a series of clay tablets or a couple of hundred sheets of leather in your bag! There are Buddhist sutras written on gilded palm fronds, medieval texts on velum and parchment and ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets on display in the Abbey Museum –  Check  out display case numbers 21 and 22 next time you visit.

According to legend, the invention of paper is credited to a Chinese eunuch Cai Lun in 105 CE; eunuchs held many senior positions in the heavily bureaucratic Chinese court, presumably because they had fewer distractions and could devote more time to, at least in this case,  paperwork. The problem with this legend is that archaeologists in China have unearthed fragments of a paper map that cannot date after 179 BCE, as well as other fragments of paper that can be dated more than 100 years before Cai Lun. So unfortunately we do not know who invented paper but we can surmise it was in China and around 200 BCE, though it may have been Cai Lun who popularised it and introduced it into the imperial bureaucracy.

Paper – the ultimate technology

From China paper appears to have moved slowly into adjoining territories such as Korea, Vietnam, Japan and Pakistan by the 7th century.  The big leap happens in Central Asia when the westwards advancing Chinese empire collides with the eastwards advancing Islamic Caliphate culminating at the battle of Talas in 751. Among the Chinese prisoners were some who were skilled in paper making and soon after paper, made from treated mulberry bark, became a major industry around the fabled city of Samarkand, on the Silk Road.

From Samarkand, paper spread and the explosion of mathematical, scientific and philosophical texts in the Islamic world in the centuries following the spread of paper is testament to the impact of the new technology; the Persian polymath Ibn Sina, known to the west as Avicenna, alone was responsible for writing more than 450 books on almost every branch of human enquiry.

The availability of a cheap, durable writing material made the traffic of ideas possible with a reach and rapidity that was previously unknown and may be compared to the development of printing, and the internet in later centuries.

Join us at Kids Dig It! Oriental Family Fun Week as we investigate the history of the Orient.  We investigate the many advantages our world enjoys today because of the Orient, one of which is paper.  Learning is always fun at the Abbey Museum so find join us for a paper making workshop.  More details on how to book your tickets are found here:

Would you like to know what the inside a traditional paper making workshop in Samarkand was like?  All will be revealed in our next blog.

blog by Damien Fegan