By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
The ancient books were actually scrolls made out of papyrus. But due to the brittle nature of papyrus and the ever deteriorating quality of the scrolls, the Medieval times saw the emergence of wax tablets and codices made of parchment that soon evolved to accommodate newer elements.
The codex evolved to meet the needs of people on the move, people who needed books to be more compact, portable, and durable.
Not only is the medieval book protected by a sturdy binding—usually leather or wood or both—most of those which have survived to this day survived because they were written—not on brittle, fragile papyrus—but on parchment made from animal skins, carefully flayed, treated with chemicals, and then scraped clean to create a writing surface.
Widening the Horizons of Reading
In addition to their handiness, portability, durability, and longevity, medieval books fostered a host of innovative, new recording technologies that made the written word more accessible to more people.
In antiquity, reading was a really hard skill to acquire and, to some extent, it was meant to be that way, so that it could be the province of a highly educated literary elite. That’s because deciphering a column of text on a scroll was almost impossible to do at first sight, even if the language you were reading was your native tongue.
That is because ancient texts—whether Greek, Hebrew, Latin, etc.—were written in scriptio continua, continuous script featuring almost unbroken series of letters with no spaces between individual words and almost no punctuation of any kind.
But with the advent of the codex came a concomitant need to make reading easier. By the 8th century—just a few centuries after the codex became the dominant book form—medieval scribes had invented all of the reading aids that we take for granted today, including the upper-case and lower-case letters in which all modern books are printed, word spacing, all forms of punctuation, and even musical notation. This helped to democratize reading and to make it easier and much more pleasant.
Innovation with Text Layout
At the same time, medieval scribes began experimenting with innovative forms of laying out the text, so that the very appearance of a given page could convey all sorts of information—even to people who may not have been able to read very well.
For example, a page from a scholar’s edition of the Bible—what is called a glossed Bible—makes it very clear that the Biblical text itself is the most important thing on the page: it’s written in a larger, very clear script, and the beginning of the text is decorated with an enormous capital letter which contains beautiful, whimsical images of events recounted in that book. (This is called an historiated initial, because it tells stories.)
So again, even though this is a Bible for a scholar, the scholar’s small children or family members who couldn’t read could still look at this page and get a lot of pleasure and information from it. The page layout also tells us that this text contains additional explanatory materials of various kinds.
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Between the lines of the text are interlinear glosses that define difficult words and concepts. In the margin is a more extended commentary on the text, drawn from the writings of great theologians like Saint Augustine. And there’s also plenty of room in the margins for reader-users to add their own comments and notes.
This is fascinating because many medieval books let us watch generations of readers reacting to the text, and to one another, in real time, as we read what they’ve written in the margins. All of these lexical aids are the ancestors of the those we expect to see in such books today.
A scroll can only be opened in one place at a time. If you want to look at two or more places, you’d have to tear the book in pieces.
But the number of places you can search or even hold open in a medieval book is limited only by the number of bookmarks you have, or the number of your fingers. In fact, we call a searchable guide to a book’s contents an index because it’s a compendium of all the information we could point to in a medieval book using an index finger, among other digits.
Multiple Books in One
Another feature of the medieval book is that it could be many books in one. Most medieval books are little libraries of texts, many chosen by the book’s owner and/or copyist, who could add or subtract texts at any time.
Each medieval codex is actually made up of many—sometimes dozens or even hundreds—of smaller codices which are called libelli (meaning “little books”), or sometimes called gatherings or quires. A long work of history, say, might require 20 of these libelli.
But shorter texts like a collection of poems, a chivalric romance, a series of letters, might need only one gathering of parchment leaves and maybe not even that much. So an individual collector could decide to take all of his stories about King Arthur and his knights and bind them up together in a single codex. Or another might decide that she wanted to curate a book that included all of her favorite kinds of writing, creating a personal miscellany of materials: a story about King Arthur next to a story about the childhood of Jesus next to a rather naughty story about a nun and a priest, and so on.
Common Questions about the Evolution of the Codex
The ancient texts—whether Greek, Hebrew, Latin, etc.—were written in scriptio continua, continuous script featuring almost unbroken series of letters with no spaces between individual words and almost no punctuation of any kind.
The medieval scribes began experimenting with innovative forms of laying out the text, so that the very appearance of a given page could convey all sorts of information—even to people who may not have been able to read very well.
The medieval scribes invented all of the reading aids that we take for granted today, including the upper-case and lower-case letters in which all modern books are printed, word spacing, all forms of punctuation, and even musical notation. This helped to democratize reading and to make it easier and much more pleasant.