The codex leap forward

Papyrus scrolls are great for storage. They take up far less space than bound books. The rolled format provides better preservation than book leaves/pages. Scrolls are great for storage and for transport. They are however far worse for looking stuff up. In the end, it was searchability, not storage or portability, that had the upper hand.

The scroll was quickly replaced by the codex (bound book) in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean because books responded better to the growing need for quick lookup – and referencing. That is because texts are after all meant to be used, not stored. And they are meant to be used as easily as possible.

Between the invention of the alphabet and that of the printing press, the codex was the greatest revolution in the history of the written word. The codex was in the end more permanent because it leveraged the chirographic value of the tough animal skin. Hard parchment is harder to roll up in a scroll, but it is perfect when folded and bound in a book.

Rolling up a scroll to find a particular passage in a text is not really time-saving. Opening a book and paging through its leaves makes it a lot easier. Ancient scribes and scholars working in a scroll-dominated culture managed to cross-reference works preserved in scrolls, and their feats of scholarship are impressive even from a modern perspective. Books, however, made it even easier, convenient, and in the end rather casual. By the beginning of the 13th century, the easiness of consulting multiple volumes at the same time provided the impetus for scholastic reasoning and for scientific thought. It is hard to imagine modern science emerging out of rolls and scrolls.

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