From Scroll to Codex: A Religious and Practical Transition (Victoria Dykes '13)


The history of books and writing begins with the invention of the alphabet in 3000 BC and continues over the course of the next five thousand years, right up to the present day. History is being made right now with the changes continuing to happen through the development of the ebook and only time will tell what will come next. But we do know one of the most important steps in the history of the book: the transition from scrolls to codices. This transition occurred between the 1st and 2nd century AD as a result of social and political pressures as well significant practical benefits of the codex. This paper will trace the origins and production of the scroll to the invention and rapid proliferation of the codex, answering questions about why this change took place, what practical benefits resulted from the switch, and in what ways were scrolls still used after the codex replaced most of their use.

A Brief History of Scrolls

The invention of the scroll was a huge development in writing. What had once been written on unwieldy clay tablets could now be written on papyrus that rolled up for easier storage and transportation. The first scrolls were made from papyrus, a reed plant that was found all over ancient Egypt. The picture to the right is an example of Cyperus Papyrus. The use of the papyrus plant goes back to at least the First Dynasty and was used for a number of things in addition to writing, including sails, sandals, cloth, cords, and mats (Hussein 10). The oldest known roll, though it was not written on, is from a tomb in 2900 BC (Eliot 84). The oldest scrolls with writing on them appear a few hundred years later in the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties (Eliot 84). Scrolls of papyrus were used by the Greeks and Romans as well as the Egyptians but production occurred solely in Egypt. The papyrus produced in Egypt were then sold across the Mediterranean.

The process of forming a papyrus scroll involved cutting the stalks of the plant into pieces roughly one foot long and then carefully slicing them into thin strips. These strips were laid vertically and then another layer was placed horizontally across the first. The two layers were then pressed together and the secretions from the plant formed a natural adhesive as it dried, holding them together and forming a sheet of papyrus paper. Once formed, these sheets could be cut to a chose size and more could be glued to the ends until the scroll was the desired length. Typical scrolls were about eighteen feet long, but the some scrolls discovered in tombs are much larger, some over one hundred and twenty feet (Eliot 86). Due to its fragility, many of the scrolls discovered have come from tombs. The picture on the right is an example of a Book of the Dead, a scroll from a tomb which was supposed to help the deceased in the afterlife.

Scrolls opened horizontally and had a wooden stick attached to one end to make it easier to roll and unroll. The text of a scroll was typically only written on one side (the horizontal or recto side), (Lyons 21) but due to the expensive nature of papyrus, it was not uncommon to find texts written on the back once the previous side had become unimportant, such as old tax records. The number of lines and width of the columns varied based on the size of the roll, but the writing was typically done in uniform columns that went left to right and many scrolls were beautifully illustrated (Hussein 48). Unlike modern writing, there was no uniform method to marking word or sentence boundaries and often the text simply continued in a stream until the end of the column and then continued on the next line, regardless of if that happened to be the middle of a word or not. Scrolls had no indexes and titles were placed at the end of the scrolls. Often tags with the authors name and title were glued to the scrolls to make archiving easier (Roemer 86).

The Invention of Parchment

Parchment is said to have been invented by King Eumenes II of Pergamum and the word parchment originates from that city (Clemens 9). Parchment is a type of writing surface made from animal skins. The most common animals for parchment were sheep, goats, and cows. To make parchment, the animal skins are soaked in a lime solution for several days which allows the hair to be removed easier. Once the hair is removed, the skin is washed and then stretched out on a frame. Then as the skin dries, a curved knife is used to scrape the skin clean of any hair or fat (Clemens 11). The picture to the right shows this scraping and stretching process. Once clean and dry the parchment can be cut into sheets of whatever size is desired. Once the sheets of parchment are cut, they are folded and grouped into signatures which are sewn together and often a cover of wood wrapped in cloth or leather was placed around the pages.

Parchment began to become an alternative to papyrus during the 1st century AD (Lyons 21). Papyrus scrolls worked well in the hot dry areas of Egypt, but they were much less suited to the more humid climates in Europe and other areas of the Mediterranean. The scrolls quickly decayed in those environments. Besides being more resilient, parchment also had the advantage of not having to be bought from Egypt, making it easier to access.

The Codex

While scrolls continued to be used until the 4th century AD (Hussein 7), a new form of book, the codex, originated near the beginning of the Christian era (Lyons 35). A codex is made from a group of pages all bound together which open on a hinge. Codices made of papyrus were used, like the one pictured on the right, but parchment is a superior material for codices and it was the advent of parchment that made codices a much more practical method of creating texts than scrolls. It was after the 2nd century AD that the codex truly began to rise in popularity (Eliot 2009 93).

