The Shift from Scroll to Codex to Print

Shifts in communication mediums throughout history have affected how people interact with each other and text.  This commentary will discuss how the transitions from scroll to codex to print affected reading, writing and communication.  Communication remained largely oral in ancient times even when the scroll and early codex where introduced into society.  Writing with the scroll and codex was very similar to the spoken word containing mnemonics, aggregation, and epithets (Ong, 2002).  Readers often memorized information from these two mediums as they would memorize an oral narrative to share in public.  Ong (2002) says that “writing recycled knowledge back into the oral world” (p. 117).  Winger (1955) supports this view by saying that manuscripts served as a reference for storytellers.  Print affected mass literacy more so than the scroll or codex because of its wide availability and ease of use.  More people were able to reflect independently and take in more information as they read printed books silently (Clement, 1997). 

The scroll was made up of sheets of papyrus, stitched together to form a long linear writing space that had to be unrolled during use.  It must have been an awkward process to unwind the scroll at the same time as maintaining one’s place in the text while reading.  Scrolls were not very economical because papyrus tended to be expensive and required many rolls to complete a piece of work (Grout, 2002).  The general public could not afford the materials needed to write with a scroll so writing and reading was done by a select few.  Wealthy clergy and political figures paid trained experts, called scribes (often monks), to work with the scroll and its accessories.  Even for the experienced scribes, the scroll was hard to use.  There was no index or page numbers so information was hard to find.  The title would often fall off.  Abrasion occurred due to the constant winding and unwinding of the scroll.  I believe that the scrolls’ impracticality and cost contributed to its lack of success in creating a literate society during this time period.

The codex, introduced in the first century A. D., was cheaper and more practical than the scroll because it was easier to write on, store, transport and read (Clement, 1997).  The ability to turn pages in the codex made reading a more enjoyable task than having to fight against a winding scroll.  Parchment and paper eventually replaced papyrus in the codex which were a “more durable and attractive writing surface” (Bolter, 2001, p. 21).  The cheaper cost of paper stimulated codex production, spreading the medium to more people (Bolter, 2001).  The codex’s smaller size and page numbers favoured storage in libraries where students, teachers and writers could access multiple sources for research. 

The writing process changed as the codex grew in popularity.  In the Middle Ages, certain structures like word division, punctuation, headings, indexes, chapters and critical notes in the margins further differentiated writing from oral communication (Bolter, 2001; Clement, 1997).  Clement (1997) says that these developments made reading easier which changed how people received information.  People were more likely to read themselves than listen to someone else read.  Winger (1955) supports Clement by saying that by the eleventh century, the codex further expanded its readership.  Previously, the early codex’s reader (who was often the author) had a close relationship with the receiver because of the way information from the codex was shared orally.  Information used to be more up for discussion and debate between the reader/author and the receiver due to this close connection.

The relationship between the author and receiver became distant as codex production increased.  Winger (1955) says that between 1100 and 1400 lecturers at universities “recorded and explained their ideas in books … making them known in locations where their voices could not reach” (p. 301).  However, the codex failed at promoting mass literacy.  Often, the codex’s readers were students, professors and scientists who were already deeply interested and involved in the written subject matter.  This was unlike print where people read sources on a variety of topics whether they have experience in the subject matter or not.

Both the codex and print influenced the growth of certain speciality subject areas.  Frost (2011) suggests that the codex helped spread Christianity because it could be read outdoors where the scroll was still often only used inside monasteries.  Due to easy transport, Christians used the codex to persuade others beyond their community to convert to Christianity (Winger, 1955).  Furthermore, the codex differentiated Christian texts from those of pagans and other religions like Judaism which were still written on scrolls (Winger, 1955).  Print helped the field of science advance because exact formulas and descriptions could be replicated (Eisenstein, 1980; Ong, 2002; Winger, 1955).  Ong (2002) says that print was “quantifiable through diagrams and charts and mathematical analysis and removed rhetoric from the centre of academic circles” (p. 127).

The printing press was invented in the fifteenth century due to a response to social, economic, and political demand (Feather, 1986).  Print expanded written subject matter from academic material to books on cooking and recreation (Eisenstein, 1980; Winger, 1955).  Other print mediums such as pamphlets, labels, newspapers etc. were produced and began to surround people in a literate culture.  Although Clement (1997) argues that print did not fundamentally alter the format of the codex, it did have a great effect on how people interacted with text.  Reading became more of a private activity because print was easier to read and books were widely available so they did not have to be shared (Bolter, 2001; Ong, 2002).  People were able to reflect upon more complex ideas when reading privately which encouraged an interior consciousness (Ong, 2002). 

Print changed how authors approached the writing process.  Authors began to write with fixed viewpoints because they didn’t have an immediate public to debate with.  Secondly, knew that their writing could not be revised and was to be read by many which I believe refined their writing.  Thirdly, the increased book circulation allowed authors to be influenced by a greater variety of viewpoints as well as by other people like editors and publishers.  Printed books became more of a commodity than the codex as authors claimed copyrights to their work.

Reading, writing and communication have undergone many changes since the advent of print.  We can’t possibly keep up with all of the topics and books available to us.  Therefore, we must learn to be critical of what we read, especially now as anyone can write and publish material on the Internet.  Many readers still consider the written word as truth because of their experience with books as finalized entities, written by experts.  A benefit of digital text is that it affords debate and collaboration between readers and authors, similar to how the codex used to be shared orally with others.  Since we are still in a transitional period from print to digital text, we are still learning what effects this change will have on the way we communicate. 

References 

Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing Space: Computers, hypertext, and the  remediation of print. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Clement, R. W. (1997). Medieval and renaissance book production – Manuscript Books. Retrieved from: http://www.the-orb.net/encyclop/culture/books/medbook1.html

Eisenstein, E. L. (1980). The emergence of print culture in the west. Journal of Communication, 30(1), 99-106. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1980.tb01775.x

Feather, J. P. (1986). The Book in History and the History of the Book. The Journal of Library History 21(1). Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/pss/25541677

Frost, G. (2011). Adoption of the codex book: Parable of a new reading mode. Retrieved from: http://cool.conservation-us.org/coolaic/sg/bpg/annual/v17/bp17-10.html  

Grout, J. (Ed.). (2002). Scroll and codex. In Encyclopaedia Romana. Retrieved from: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/notaepage.html

Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Routledge.

Winger, H. W. (1955). Historical perspectives on the role of the book in society. The Library Quarterly, 25(4). Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/pss/4304464

 

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