Papyrus and parchment were the material support on which books were written in antiquity. Each copy was presented in the form of a roll, a format that offered two important limitations: each roll could measure several meters and it was difficult to find concrete references. These disadvantages led to the invention of a new form of book, the codex.
It comes from the Latin codex, which means book or volume. On the other hand, the term book comes from the Latin word liber, a word that refers to the bark of trees. This etymology is not surprising , since the first leaves used to write were palm leaves.
Codices emerged during the first centuries of the Christian era
The pages of a codex were sewn together at one end. Two systems were used to cover it: a cloth decorated with some ornament or simple boards. It was the early Christians who started this tradition, surely to differentiate themselves from the Jewish scholars who continued to use the traditional scrolls.
Gradually the codex was imposing itself on the scroll and in the fourth century d. C its use became widespread. The new format offered obvious advantages: it was easier to handle and sheets of parchment or paper could be written on both sides. A reader who consulted a copy of a codex could use one hand to turn the pages and the other to take notes.
Despite the obvious advantages in favor of codices, scrolls continued to be used in some cultural contexts (for example, in rabbinical schools and in the English legislative tradition). It is important to point out, on the other hand, that in medieval theater the roll continued to be used and not the codex (the English expression “actor’s role” literally means the actor’s roll and refers to this tradition).
With the invention of printing in the 15th century, codices were no longer written by hand
During the Middle Ages, the production of books was carried out by hand. Those who were dedicated to this task were the scribe monks and their work was carried out in the scriptorium of the monastic libraries (the word manuscript literally means handwritten and comes from the word “manum scriptum” in Latin).
Four monks worked normally on the elaboration of each codex, as it was a very laborious and specialized activity.
When the first printers appeared, criticisms also arose, since it was feared that the spread of knowledge would lead to heresy and the spread of all sorts of lies. Anyway, with the invention of book printing, the printed ones started to replace the codices. The first book written in movable type was the Bible.
In the digital age, in which we find ourselves, the traditional book competes with the electronic one. Just as codices offered a number of advantages over scrolls, electronic books also offer some advantages: they don’t take up space or accumulate dust, they don’t get lost or deteriorate.