Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 February 2021
Leaving the world of actual and “almost” books behind, the concluding four chapters of this section deal with artifacts that have a casual relationship to manuscripts, but an evident affiliation to written culture. The present chapter and the next deal with flat materials of small proportions cut from larger sheets or lifted from the recycling bin. Because of their cheap (or even free) nature, many of the slips, strips, and scraps discussed here are ephemeral and written hastily: they were meant to be read and thrown out. Yet, fortunately for us, they were not. The text on them is often written in a special language of short and abbreviated words, and it was probably understood that they may contain “typos.” The speed, short lifespan and cursory nature of the artifacts discussed here are familiar to us today: we send each other short, hastily written messages all day, and they are notoriously filled with abbreviations and typos. And we, too, use small, redundant scrap materials for drafting short lists and notes intended to have a short lifespan. This chapter observes the historical roots of this practice, while the next one explores another, more scholarly use for such slips.
Ephemeral written culture predates the Middle Ages. Early surviving examples are wooden tablets that were written on almost two thousand years ago, between 97 and 103 CE. The tablets were dug up in a Roman army camp called Vindolanda just south of Hadrian's Wall in Northern England, and they now rest in the British Museum. Some four hundred wooden tablets with correspondence were found in the house of Flavius Cerealis, prefect of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians. Remarkably, the Vindolanda tablets are only 1– 3 mm thick and about the size of a modern postcard. An especially charming and personal one is Tab. Vindol. II 291 (Figure 91). It invites the commander's wife, Sulpicia Lepidina, to her sister's birthday party at a neighbouring fort. Claudia Severa writes:
On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. Farewell, sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.