The whole papyrus and paper debate


Ad Honorem
Dec 2015
Most people here would have heard of papyrus, which predated Chinese development of paper substantially.
Then, Chinese textbooks keep talking about the "four major inventions": Paper, print, compass, gunpowder.
Challenging such notion is not quite acceptable on Baidu.
The problem with papyrus is that it was not that widely used, and during medieval period, it was not that used in Europe.
Was papyrus legitimate paper at all?
Why was papyrus usage rather limited?
When was papyrus developed?
Even with widespread inaccuracy, I can safely state that paper usage during the Three Kingdoms era remained relatively

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
A lot of texts don't distinguish between paper and barkcloth; the same word was used for both. Barkcloth was invented long before paper but it was mainly used for clothing and armour, not writing. When proper paper was invented, they adopted the same word for it. I think the best bet is to look for sources which specifically mention paper being used for writing, which will give us a better idea of when it was really invented.


Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
Papyrus was rather an Egyptian speciality. Writing elsewhere was mostly done on parchment, i.e. animal skin based. It made writing materials decidedly expensive things. Paper has the advantage of serious relative cheapness, even when cloth based, which is still considerably more expensive than the modern wood-pulp stuff. (Wood-pulp paper otoh has the disadvantage of not lasting very long, something papyrus, parchment or cloth paper all do relatively better.)

The Diary of Merer seems to be the oldest extant papyri text, 4500 years, 4th dynasty, time of the great pyramids. I seem to recall a find of uninscribed papyri scrolls as even older grave goods though.


Forum Staff
Oct 2011
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Probably we should reason a moment about what paper is.
Paper is simply a physical support where to write. In this it's not different from clay tablets ...

A part that the English word "paper" comes from "papyrus" [just to underline how in Europe the papyrus was the support to write], paper has been, historically, not only among the best supports where to write, but it can be produced in great quantities and in many sizes and formats.

Papyrus is a plant, you cannot cultivate it in Scandinavia [while in Scandinavia today they cultivate entire forests to produce paper ...]. And its availability is limted by the extension of the plantations of papyrus. Egypt is a desert, a part the lands along the River Nile and they needed those lands for agricultural productions. So they hadn't a wide room to cultivate the papyrus.

In any case, until the Roman Empire controlled that area, the production of papyrus increased and resisted to the competition of the parchment. It was after the fall of Rome that [probably also becasue of the social and economical problems related to trades] the parchment begun to substitute the papyrus in Western Europe.

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