Recently, following the article we published about the origins of the books in the Library of Alexandria, a somewhat finicky (and indeed quite mistaken) reader confronted us on a social media platform, asserting that those were not books but rather handwritten scrolls.

What he evidently didn’t know is that scrolls are simply one form of a book. Another form is the codex, and yet another is the modern e-book.

Actually, what that reader probably meant, without knowing how to express it, is that there were no codices in the Library of Alexandria. However, there were indeed books, albeit in scroll format.

Book in scroll format / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

As some may be wondering, indeed, the codex is nothing more than the book format that we currently refer to as… book. We call it that by extension because for many centuries now, books have not existed in any other format than the codex. At least until the arrival of e-books, which have a completely different format than scrolls and codices. But when and why did books begin to be made in the form of a codex instead of a scroll? According to the consensus among historians, this transition occurred in the Roman world.

They already used wooden tablets coated with wax and bound together with cords for writing, which eventually led to the appearance of notebooks with pages made of papyrus or parchment in the 1st century AD.

Around the same time, the poet Martial described in his works books in the form of codices, praising their convenience due to the ease of reading they provided and their space-saving nature compared to parchment scrolls. Codices were also easier to hold in one’s hand.

Roman wax tablets, from which the codex may have evolved / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

This space economy and readability were key factors in the prevalence of this format. However, it would still take some time for the codex to gain widespread use, as its dissemination went hand in hand with the spread of Christianity. The reason it became the preferred format for Christians is that it allowed for quicker and easier referencing of biblical passages compared to parchment or papyrus scrolls.

A proof of this is that in the Library of the Villa of the Papyri, buried in Herculaneum due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, all the books are scrolls. In contrast, in the Nag Hammadi Library, dating back to around 390 AD, all the texts are codices.

Even though the codex format may have originated in Rome, the earliest surviving fragments of codices come from Egypt and are dated between the late 1st century and early 2nd century AD. Initially, these early codices were made of papyrus or parchment, as the secret of papermaking would take another six centuries to reach the West. The colossal Battle of Talas between Arabs and Chinese could have been the origin of the spread of the papermaking secret, while the first European book made with paper dates back to around the year 1000.

Medieval codex / photo Pierre-Emmanuel Malissin et Frédéric Valdes on Wikimedia Commons

The indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica developed a very similar format to the ancient European codex by the 16th century, although they were made with strips of fig tree bark or plant fibers, giving rise to the Mayan and Aztec codices.

As we have seen, the advantages of the codex over the scroll resided in material economy. The codex allowed for writing on both sides of the papyrus or parchment, rather than just one side, and it provided the possibility of random access instead of sequential access like scrolls.

Almost as soon as the codex was invented, it began to replace the scroll format. By the 6th century, parchment scrolls had nearly disappeared as a writing medium.

Today, all books are codices, although the term ‘codex’ has primarily come to designate medieval manuscripts.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 13, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cuando el Códice se impuso al Rollo como formato para los libros


Scroll and Codex / Scribes, Script, and Books: The Book Arts from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Leila Avrin) / A Social History of Books and Libraries from Cuneiform to Bytes (Patrick M. Valentine) / Wikipedia

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