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PARCHMENT AND PAPYRUS.
tanned into a smooth leather, afforded to the ancients a durable substance for their documents and books. Out of this class of writing materials came the parchment and the vellum, which have not yet been superseded in the lawyer's office, for no paper has been made to equal them in lasting power. Parchment takes its name from the old city of Pergamos in Asia Minor, whose king, when the literary jealousy of the Egyptians stopped the supply of papyrus, caused his subjects to write on sheep-skins, hence called Pergamena or parchment. Vellum, a finer material, is prepared calf-skin. Besides these, a common form of the book in Greek and Roman days consisted in tablets of wood, ivory, or metal, coated thinly with wax, on which the writer scratched the symbols of his thoughts with a bronze or iron bodkin, (ypaplov or stilus.) A cut reed, dipped in gum-water which was coloured with powdered charcoal or the soot of resin, represented long ago the pen and ink of modern days. With such appliances, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman scholars penned their early works on rolls of parchment or of papyrus, the famous rush-skin, which has given us a name for that common but very beautiful material on which we write our letters and print our books.
In swampy places by the Nile, where the retreating flood had left pools, a yard or so deep, to stagnate under the copper sky, there grew in old times vast forests of tall reeds, whose triangular stems, some six or eight feet high, bore tufted plumes of hair-like fibres. Wading in these shallows, where the ibis stalked, and the mailed crocodile crashed through the canes to plunge like a log in the deep current beyond, day after day bands of dark and linen-robed Egyptians came to hew down the leafless woods with knife or axe, and bear their heavy sheaves to the dry and sandy bank. It was the famous papyrus they cut, whose skin vied with parchment, as the writing material of the ancients. The several wrappings of the papyrus stalk being stripped off, the lengths were cemented either with the muddy water of the Nile, or more probably with the sugary juices of the plant itself. As skin after skin peeled away, the more delicate tissues, of which the finest paper was made, were found wrapping the heart of the stem. Pressing
12 ANCIENT BOOK-ROOMS.
and drying completed the simple process of making this muchused paper. It was then ready to receive the semi-liquid, gummy soot, with which the Xenophons and the Virgils of old Greece and Rome traced their flowing histories or sparkling poems. Such were the chief materials of which ancient books were made,-the hard and stiff substances being formed into angular tablets, which opened either like the leaves of a European book or like the folding compartments of a screen, the soft and pliable, such as leather or linen, being rolled on ornamented, smoothlyrounded sticks, as we roll up our maps and wall-diagrams. Instead of showing, like our modern libraries, trim rows of books standing shoulder to shoulder with the evenness of well-drilled soldiers on parade—the juniors gleaming with magenta and gold, the seniors hoary in ancient vellum or sombre with dingy calf— the book-room of a Plato or a Seneca would have displayed a few circular cases, resembling our common bandbox, and filled with papyrus or parchment rolls, which, standing on end, displayed the bright yellow, polished vermilion, or deep jet of their smoothlycut edges. Let us now see what the men, who wrought out the wonders of ancient history, cut or painted on their granite slabs, their cloths of cotton or linen, their sheep-skins, or their slips of bark. Drawing and painting were, undoubtedly, the earliest methods of conveying ideas in books. And still, pictures and sketches aid many of our books and serials to convey a clearer meaning; else why do we love to read the Illustrated News, or turn the first thing in the Cornhill to the drawings of Millais and of Doyle? The various gradations by which the first rude sketch changed into that wonderful invention—a word formed of alphabetic symbols —cannot here be traced. Take two specimens of the phases which the growing art assumed. A piece of cotton cloth is before us, brilliant with crimson and yellow and pale blue, and oblong like our modern page. It is a picture-writing of old Mexico, relating the reign and conquests of King Acamapich. Down the left border runs a broad stripe of blue, divided into thirteen parts by lines resembling the rounds of a
ORIGIN OF OUR ALPHABET.
Then by slow, yet very sure degrees, the hieroglyphic system altered until certain signs became phonetic; that is, expressive of sounds, not things. The Phænicians, who had much to do with early Egypt, in adopting the art of writing probably abandoned the pictorial part of the hieroglyphic system, and retaining only the phonetics, formed out of these the first pure alphabet; and so from Phænicia through Greece and Rome we, in all likelihood, got the ground-work of those twenty-six letters of which our thirty-eight thousand words are made.
Much of this opening chapter deals with countries far from Britain, and an age anterior, in the Old World at least, to the birth of British literature. But it is not a rash conjecture, that, among the ancestors of those blue embed Celts who dashed so bravely into the surf near Sandwich on that old September day, to meet the brass-mailed legions of Cæsar, there were some untutored attempts at picture-writing on such materials as the country could supply. For savage man must, in every age and clime, travel on to civilization by much the same pathway. And, in any case, it is well, when beginning to record the great victories of the British pen, to trace a few of those faltering steps which were taken, as the world grew from morning into prime, towards the production of that grand triumph of human thought and skill we call a modern book.
AMONG every people the earliest form of literature is the Ballad. The History and the Poetry of a nation are, in their infant forms, identical When the old Greeks taught, in their mythology, that Memory was the mother of the Muses, they embodied in a striking personification the fact that the rude language, in which men emerging from savagery used to chant the story of their deeds to their children, was couched in rough metre, in order that the ring of the lines might help the memory to retain the tale.
Oldest of all British literature, or, indeed, of all literature in modern Europe, of which any specimens remain, are some scraps of Irish verse, found in the Annalists and ascribed to the fifth century. The Psalter of Cashel, the oldest existing manuscript of the Irish literature, is a collection of metrical legends, sung by the bards, which was compiled towards the end of the ninth century, by a man who seems to have held the offices of Bishop of Cashel and King of Munster. More important, however, as giving in careful prose a calm account of early Irish history, are the Annals of Tigernach and of the Four Masters of Ulster.
The very scanty remains of the Scottish Gaelic are of much later date than the earliest Irish ballads. The poems
of Ossian Fingal and Temora—which were published in 1762 and 1763 by James Macpherson, as translations from Gaelic manuscripts as old as the fourth century, are now generally looked on as literary forgeries, executed by their clever but not very scrupulous editor. The ancient manuscripts, from which he professed to have translated these graphic pictures of old Celtic life, have never been produced A narrative in verse, called the Albanic Duan, is thought to have been composed in the eleventh century.
LATIN AUTHORS AMONG THE CELTS. 17
In Wales, which was the stronghold of Druidism, the profession of the bard was held in high honour. The poems of Taliesin, Merlin, and other bards of the sixth century, still remain. The Welsh Triads, some of which are ascribed to writers of the thirteenth century, are sets of historical events and moral proverbs, arranged in groups of three. Both in these and in the ballads of the bards, one of the leading heroes is the great Prince Arthur, whose prowess against the Saxons was so noted in those dim days.
Besides those who wrote and sang in their native Celtic tongue, there were also among the ancient British people a few Latin authors. Three may be named. First on the long and brilliant roll of British historians stands Gildas, born at Alcluyd (Dumbarton) about the beginning of the sixth century. He is known to us as the author of a History of the Britons, and an Epistle to his countrymen, both in Latin, and both containing fiery assaults upon the Saxon invaders. Nennius, thought to have been a monk of Bangor, is said also to have written a History of the Britons. The Latin poems of St. Columbanus, an Irish missionary to the Gauls, are spoken of by Moore as “shining out in this twilight period of Latin literature with no ordinary distinction.”