The Missal of Silos, the oldest European book made of paper

Egyptians wrote on papyrus, a material made from the plant of the same name (Cyperus papyrus) that grows on the banks of the Nile, before the 30th century BC. Later, during the Greco-Roman antiquity, the use of parchment became popular, made from sheep or goat skins tanned and polished to allow the fixing of the ink. The high cost of the latter material meant that from the 8th century onwards, copyists reused parchments by erasing them and writing over them again, producing palimpsests.

Paper manufacturing process invented by Cai Lun / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

But the Chinese found a solution as early as the second century BC with the development of rudimentary forms of paper. In 105 AD Cai Lun, advisor to Emperor He of Han, invented a new procedure for its manufacture, which would be used in China exclusively for 500 years, until they came into contact with the Arab world. This probably happened as a result of the battle of Talas that took place in 751 AD on the banks of the river of that name in present-day Kyrgyzstan, between the Abbasid caliphate and the imperial Tang dynasty.

There is no consensus among historians, but some argue that Chinese prisoners captured in battle began producing paper in Samarkand, thus introducing it into the Arab world, from where it would later reach Europe via the Iberian Peninsula in the 11th century. It would be in Játiva (present-day Spain) where the first European paper factory would be created in 1056. The Arab geographer Al-Idrisi, born in Ceuta and who lived in the Norman court of Roger II of Sicily, would write in his book Kitab Ruyar in 1154:

Játiva is a beautiful village with castles… paper is made like no other in the world. It is shipped to the East and West

That is why it is not surprising that the first book in Europe created (partially) with paper is kept at the Monastery of Santo Domingo of Silos, in the Spanish province of Burgos. The exact date of its creation is not known, but it must be prior to the year 1036 (since the manuscript follows the Mozarabic rite, replaced that year by the Gregorian rite).

Mozarabic Missal of Silos / photo Library of the Monastery of Silos

It is the so-called Mozarabic Missal of Silos, composed of 157 sheets of which the first 39 are paper and the rest are parchment. Although it is kept at the monastery of Silos, it was not made in its scriptorium, but in the nearby monastery of Santa María la Real in Nájera, La Rioja (which houses the pantheon of the kings of Nájera-Pamplona).

The paper of these 39 sheets was not made in Silos either, but came from a Muslim factory. However, Gonzalo Gayoso points out that it could have been made in an area near Silos because there were monasteries there that were either populated or gave shelter to Mozarabic monks who had fled from Al-Andalus.

Library of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos / photo Library of Silos

The missal itself is made of linen and is poorly refined, without filigree. For this reason it is not as valuable as other manuscripts in the same library, except for the fact that it is the first paper book in Western culture. A few years ago, in 2013, Umberto Eco’s visit to Silos was much commented on, where he was allowed to leaf through it, because it is mentioned in his famous novel The Name of the Rose.

Sources: El papel, 2000 años de historia / Biblioteca de la Abadía de Santo Domingo de Silos / A propósito de papel con filigrana de época nazarí conservado en el archivo histórico provincial de Málaga (Sonsoles González García, Belén Plaza Villanos) / Wikipedia.