Rome in the 1st Century CE was awash with the written word…and the libraries of the wealthy were stocked with books on history, philosophy and the arts. But these were not books as we know them – they were scrolls, made from sheets of Egyptian papyrus pasted into rolls anywhere from 4.5 to 16 metres (14.76ft to 52.49ft) in length.
…it took both hands to read a scroll properly…the only way to read a scroll was to unwind it carefully from the right hand and, passing it to the left, to roll it up again. Writers and copyists usually wrote in columns a few inches wide, so that the bulk of the fragile papyrus in the scroll could be kept safely rolled up.
Papyrus will also crack and tear if it is folded too often, leading naturally to the gently curved shape of the scroll itself – and so to the fact that most scrolls carried writing only on one side. Only if the text on the front of a scroll was no longer needed would its owner flip it over and use the other side; a double-sided scroll was just too difficult to read otherwise.
Sometime in or before the First Century CE a new kind of book appeared that promised to address the scroll’s shortcomings. The evidence is sparse but telling: archaeologists have discovered a few key scraps of papyrus whose text unexpectedly continues from the front to the back, and whose neat margins one might expect to find in a paged book. And that is exactly what these fragments are: they are leaves from the first paged books the world had ever seen. We know that the Romans called this new kind of book the codex…
Codices leant themselves to being bound between covers of wood or ‘pasteboard’ (pasted-together sheets of waste papyrus or parchment), which protected them from careless readers. Their pages were easy to riffle through and, with the addition of page numbers, paved the way for indices and tables of contents. They were space-efficient too, holding more information than papyrus scrolls of a comparable size:…Robust, efficient and accessible, the codex was literally the shape of things to come.
Nag Hammadi Codex VI opened at the center of the quire*
The Nag Hammadi Library, a collection of thirteen ancient codices
containing over fifty texts, was discovered in upper Egypt in 1945.
A model of a ‘Nag Hammadi’ codex, made in the style of a cache of 4th Century books
found in Egypt in 1945 (Credit: Irina Gorstein (book model), Adam Kellie (photography)
*Note – a “quire” can mean either 24 folded leaves, or any collection of leaves, one within another and stitched together in a manuscript or book. The center of the quire is essentially the center of the opened book.
[Special thanks to friend Jos who’s always sending me bits of bookishness..]