Great Moments: Codex

Perhaps more important than the invention of the printing press, shifting from scrolls to a codex was a revolutionary change in the art of bookmaking. Imagine trying to read Stephen King’s It on a scroll, unwieldy is the term that comes to mind.  It seems a simple premise today, flat pages instead of rolls. The transition—though ancient—was not quick.

The origin of the codex is still uncertain and is, in fact, still debated in academic circles. The classical Latin poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (c. 38-104 CE) described writings as codices in his works titled (in Greek) Xenia and Apophoreta.1 In 79 CE, though, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius entombed the Villa of Papyri,2 so named for the library of almost 1,800 scrolls buried by ash. Notably, no codex was found at that location, suggesting that the codex was not yet in widespread use.

Discovered in 1945 in upper Egypt, the Nag Hammadi Library, whose “…collection of texts includes fifty-two separate works which were originally bound in twelve or thirteen leather-covered codices”3 dates mainly to the 4th Century CE, demonstrating the spread of this form of text compilation over the intervening centuries. By 700 CE, the codex was even found in the artwork of the day: Page 8 of the Codex Amiatinus (left) depicts a monk transcribing onto a codex while a bookshelf filled by other codices stands in the background.4

Absent the change from scrolls to codices, the use of a machine such as the printing press would be unimaginable, and the world of publishing today would be impossible. Whether wax-tablets used in ancient Roman times, or the need to print a manuscript as large as the Bible brought forth the idea of flat pages rather than rolls, modern printing owes its presence to the invention of the codex.

  1. Huxley, H.H. (2020). Martial. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martial-Roman-poet.
  2. Askos Tours. (2015). Herculaneum tour guide: The Villa of Papyri. Retrieved from https://herculaneumtourguide.com/the-villa-of-papyri/.
  3. Brown, S. K. (1986). The Nag Hammadi Library: A Mormon perspective. In C. W. Griggs (Ed.) Apocryphal writings and the Latter-day Saints (pp. 255-283). Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University.
  4. World Digital Library. (2017). Codex Amiatinus. Retrieved from https://www.wdl.org/en/item/20150/.