early history of paper not closely connected to elite writing

Paper from its invention has been important for much broader uses than storing and transmitting high-value symbolic arrangements.  The earliest paper, found in China from the second century BGC, apparently was used for wrapping objects. The Chinese used paper for writing by no later than the third century GC.  But writing may not have been the most common use of paper.  By the sixth century GC, the Chinese were using toilet paper.[1]  The market for toilet paper was probably bigger than the market for books.

Government and commercial paper needs seem to have driven the expansion of paper-making in Baghdad in the eighth century.  Ja`far ibn Yahyā Barmaki, the vizier of Caliph al-Rashīd, reportedly persuaded the caliph to construct a paper mill in Baghdad in 794.  Ja`far ibn Yahyā’s father and grandfather both also served as viziers to Abbasid caliphs.  Ja`far ibn Yahyā’s grandfather led the development of bureaucratic government record-keeping:

Genuine budgets began to be drawn up for the first time and offices sprang up for various departments.  The extensive staff of officials engaged in correspondence with the provinces and prepared estimates and accounts.  An influential stratum of officialdom, the Irano-Islamic class of secretaries (kuttab in Arabic, dabiran in Persian), was formed which considered itself as the main support of the state.  Their knowledge of the complex system of the kharaj (land tax) which took account of not only land quality, but also the produce of the crops sown, made the officials of the diwan al-Kharaj (Department of Finance) the guardians of knowledge which was inaccessible to the uninitiated and was passed by inheritance.

Increasing demand for writing media for government bureaucrats and the relatively high cost of papyrus and parchment plausibly explain the construction of a paper mill in Baghdad in 794.

By the late eighth century, commercial paper had a dominant role in economic transactions in the Abbasid caliphate.  Coinage, which consisted mainly of dinars (gold coins) and dirhams (silver coins) had to be carefully assayed to detect and account for debasing and clipping.  Transporting large amounts of coins was cumbersome and dangerous.  A variety of written commercial instruments have long existed to facilitate economic transactions without the exchange or long-distance transportation of coins.[2]  The register of earnings of Jibra’īl ibn Bakhtīshū`, a physician from the Bakhtīshū` family of elite physicians, indicates the importance of commercial paper in Baghdad c. 800. According to that register, Jibra’īl ibn Bakhtīshū` earned “the equivalent of nine hundred thousand dinars in goods or gold, and ninety million six hundred thousand dirhams in paper money.”[3]  The term “paper money” from that register almost surely refers to bills of exchange written on paper.  Such bills apparently were the form of almost all of Jibra’īl ibn Bakhtīshū`’s monetary earnings.

The history of a key early communications infrastructure — paper — gives reason to doubt the significance of high-value symbolic arrangements for communications infrastructure. Government and commercial documents are not prestigious or highly literate forms of writing. They are more akin to wrapping paper (or toilet paper) than to books.  High-value symbolic arrangements, which today are associated with books, music, and movies, are relatively expensive to produce and relatively unimportant in daily practices.  Uses for communications media are much broader than transmitting high-value content.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] An Arabic travel account from about 850 describes Chinese practice:

They are not very nice in point of cleanliness, and wash not with water when they ease nature, but only wipe themselves with paper.

Trans. Renaudot (1733) p. 14

[2] In the early Islamic world, these commercial instruments included hawala, suftaja, sakk (a linguistic precursor to the English word “cheque”), and ruq’a.  Geva (2012); Geva (2011) Ch. 6; Bloom (2001) pp. 135-41.  Nick Szabo compares these commercial instruments to latter European commercial practices.  Bloom (2001), p. 139, declares, “orders of payment dominated medieval economic life.”

[3] HP p. 263.  While some inconsistencies exist in the (translated) text, these figures seem to be the total earnings of Jibra’īl ibn Bakhtīshū` during his 23 years of service in Caliph al-Rashīd’s court from 786 to 809.  Writing on paper is more difficult to erase than writing on papyrus or writing on parchment. That was an important advantage for paper versus papyrus and parchment as a medium for commercial instruments.


Bloom, Jonathan. 2001. Paper before print: the history and impact of paper in the Islamic world. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Geva, Benjamin. 2011. The payment order of antiquity and the Middle Ages: a legal history. Oxford: Hart Publishing.

Geva, Benjamin. 2012. “Medieval Islamic Payment Instruments as Forerunners of the Western Bill of Exchange.” Lunch remarks, MOCOMILA Meeting, SAMA, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 7 January 2012.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Renaudot, Eusebius, trans. 1733. Abū Zayd Hasan ibn Yazīd Sīrāfī. Silsilat al-tawārīkh.  Translated from Arabic as: Ancient accounts of India and China, by two Mohammedan travellers, who went to those parts in the 9th century.  London, Printed for S. Harding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *