Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Minute Writing.

The Iliad of Homer in a nutshell, which Pliny says that Cicero once saw, it is pretended might have been a fact, however to some it may appear impossible. Ælian notices an artist who wrote a distich in letters of gold, which he enclosed in the rind of a grain of corn.

Antiquity and modern times record many such penmen, whose glory consisted in writing in so small a hand that the writing could not be legible to the naked eye. Menage mentions, he saw whole sentences which were not perceptible to the eye without the microscope; pictures and portraits which appeared at first to be lines and scratches thrown down at random; one formed the face of the Dauphiness with the most correct resemblance. He read an Italian poem, in praise of this princess, containing some thousand verses, written by an officer, in a space of a foot and a half. This species of curious idleness has not been lost in our own country, where this minute writing has equalled any on record. Peter Bales, a celebrated caligrapher in the reign of Elizabeth, astonished the eyes of beholders by showing them what they could not see; for in the Harleian MSS. 530, we have a narrative of “a rare piece of work brought to pass by Peter Bales, an Englishman, and a clerk of the chancery;” it seems by the description to have been the whole Bible “in an English walnut no bigger than a hen’s egg. The nut holdeth the book: there are as many leaves in his little book as the great Bible, and he hath written as much in one of his little leaves as a great leaf of the Bible.” We are told that this wonderfully unreadable copy of the Bible was “seen by many thousands.” There is a drawing of the head of Charles I. in the library of St. John’s College, at Oxford, wholly composed of minute written characters, which, at a small distance, resemble the lines of an engraving. The lines of the head, and the ruff, are said to contain the book of Psalms, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. In the British Museum we find a drawing representing the portrait of Queen Anne, not much above the size of the hand. On this drawing appears a number of lines and scratches, which the librarian assures the marvelling spectator includes the entire contents of a thin folio, which on this occasion is carried in the hand.

The learned Huet asserts that, like the rest of the world, he considered as a fiction the story of that indefatigable trifler who is said to have enclosed the Iliad in a nutshell. Examining the matter more closely, he thought it possible. One day this learned man trifled half an hour in demonstrating it. A piece of vellum, about ten inches in length and eight in width, pliant and firm, can be folded up, and enclosed in the shell of a large walnut. It can hold in its breadth one line, which can contain 30 verses, and in its length 250 lines. With a crow-quill the writing can be perfect. A page of this piece of vellum will then contain 7500 verses, and the reverse as much; the whole 15,000 verses of the Iliad. And this he proved by using a piece of paper, and with a common pen. The thing is possible to be effected; and if on any occasion paper should be most excessively rare, it may be useful to know that a volume of matter may be contained in a single leaf.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37