What is Bombycin?

I mentioned that one of the manuscripts of Photius’ Lexicon was written on ‘bombycin’, and a commenter has asked what this is.   It’s Arabic paper, used widely in Byzantium from the 9th century onwards until superceded by western methods of paper manufacture.

One of the key references is J. Irigoin, Les premiers manuscrits grecs écrits sur papiers et le problème du bombycin, Scriptorium 4 (1950), 194-202; and this was reprinted in Dieter Harlfinger’s Griechische Kodikologie, p. 132.  And I happen to own a copy of Harlfinger.  Here is a quick translation of the opening portion of his article:

Ever since Bernard de Montfaucon, textbooks on Greek paleography have distinguished two types of paper used in manuscripts; bombycin paper, of oriental origin, and western paper.

Until the end of the 19th century, it was believed that bombycin paper was made with cotton, which neatly distinguished it from western paper which was made from old rags (hence the name, rag paper) made of linen.  Around 1885, the work of Briquet, at Geneva, and of Wiesner and Karabacek at Vienna has shown that “cotton paper” is a myth; oriental paper was made with linen fibres, and bombycin is a linen paper just like western paper.  The only difference between the two papers is the choice of product used to hold it together; starch in the east, and gelatine in the west.

Paleographers have all the same continued to use the adjective bombycinus to designate manuscripts written on paper of oriental origin, in opposition to chartacei, written on paper made in the west.  All the same, the distinction between the two papers is far from simple and recent catalogues of Greek mss. label as chartaceus all manuscripts on paper, without giving any indication of the origin of the material.

As a general rule, paleographers state that bombycin is of a more or less obvious brown colour.  It is thick and opaque, often fluffy at the edges of the leaves; it is this which gives it sometimes the appearance of blotting paper, and it happens sometimes that the bombycin disintegrates at the surface, which is very unfortunate for the text written on it.  Western paper is less obviously coloured, thinner and better glued together, and on holding up to the light the marks left by the manufacturing process, the mesh, and eventually the watermark.  The latter appears sporadically in the last 20 years of the 13th century, and generally from the 14th century on.

This rule appears clear and certain.  In fact it is not so clear, and it often  happens that one hesitates as to whether thick paper does or does not show the marks of the process, and in cases of doubt it tends to be called bombycin.

My work has made it possible for me to study a certain number of Greek mss.  I have examined with care those which are said to be written on bombycin, and this has led me to the following conclusion: many of the manuscripts listed as bombycins in the most recent publications show watermarks and are thus written on western paper.  I shall limit myself to three series of examples.

Irigoin then goes on to detail his work, and to draw up more precise guidelines for identifying bombycin.  After studying more than 200 Greek paper manuscripts written before 1300, he felt able to state with confidence which was which.  The blotting paper effect was unusual rather than characteristic, for instance.  He also looked at Arabic manuscripts, which used paper from the 9th century onwards.  There he found that most used the same kind of paper, suggesting that they were written in the Near East, in the region from where the Byzantine empire imported its paper at that period.

He also points out that paper sizes were different in the orient and in the west.  The oldest manuscript he could find written on western paper was from 1255 A.D.    He also mentions the first known Greek ms. written on paper — Ms. Vatican. gr. 2200, written at Damascus ca. 800 A.D., in an archaising cursive, and suggests that it was a one-off.  The next known ms. is Vatican gr. 504, from 1105, written partly on paper and partly on parchment.  But literary references indicate that paper was being used by the middle of the 11th century.  Western paper, imported from Italy, starts to appear in Byzantium in the middle of the 13th century.  In the 14th century, and especially after 1340, paper replaces parchment almost entirely.  Oriental paper declined in quality during the first years of the 14th century, and disappears.  It is used rarely after 1350, and hardly ever after 1380.  Political and economic factors prevented the Byzantines from trading to the east, and the Turkish threat forced them to look west.  Irigoin adds:

In conclusion, a manuscript written on oriental paper must be placed between the middle of the 11th century and 1380.

and finishes by listing technical details.


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