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[BKARTS] Coptic Question: Codex vs. Biblos



> What made coptic books possible was a change in parchment
> technology. The shift from papyrus to parchment was an
> important change, in that the new substrate was
> more flexible and durable. But for scrolls it only needed to
> be prepared for writing on one side. In order to make coptic
> books with writing on both sides of the page, the skin needs to
> be finished on both sides.

Mr. Minksy is absolutely right about the revolutionary nature of the shift
from the "scroll" (biblos in Greek, or [earlier] byblos, liber in Latin; or
as papyrologists call them, "rolls") to the codex in Egypt.  Just a few
points to keep in mind:

1. While papyrus was prepared for use on one side, it was usually used on
both sides. See e.g. the Papyrus Oxyrhynchus series of volumes for an idea
of how many papyri were re-used in this way (most of them; particularly
striking is how often one finds a literary work on the back of old financial
accounts, or vice versa).

2. The wax tablets used in Roman schools were one factor in the development
of the codex form.

3. In the classical period, codices in Egypt tended to be of papyrus rather
than vellum (I believe Thompson says that only a few codex sheets of vellum
had ever been found in Egypt at his time of writing), despite the fact that
vellum was more appropriate than papyrus to the form.  No doubt the
availability of papyrus was a factor in this.

4. Papyrus rolls were never as long as our books.  One would not have the
equivalent of 300+ pages of codex in a roll, as they became unmanagable at
such large sizes.  Classically speaking, in the original usage, the largest
single rolls tended to be those of the longer Greek tragedies (one thinks of
Aeschylus' Agamemnon); the more common size was that of a "book" of Homer
(in other words, one's copy of Homer might take up 24 rolls of papyrus,
though in practice I imagine this was not always the case).  Later multiple
"books" of a work would be contained in one "book" (one roll), so terms like
"monobiblos" (work in one roll, i.e., short collection) came to be used.

The convenience of the format went beyond the ease of paging: with the
codex, one could have a single book with the entirety of an important work
in it, rather than the many scrolls needed with the biblos. Also, cross
references of the type mentioned were rare in classical works; when they
were used at all, they tended to be much less formal than our own: unless
they were references from e.g. a commentary to the worked being commented
upon.

Among other places Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, *An Introduction to Greek and
Latin Paleography*, Chapters 2 through 5, has a full discussion of classical
writing materials, book forms, etc.  It is an old discussion, but still very
important. (Note: this is a different, more complete book from the
"Handbook" also by Thompson.) A more recent book I haven't seen is Roberts
and Skeat, *The Birth of the Codex*, which obviously would have a more
complete discussion of the issue as brought up by Mr. Minsky.

Don't know how this relates to Coptic binding per se (rather than other ways
of binding the codex form); my training was in classics, not book arts, and
I now work in IT; I usually just lurk here.  I would imagine that Coptic
binding (as a subset of the binding technologies used in the codex format)
would be far more effective with vellum than with papyrus.

Hope these comments help.

Patrick Rourke
ptrourke@methymna.com

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