The ancient format of a book was papyrus-made scrolls. But considering the limitations of scrolls, an alternative format that was adopted was the wax tablet. Because this new-fangled reusable type of book was supported by wood, the Romans called it a ‘codex’, from the Latin word for tree trunk—caudex.
Codex: Reusable and Utilitarian
Like a slate, wax could be reused when the writing on it was no longer needed. One could write in the wax with a pointed instrument called a stylus, then simply scrape the wax smooth and start all over again. The wax itself would be spread, when warm, into a wooden frame.
The wax tablet even allowed to use both sides of that frame, and several of these double-sided frames could then be stacked and bound together with leather thongs or metal clasps.
Ancient Codices Surviving Today
A fantastic example of one such codex was discovered in 2000, in the Russian city of Novgorod. Dating from around the first quarter of the 11th century, it’s a codex of three wood-and-wax tablets covered with writing in Old Church Slavonic (the sacred language of the early Rus’ people, written in Cyrillic characters adapted from Greek). There are holes in the upper edges of the tablets which suggest that the pages were held together with wooden pegs or leather straps.
Two frescos from the Roman town of Pompeii display examples of the sort of codices that were owned by elegant women. One shows a fashionable young lady in a studious pose with her personal codex—probably a diary of her social engagements—holding the stylus to her lips.
Another shows a young professional couple, he with a scroll of his writings (he may have been a playwright) and she with a slim codex, its covers open and, again, the stylus pressed to her lips—clearly this was the way to show that a Roman woman was well-educated but also feminine and demure.
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Codices Replacing Scrolls
The intimate ways in which these people hold their newfangled books captures some of the essential qualities that would make the codex the dominant book technology in the course of the next few centuries: its user-friendliness.
For it was just a short step from making a codex out of reusable wax tablets to making it out of sheets of more flexible but more permanent materials. And within just a few hundred years, by the 4th century CE, our user-friendly codex had replaced the scroll, which had been in use for millennia.
The codex engages and interacts with the human body in a more organic, intuitive way. Opening the cover and turning the pages makes the reader an active participant in whatever literary world the codex contains.
Features of a Codex
Because of its protective covering, the codex can be safely and easily carried about. If it’s small, it fits cozily into a palm—hence the term manual, literally “handbook”—or it becomes a “pocketbook”. If large, it can be companionably hugged to the chest. And it can be opened and perused anywhere.
A scroll requires a flat surface or has to be held up by the reader with both hands; a codex can be read while walking, lying down, standing, in any posture, anywhere. It can be propped open against something and read hands free, or single-handedly. As we’ve already noted, the codex evolved to meet the needs of people on the move, people who needed books to be more compact, portable, and durable.
Of all these features, durability is probably the most significant. 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.
Codex Versus Scroll
The codex was much more expensive than scrolls made out of papyrus. The manufacturing process for creating parchment was more complex and time-consuming and the materials themselves more expensive.
However, the codex was actually far more economical because all of the material could be used: both sides of the page could be covered with writing, diagrams, images, notes. And even if, in monetary terms, the parchment book still cost more to produce, that cost was worth it in the end, as not only was the medieval book durable throughout the lifetime of its maker and/or first owner, it was potentially durable for centuries, indeed millennia.
The survival rate of all ancient texts written on papyrus is extremely low, where as codices are long-lasting books. If a classical or Biblical text is available to us today, it’s available because it was copied by a medieval scribe into a medieval book.
Significance of a Codex
Around 400 BCE, the Athenian dramatist Euripides composed a tragedy about Helen of Troy, which circulated in papyrus scrolls. But if we didn’t have a medieval codex containing the text of that tragedy, all that we’d know about it would be the few lines inscribed on a tiny fragment of papyrus—found in a Greco-Roman garbage dump at Oxyrhynchus in Upper Egypt. By contrast, the oldest complete copy was made in Constantinople (Istanbul) nearly 2000 years after Euripides wrote it in the early 14th century CE.
So not only do medieval books convey information and ideas from the era in which they were written, they convey all that we know about antiquity save what we can learn from such disciplines as archeology, epigraphy (the study of inscriptions), environmental history, and of course all of the new information afforded by the scientific study of ancient DNA.
Common Questions about Wax Tablets Used during the Medieval Times
Codex was the name given to wax tablets. This reusable type of book was supported by wood. So the Romans called it a ‘codex’, from the Latin word for tree trunk—caudex.
One of the codices was discovered in 2000, in the Russian city of Novgorod. Dating from around the first quarter of the 11th century, it’s a codex of three wood-and-wax tablets covered with writing in Old Church Slavonic.
A codex is protected by a sturdy binding and even the parchment is made from animal skins, carefully flayed, treated with chemicals, and then scraped clean to create a writing surface.