The past few days I have been preoccupied with a deceptively simple question: “What is the oldest book in the world?” Having done some looking around I can now report that while somewhere on this planet, in a vault or a cupboard, lies the oldest surviving book, it is actually impossible to say which one may be branded as such. Bear with me.
What you do when you are kept up at night with such an existentialistic query is to consult Google. However, what Google returns does not make me a happy camper. In fact, I am provided with a very broad range of possible answers. First of all, let’s remove the weed, answers that are the result of flawed reasoning. A lot of websites, for example, confuse “book” with “text”. Wiki Answers reports: “the oldest book in the world is the Bible” (here). And Ask.com: “The oldest book in the world is entitled ‘The Instructions of Shurupak’”, which dates from 3000 BCE (here). A book and a text are, of course, very different things: like a hamburger in a bun or your legs in a pair of pants, a book contains a text, but it is not its equivalent. Equally incorrect are websites whose claims are based on the premise that a book is a printed object. Thus the oldest book in the world must surely be the Gutenberg Bible (oldest printed book in the West, from c. 1455) or Buddhism’s Diamond Sutra (oldest printed book in the East, from c. 868), as in this Huffington Post article. No, it’s not.
1. Frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra, printed in China, 11 May 868.
More carefully phrased answers can be equally confusing, even when provided by reputable institutions. When the British Library purchased the St Cuthbert Gospel, the seventh-century copy of the Gospel of St John found in St Cuthbert’s coffin when it was opened in 1104, newspapers claimed the library was in possession of “Europe’s oldest book” (see for example here and here). In its press release the British Library qualified its purchase as “the oldest European book to survive fully intact”, which is to say that it survived in its original binding (here). While this nuance is welcome, the claim feels forced – and not just because the press release atypically calls an English book “European”, no doubt to increase the impact of the purchase. The thing is, many medieval books were designed and used without a binding, which raises the question of whether the binding should even be made part and parcel of the concept “book”. Notably, if bindings are taken out of play there are other books older than the St Cuthbert Gospel, such as the sixth-century herbary right here in Leiden (Pic 2).
2. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLQ MS 9 (Italy, 550-600).
The issue of what precisely constitutes a “book” also lies at the heart of another prominent hit in my Google search. Stop the press, the oldest book in the world is an object that consists of six bound sheets of 24-carat gold written in a lost Etruscan language around 600 BC (check out the BBC news item here)! The sheets are “believed to be the oldest comprehensive work involving multiple pages”, according to Bulgaria’s National History Museum in Sofia, where it is kept (Pic 3). Significant is the following assessment of the museum: similar sheets are scattered throughout the world, but those are not linked together, and therefore do not represent a book. A book, the underlying premise suggests, is an object that consists of multiple leaves bound together. So far so good – we have started our initial descent towards our answer.
3. Old Etruscan “book”, made c. 600 BC (Sofia, National History Museum).
Unfortunately, the shiny Etruscan object cannot be called “the oldest book in the world”. The reason is that it consists of unfolded single sheets (golden plates, actually), which are held together by two rings (as seen in Pic 3). However, the codex (the book before print and therefore the oldest type of real book in the world) is not an object that merely consists of a bunch of leaves. It is, by contrast and definition, built from double leaves: sheets that are folded into quires. Looking for the oldest book, then, we should look among objects made from bendy, foldable writing material: papyrus (made from the plant), parchment (animal skin) and paper. Of these three writing supports papyrus is the oldest. It was roughly used for four kinds of objects: i) Unfolded sheets, used for notes and documentary purposes (example); ii) Rolls, i.e. unfolded sheets that were attached at their short side (example); iii) Book-like objects made up from group of unfolded single sheets (‘singletons’) bound together; iv) Real books made from quires (“codices”).Bingo!The oldest book must be made of papyrus. Which one could it be, however? Our search is made easy by the fact that very few papyrus books of old age survive. There are some from the seventh or eight century AD (see this one, for example, or this one). The really old specimens, however, are fragments from once complete sheets (Pic 4).
4. Early Christian papyrus, Egypt, 2nd century AD (University of Michigan, P. Mich. inv. 6238)
It is their fragmentary nature that constitutes the last – killer – hurdle on our way to the finish line. From a surviving papyrus fragment we can, unfortunately, not deduce – at least as far as I can tell – if it originally belonged to an unfolded (single) leaf or a folded (double) sheet. While catalogues often tell you that a papyrus fragment was part of a codex, in other words, that it belonged to a book made from quires (here is an example), we can, in fact, not know for sure if this was the case. Unless it sports a sharp fold, the oldest book in the world will therefore remain hidden in its vault, old but deprived of its prize.
Post-scriptum (30 Dec 2013): a recent British Library blog shows what the bindings of papyrus codices looked like. Read it here.