Codex 2.0

Written on June 3, 2008 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui

Scroll Last Tuesday I wrote on how the new ways of communication are  changing traditional ways of storing, transmitting and sharing knowledge, and I tried to illustrate some  similar processes in the past. I put the example of the alphabet, which made writing a much easier technique than previous syllabic and ideographic systems. After the invention of the alphabet (ca. 1000 BC), writing became the channel of communication par excellence: writing was no more the secret of scribes who could draw complicated hieroglyphics for those who understood, but any slightly educated person could use it; it was not any more a State-sponsored expensive technique, but a tool in the hands of many private individuals who could use it for any purpose; it displaced orality and memory as the most prestigious ways to transmit all types of literature, and it allowed discursive thought to take new and deeper forms. Some affinities to what’s happening today are self-evident, aren’t they?

CodexToday I will still try to draw some more light from the comparison with another process (ok, I admit I like these titles with 2.0, I feel very post-post-modern): around the 3rd cent AD, the codex began to replace the papyrus scroll as the best form to write and preserve written works. A codex is exactly what we call today a “book”, a group of pages bound together, which are read one after another. Before this system was invented, any kind of literature was written down in papyrus scrolls (volumen in Latin), which were pantiently unrolled while reading. The new system had many advantages: not only much more text could be stored in the same space; the codex was also easier to fabricate, to transport and and to preserve; and most important of all, it allowed going up and down to specific pages to consult particular passages, while the papyrus scroll made text-checking much more difficult. In fact, a reason for the success of the codex is that Christians found it most useful for their permanent quotations of the Bible, which could not risk unaccuracy, for it contained the Revealed Word.

There was of course some conservative resistence to the new system (surely the beauty of the ancient scrolls was compared to the vulgarity of new codices, just as the artistic hieroglypics would have looked down upon the functional alphabet), but its advantages were so clear that the codex completely displaced the scroll in a couple of centuries. There were two immediate consequences:

On the one hand, memory lost (again) a good part of its dominions in favour of stored knowledge. It was not any more necessary to learn by heart large numbers of lines, since the new codex allowed quick checking and consulting texts. Instead, exegesis and commentaries, as well as combinations of diferent texts, were made much easier. Having five open books on the table was much easier than having five open scrolls, and even more if you had to go up and down the works looking for passages. It seems as if memory was the main victim of any human progress in the field of storing and communicating knowledge, but that loss is balanced by the space won by other faculties like careful revising or connecting different fields.

On the other hand, the new system turned into a Darwinistic filter of what would be preserved and what would not. Those texts which were not considered worth copying from scrolls to codices were lost for ever. They were not transmitted throughout the Middle Ages by manuscript copying from one codex to another, and only out of chance can we get some of them in randomly preserved papyrus scraps. Of course, we may deplore some of the decisions taken at the time of that filtering: the poetess Sappho was not considered worth copying to codex (her texts were far too inflamed for Christian librarians) and thus most of her poems have been lost. Still, that’s life, then and now: the change to a new system of storage becomes a bottleneck of what gets preserved and what doesn’t. And that filter is of course the taste and beliefs of a specific time.

All this surely rings many bells about what happens nowadays. In fact, they ring so loud that I should stop writing now and let you hear them.


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