Monday, January 16, 2012

The History Of Ink – From The Dark Ages To The Printer Era

Courtesy of Prisse Payrus Wikipedia page

There are many academic quibbles over the ultimate origins of ink. Various nationalities, cultures and religions have all claimed credit for its invention at some point in time.

Since ink derived from cephalopod sacs has been available and usable, for a very long time, it is not really possible to work out when exactly making deliberate marks with ink was “invented”.

What is possible is to trace at least some of the human history of ink through time: the art, the written records, the political intrigue and upheaval.

The Ancient World
Although Chinese philosopher Tien-Lcheu is thought to have invented ink as early as 2697 B.C., the earliest writing on paper is probably the Prisse Papyrus.

The unassuming scrap of papyrus this text was written on dates back to the twelfth dynasty of Egypt, or around 2000-1800 B.C.E. Unfortunately it doesn’t contain a spell to preserve the possessor from he who is in the water, but only advice on how to live a quiet life of modesty and moderation, obey the law, and maintain strict discipline and self-control.

This is much less metal, and also has fewer useful practical applications.

Early writings were frequently used to communicate conservative philosophies, instructions and thinly veiled political treatises.

Ink’s role as a tool of authority and political influence forms a notable contrast with some of its later incarnations...

From Dark Age To Renaissance
There are comparatively few printed records from the period referred to by Petrarch as the time of “darkness and dense gloom”. The art of writing survived, however, in lavish works such as the Book of Kells. Works like these, mostly created by Christian monks, featured lush Celtic knot-work and step patterns alongside elaborately ornamented lettering.

At about the same time, Muslim scholars were developing their own narratives and traditional histories, especially of the Prophet Mohammed’s life and times. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world from Britain, Japan was enjoying its own golden age or “Heian period”, the source of most Japanese classical literature and arguably the first piece of science fiction.

The ink used in Europe was mostly iron gall ink, which unfortunately was acidic and must have destroyed many works. The same ink was responsible for severely damaging the original works of JS Bach.

In terms of culture and writing, then, the Dark Ages seem at first to have been misnamed. However, their gentle glow must have seemed pitch black compared to the blinding light emanating from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Thanks to Gutenberg’s revolutionary printing press, the flow of ideas became far freer, and the dominance of religious thinking in the West began to be challenged. The subsequent birth of Protestantism changed the history of many nations permanently.

It is also likely that, with the burgeoning middle classes’ exposure to the knowledge which ink could provide, came the learning necessary for the Renaissance. During the Renaissance, ideas became incredibly powerful, with secular humanists beginning to disseminate their opinions widely, and a flurry of pamphlets on politics, philosophy and art being published.

The Modern Age
With the advances made possible in the Renaissance, undoubtedly partly due to printing technology, printing became industrialised along with everything else. With the advance of printing technology came the advance of journalism as we know it today, true mass media and mass distribution of literature. Political ideals such as Marxism and Objectivism spread quickly.

Ink was also reconsidered and re-appropriated as a medium by several Western artists, most notably Van Gogh.

Left: Tree With Ivy In The Asylum (Van Gogh, 1889). Right: Fountain In The Garden Of The Hospital, St Remy (1889)

There are still artists working in pen and ink today, mostly drawing  architectural scenes, but with others doing work for extreme metal album art such as Justin Bartlett, grim landscapes, and abstract art. Interestingly, modern abstract art has many ties with early Celtic and Celtic Christian ink-based artworks, bringing the cycle back around.

The real reason for the Lord Of The Rings-inspired title of this post, though, is the (relatively) recent discovery of a 150 million year old squid, preserved well enough that the scientists were able to extract its ink sac.

Just as the ancient people of the earth may have done, they used its ink to make marks: a picture of the squid itself, and its name in Latin.

James MacGregor is a writer of many, possibly too many, blogs and articles. He writes blog posts for Cartridge Shop, a retailer of a range of printer cartridges which includes dell printer cartridges.