The Age of Erasable Books

What a society chooses to rewrite is as revealing as what it records in the first place.

I accidentally delete things all the time: an email I meant to send, a phrase I wrote but replaced, or a hard drive I thought I was fixing—only to realize I erased my computer’s operating system.

Yet, I find I can take comfort in the fact that humans have had this problem for hundreds of years. I also take comfort in the fact that even things erases can sometimes be found again. Whether on hard drives or on centuries-old parchment, what appears to be lost is often only hidden. And the technology we use—both to record information in the first place and to recover it when it’s gone—reflect the fundamental values of our time.

In the Middle Ages, monks in their libraries wrote works on parchment made from the hides of sheep and cattle. They would copy pages from the Bible, and from the works of great theologians like Augustine of Hippo. Sometimes these monks would make mistakes along the way—which, fortunately, they could easily correct by taking a knife and scraping off their ink from the sheepskin, then writing over it again. (Keep in mind that parchment is much thicker and more durable than modern paper. So a piece of parchment could be scraped several times before it would become brittle or unusable.) When they did this, the result was something called a palimpsest—a piece of parchment that has been erased and written over.

* * * 

Often, individual palimpsests are not all that interesting. But if parchment was in short supply, monks would be forced to look through their unused books and re-use parchment that was deemed less valuable. Entire books were erased and used again. In these cases, a palimpsest becomes much more exciting, a kind of mystery that begs for a detective. Ironically, when these monks erased what were, to them, unimportant words, they unwittingly launched an entire field of study, fueled by such curious detectives, hundreds of years later.

In the 19th century, an Italian priest named Angelo Mai made a career of rediscovering palimpsests from the Middle Ages and inspired many others after him. Though Mai was not the first person to discover a palimpsest, he was the first to uncover a large number of them, and the first to seriously study them in much detail.

Mai was born in Bergamo, in Northern Italy, and went to study with the Jesuits. He eventually became a professor of classical literature. When Napoleon invaded Italy, Mai was forced to return to Milan, where he first began his work on palimpsests at the Ambrosian Library in Milan. When he was able to return to Rome, he became a cardinal and a librarian in the Vatican Library. It was there that he discovered a fairly common copy of Augustine’s psalms. But what he found underneath it was remarkable: a lost work of the Roman orator Cicero from the 4th century called De Republica.

Classical scholars knew this book had once existed because it was referenced by other authors, but until 1819, when Mai found it, only small quotations survived. De Republica was perhaps Mai’s most famous discovery, and the work was especially important since Cicero was writing about the events that led to the rise of Julius Caesar, the eventual fall of the Roman Republic, and the emergence of the Roman Empire under Julius’ nephew Augustus.

Unlike today, when scholars can easily scan images into computers, then manipulate the images in multiple ways to discover what may be written underneath (without harming the original document), in Mai’s time, deciphering a palimpsest was incredibly difficult. Often, some pages were out of order; others were destroyed completely. In still other cases the parchment had been scraped multiple times making it difficult to determine what writing went with which text.

Sometimes Mai would be able to clearly see the writing underneath because the parchment had gotten dirty over time, or the parchment itself had slowly rotted away, revealing the text underneath. At other times, probably more frequently, when the text underneath was less clear, Mai used acids or other destructive methods to burn away part of the parchment and destroy the writing on top of the page; thus the work of the medieval monks who had originally erased the text, was now, paradoxically, unreadable. Despite his methods, Mai was able to recover lost works, or at least fragments of them, from many classical authors, and his work became immeasurably important in our understanding of the Greek and Roman world.

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Shawn Martin is an informationist, historian, and teacher based in Philadelphia.

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