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From the Scroll to the Codex

Check out this excerpt from The Gilded Page: The History and Technique of Manuscript Gilding by Kathleen P. Whitley. Not only does The Gilded Page explain excellent step-by-step methods to manuscript gilding, it also provides a history of gilding from ancient Egypt and Babylon through Rome and the Renaissance Europe, finally into the modern day studio. The following excerpt describes the history of the scroll moving to the codex.

Scroll to Codex

Papyrus as a writing material was excellent for single-sided scrolls, the primary form of the book throughout the ancient Greek and Roman world. The disadvantages of the scroll (rotulus), whether made of papyrus or of leather, may be easily seen: a reader cannot skip from section to section without unrolling and rerolling the scroll, and once read, the scroll must be rerolled completely back to the beginning. Longer works had to be placed on several rolls or they became unwieldy and difficult to use; as noted by Callimachus in 260 BCE, “A big book is a big nuisance” (Mega biblion, mega kakon). Even subdividing longer works in this way had disadvantages; scrolls were difficult to store and stack, especially in large numbers such as in a library or public archives. Due to the restriction in length inherent in the use of scrolls, authors subdivided their works into shorter sections or “books” which would easily fit on a single scroll. The standard Roman scroll format was about 7 to 10 inches wide, about 30 feet in length, written in columns, or pagina, of about 3 inches in width. Scrolls began with a blank column to prevent exposing the written text when the scroll was stored or handled, but had no title page: the title might be written on a strip-like label attached to the outside of the scroll (the index or titulus), or at the end of the scroll there might be information about the book and its author in the colophon. It has been estimated that twelve papyrus rolls, each 30-35 feet in length, would have been required to transcribe the complete text of Virgil’s Aeneid, a work that can be contained in a single codex.

Codex binding structure (modern reconstruction by William Whitley). Created as a teaching example of Coptic-style binding.

As mentioned previously, Romans also wrote upon a type of wooden tablet coated with blackened wax or with gesso known as a pugillare, or “handbook”, which was used to take notes from dictation or to compose writings in a draft form before copying them to papyrus. A tool which was pointed on one end, and flattened on the other, the stylus, was used to scratch letters into the wax which could be smoothed out later for reuse. Such pugillares were also used for writing practice in schools, for sending letters and notes to others, and for temporary tallies and accounts. Several pugillares could be wired or tied together into a type of tablet-book, called a diptych if two tablets were used, a triptych for three tablets, or a polyptych for several leaves or tablets. The interior tablets could be coated with wax on two sides for use in writing, since the wooden backs of single-sided pugillares on the exterior of the polyptych would protect the inscriptions from being scraped or erased with handling. Sets of such tablets were also known as codices from the Latin codex, meaning the bark or stem of a tree, and hence anything made of wood. It would have been a small albeit revolutionary step from using wooden pugillares as leaves in a codex to using leaves made from another available medium such as parchment. Over time, the term codex came to be associated especially with account books and legal documents such as collections of laws, and eventually to any book consisting of leaves folded and bound together. As the material for pages in a codex, parchment had the advantage of flexibility: it could be folded several times into smaller leaves, and could be folded in any direction since it lacked a directional grain. Folded leaves could then be stitched together at the fold to create a compact and easily portable book. Papyrus was also used for codices, but each leaf of papyrus could only be folded once without cracking, and the edges of a papyrus codex suffered greatly from wear when being handled.

The recorded history of the papyrus or parchment codex actually dates at least back to the first century BCE, based on an inscription found in Priene mentioning that the laws and public acts of the city had been recorded in codices both of papyrus and parchment. Martial also makes an early reference to the parchment codex in 84-86 CE when he notes that a codex is very convenient to transport when travelling and in libraries, the codex format saves space when compared to scrolls. Interestingly enough, despite all the observed advantages of the codex for durability, ease of handling and storage, the eventual replacement of the scroll format by the codex format was apparently a matter not of practicality, but of faith.

The widespread popularity of the codex for written works appears closely linked to the rise of Christianity in the ancient world. Early Christianity emphasized the importance of the teachings of Jesus and venerated the Gospels as the essential sacred texts of the faith. The compact format of the codex encouraged use of sacred texts by several readers in succession without rerolling, and allowed easy reference to several different sections of texts by scholars and teachers who might wish to bolster their arguments and learned discussions by supportive quotations from the Gospels. Codices were easier to store and transport from place to place as required by early Christian missionaries and teachers; such compactness and portability must have been especially advantageous when early Christians were forced to hide their faith from persecuting Roman authorities. The codex had a further advantage for the first Christians: scrolls were associated with Greek and Roman literature, with the Roman Imperial state and the Roman religion, and furthermore, scrolls also were the format of the Torah and other Jewish religious books. A new religious movement, in need of defining its differences from Judaism and other faiths, could further distinguish its sacred writings by placing them in a distinctive format. Some of the earliest surviving fragmentary codices date from the second century CE, written on papyrus and containing Christian texts; the oldest complete codex known to have survived intact in its original wooden and leather binding is a Coptic psalter from the second half of the fourth century found in 1984 in an Egyptian cemetery.

Click here for more information on The Gilded Page: The History and Technique of Manuscript Gilding.

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