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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 160-161
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Paper before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World. By Jonathan M. Bloom. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Pp. xiii+270. $45.
This handsomely produced and illustrated book is much more than a history of the manufacture and use of paper in the Islamic world. It introduces the reader to the entire history of papermaking, from its invention in China to the development of modern industrial methods. More intriguingly, however, it argues that paper should be thought of as a revolutionary technology on a par with movable type (and a necessary precursor to it, of course). In developing this argument, Jonathan Bloom takes the reader on a fascinating tour of Muslim culture.
The first two chapters deal with the invention and spread of papermaking and include concise but useful discussions of the writing materials that paper supplanted. Sidebars provide succinct technical essays on papyrus, parchment, felt (as a precursor technology), Japanese paper, mills, milling (the use of trip-hammers), molds, body linen (as a source of fiber), zigzags, and watermarks. The myth that papermaking came into the Islamic world by way of Chinese prisoners captured at the Battle of the Talas River in Central Asia in 751 collapses before convincing evidence that paper was in use somewhat before that date. Bloom does show, however, that Central Asia, and Samarkand in particular, played an important role in the technology's spread.
The next three chapters explore the cultural consequences of having access to an increasingly abundant and inexpensive writing medium. Here Bloom catalogs a series of cultural impacts that amount to a Gutenberg-like revolution, the sort of technological paradigm shift that has hitherto been ascribed only to Western Europe, Song China, and Meiji Japan. Just as historians devote less attention to the technical accomplishments of Gutenberg [End Page 160] and other early printers than to how their activities affected thought and society, so Bloom pieces together evidence—such as increasing paper size and a progression from leaving no part of the page unused to providing substantial margins—showing how the availability of paper changed habits of thought and notation. Though he concentrates on the Abbasid capital of Baghdad in the eighth and ninth centuries and on the period of Ilkhan Mongol rule in the thirteenth century, his geographic range is comprehensive, as is his cultural sweep: calligraphy, music, mathematics, military organization, commerce, cartography, genealogy. Not surprisingly, given Bloom's distinction as an art historian, all of chapter 5 is devoted to art on paper, effectively tying the rich tradition of Muslim miniature painting into the broader history of technology.
The final two chapters deal with the transfer of the art of papermaking to Europe and its development after the advent of printing. In contrast to narratives of technological history that implicitly or explicitly disparage the tardiness of non-Western societies in adopting Western technological advances, the story told here portrays Europe as inexplicably retrograde in its failure to adopt a revolutionary technology. Papermaking spreads from Muslim to Christian Spain and from Norman Sicily, recently taken from the Muslims, to Italy only in the twelfth century. In the fourteenth, Italian papermakers dominate European production, paving the way for Gutenberg, and export their products to the Middle East and North Africa, where the industry goes into decline in tandem with the regional economy as a whole. The informative sidebars on technical topics resume in these chapters: Spanish paper, wire drawing, laid and chain lines, Italian papermaking, the Hollander beater. A twenty-page bibliographical essay closes the volume.
This is a book of uncommon quality, both in thought and in production. It will equally inform the historian of technology, the Islamicist, and the art historian. Yet it adds up to more than its many interesting parts, suggesting a fundamental correction of received appraisals of Islamic society. Historians have long taken note of Muslim scientific and technical innovations in many areas of knowledge—the word "Muslim" being understood here to denote predominantly Muslim Middle...