Special Features
About the Film
Educational Resources
Site Index
Shop PBS
Return to Home
Return to Home

Paper and Publishing
Paper and Publishing

Muslims were responsible for the transfer of papermaking from China, where it had been invented in the centuries before Christ, to Europe, where it fueled the print revolution in the late fifteenth century. Muslims encountered paper when they conquered Central Asia in the eighth century. Paper quickly supplanted papyrus (which was made only in Egypt) and parchment (which was made from animal skins), for it could be made virtually anywhere from rags and waste fibers. Although it was not cheap, paper had the great advantage of being difficult to erase, an important consideration when documents and records had to be secure from forgery. The use of paper soon spread from government offices to all segments of society. By the middle of the ninth century the Papersellers' Street in Baghdad had more than one hundred shops in which paper and books were sold.

Medieval Islamic society had a paper economy, where both wholesale and retail merchants conducted commerce on credit. Orders of payment, the equivalent of modern checks (the Persian word sakk is the origin of our word "check"), were drawn in amounts upwards from one dinar (a gold coin roughly equivalent to half a month's salary). By the ninth century paper was used for copying scientific and other types of utilitarian texts, although it took longer for Muslims to accept the use of paper as a fitting support for God's word. The first paper manuscript of the Koran to survive dates from 972, but from this date paper soon became standard for all books. Medieval Islamic libraries had hundreds of thousands of volumes far outstripping the relatively small monastic and university libraries in the West.