Where do books come from?

No, not the stories in them. When, and how, was the book invented? The BBC investigates.

Sometime in or before the First Century CE a new kind of book appeared that promised to address the scroll’s shortcomings. The evidence is sparse but telling: archaeologists have discovered a few key scraps of papyrus whose text unexpectedly continues from the front to the back, and whose neat margins one might expect to find in a paged book. And that is exactly what these fragments are: they are leaves from the first paged books the world had ever seen. We know that the Romans called this new kind of book the codex (from caudex or tree trunk, because of its similarity to their wooden writing tablets), but how the codex came to be in the first place is shrouded in mystery. The first written mention of the codex appears in the words of a Roman poet named Martial, who encouraged his readers to buy his books in this new, paged format:

“You who long for my little books to be with you everywhere and want to have companions for a long journey, buy these ones which parchment confines within small pages: give your scroll-cases to the great authors – one hand can hold me.”

Written between 84 and 86 CE, Martial’s sales pitch tells us not only that paged books were known of in the First Century CE but also that some of them, at least, were made from a new material called parchment. This alternative to papyrus, invented in a Greek city-state some centuries earlier, was made from cleaned, stretched animal skins by means of a bloody and labour-intensive process, but its smoothness and strength made it an ideal writing material. Archaeologists have since confirmed Martial’s claims via fragments of parchment codices dated to the First Century – and yet, these few tantalising finds aside, we still know very little about where or why the codex was invented, or who might have done so. Even the question of whether the first codices were made of papyrus or parchment has never been satisfactorily answered.

One thought on “Where do books come from?

  1. Pingback: Classical Books

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