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Wrapping Up the Book: Membrana in Horace Sat. 2.3.2 and Ars P. 389

Stephanie Ann Frampton


Roberts and Skeat’s The Birth of the Codex, a standard reference on the history of the book in antiquity, puts forward two passages in Horace’s corpus in which the word membrana may be taken to mean “parchment.”

“sic raro scribis, ut toto non quater anno
membranam poscas, scriptorum quaeque retexens,
iratus tibi, quod vini somnique benignus
nil dignum sermone canas 
[...]          Horace Sat. 2.3.1–4

So seldom do you write, that not four times in all the year do you call for the parchment, while you unweave the web of all you have written, and are angry with yourself because, while so generous of wine and of sleep, you turn out no poetry worth talking about. (trans. Fairclough)

si quid tamen olim
scripseris, in Maeci descendat iudicis auris
et patris et nostras, nonumque prematur in annum,

membranis intus positis: delere licebit
quod non edideris; nescit vox missa reverti.
  Horace AP 386–390

Yet if ever you do write anything, let it enter the ears of some critical Maecius, and your father’s, and my own; then put your parchment in the closet and keep it back till the ninth year. What you have not published you can destroy; the word once sent forth can never come back. (trans. Fairclough)

About these passages, Roberts and Skeat write, “We can see that by this time it was a well-established practice to use parchment for rough drafts of literary works” (p. 20). 

This paper challenges this standard reading, arguing instead that Horace’s membranae are not surfaces used for rough drafts of literary writing, but rather leather wrappers sought at the end of the drafting process to cover papyrus bookrolls for transport or storage. This is the meaning we find, for example, in Tib. 3.1 (lutea sed niveum involvat membrana libellum) and Catull. 22.7 and it is also, I argue, the natural sense of membrana in Horace, without contamination from later sources such as Pers3.12, Juv. 7.23, and Mart. 14 passim, where membranae must indeed be understood as writing surfaces. The proposed reading is straightforward enough for our passage from the Ars P., in which Horace advises the young poet to put his books aside for nine years rather than let them out too soon into promiscuous circulation; instead of constituting the material of the poems themselves, these membranae should be taken to be the covers placed around those bookrolls as they are set into storage. Similarly, in Horace’s Sat. 2.3, the proposed reading requires us to imagine Horace’s ventriloquized critique of his own writing habit—the “you” in this passage is the poet himself—as expressing his reluctance to ever count his work as finished or, literally, “wrapped up.” Like Penelope, he prefers to reweave (retexens) his work rather than to complete it, and rarely brings himself to ask for a cover.

By setting this trope within the broader context of Horace’s self-presentation as a sometimes reluctant author and within the wider history of the poetic book as a figurative vehicle for authorial sociality in the late Republic and early Empire (see e.g. Hinds 1985, Williams 1992, Oliensis 1995), we recuperate the original sense of these passages, in which membranae do not signify the beginning of the writing process at all, but rather its notional, if provisional, conclusion.

Session/Panel Title

Materiality of Writing

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