Practical Reasons for the Triumph of the Codex

A group of pages lying flat together is much more durable than a papyrus scroll that is rolled up. It is much easier to read from a codex since the reader isn’t struggling with rolling and unrolling the text and only requires being held with one hand. Pages are easier to mark since you have access to all sections of the text randomly where as a scroll only has linear access (Eliot 93). More text can fit in a codex than in a scroll because both sides of the page are written on. While it is true that codices are heavier than scrolls, they would have been easier to transport due to their durability. While it took a while for it to happen, codices also allowed for indexes, page numbers, headings and section breaks in a way that did not work in scrolls (Lyons 37). Storage of scrolls was an additional problem. Codices can be easily shelved or stacked but scrolls cannot. It’s still a problem today in archives, as no good way to store them has been found and they are often store in boxes which can be stacked (Clemens 250).

Religious Reasons for the Triumph of the Codex

It seems the practical reasons would be enough, especially given the fact that the codex has persisted in the fifteen hundred years since its invention -- but there is another reason the codex spread so rapidly, and it has to do with religion. It is no coincidence that the rise of the codex coincides with the rise of Christianity. By the 4th century AD, when Christianity is declared the official state religion, the use of papyrus scrolls had all but vanished. So why did this change take place? The Hebrew bible had always been written on scrolls because that was the form of the time and area in which Judaism originated. Given that the codex was a newly invented form at the advent of Christianity, it might be expected that there would be scrolls of the New Testament as well. However, the early examples of the New Testament are all written on codices made of papyrus (Eliot 93). Part of this had to do with economy. Early Christians were generally not wealthy and codices could hold more information on less paper and were very easily portable (Jacobs). However, some bibles are very large which completely goes against the practical reasons for using a codex. This is an example of how form signifies content. In this case, have a codex that encapsulates the bible signifies the unity and importance of the text in a way that scrolls would not have been able to (Jacobs).

Did the Scroll Persist?

While by and large the codex took over the scroll’s role in literate society, it did not vanish entirely. Scrolls were used for many things during the middle ages, including genealogies, proclamations, hymns, actors’ scripts, and administrative functions. Despite the numerous advantages of codices, there were some things that scrolls were either better suited for. They were much cheaper and easier to make than codices as they required no binding and many fewer animal skins. The roll form protected scroll contents very well and made it easy to travel with. The ease by which you could add length to rolls was a great benefit for things like genealogies, which would constantly need to be updated as children were born and often had many large, complex pictures (Clemens 250-1). The picture to the right is an example of such a genealogy. Rolls are a continuous narrative and could be easily read aloud uninterrupted. This was very good for public readings, theater, and royal proclamations. The term “actor’s roll” actually comes from the practice of actors lines being written on rolls (Lyons 37) and many artists first committed their poems and songs to scrolls and use them for performance before they were transferred to the more durable form of the codex (Clemens 250). There are also cultural associations with the scroll. Royal proclamations were delivered via scroll and statues and laws were frequently written on scrolls as well. Occasionally such documents were comprised of several leaves of parchment bound together at one end like a modern day notepad and then rolled up. In addition, just as there were religious reasons for the adoption of the codex, there were also religious reasons for the continued use of the scroll. The Jewish holy book, the Torah, continued to be written on scrolls and is a tradition that continues today (Clemens 254).



  • Lyons, Michael. 2011. Books: A Living History. London: Thames & Hudson.
  • Hussien, Mohamed A. 1970. Origins of the Book Egypt’s contribution to the development of the book from papyrus to codex. Greenwich: New York Graphic Society
  • Eliot, Simon and Johnathan Rose. 2009. A Companion to the History of the Book. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Clemens, Raymond and Timothy Graham. 2007. Introduction to Manuscripts. London: Cornell University Press.
  • Frost, Gary. 1998. Adoption of the Codex: Parable of a New Reading Mode. The Book and Paper Group Annual. (accessed April 18th 2013).
  • Jacobs, Alan. 2011. Christianity and the Future of the Book. The New Atlantis (Accessed April 27th 2013)

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Image from Books: A living history by Martyn Lyons, page 21

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Image from the Chester Beatty Library Image Gallery, found here

Image from Introduction to Manuscripts by Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, page 251