History of scrolls

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Scroll of the Book of Esther, Seville, Spain

A scroll (from the Old French escroe or escroue), is a roll of papyrus, parchment, or paper containing writing.[1] The history of scrolls dates back to ancient Egypt. In most ancient literate cultures scrolls were the earliest format for longer documents written in ink or paint on a flexible background, preceding bound books; rigid media such as clay tablets were also used but had many disadvantages in comparison. For most purposes scrolls have long been superseded by the codex book format, but they are still produced for some ceremonial or religious purposes, notably for the Jewish Torah scroll for use in synagogues.

Origins in Europe and West Asia[edit]

Scrolls were the first form of editable record keeping texts, used in Eastern Mediterranean ancient Egyptian civilizations.

Parchment scroll was used by several early civilizations before the codex or bound book with pages was invented by the Latins in the 1st century AD. Nevertheless, scrolls were more highly regarded than codices until well into Roman times where they were usually written in single latitudinal column.

Eastern Mediterranean, West Asia and Europe[edit]


The Hebrew tradition assumes that the Torah was copied by Moses onto a scroll (in about 1200 BCE) made from skin of a kosher animal, rather than papyrus as in Dynastic Egypt. Since there is no historical evidence for Moses and the events related in the Torah, there is no reliable way to know the time when Hebrews started using scrolls for their religious books.[2]

Following Jewish tradition, since that time scrolls, which are very durable with examples known to be hundreds of years old such as the 800-year-old Sephardic Sefer Torah from Spain, are copied from one to another. The meticulous process of hand-copying a scroll takes about 2,000 person-hours (about one year at 40 hours per week). Throughout the centuries, Jewish scribes have adhered to the following guidelines:

  • A Torah Scroll is disqualified if even a single letter is added or deleted.
  • The scribe must be a learned, pious Jew, who has undergone special training and certification.
  • All materials (parchment, ink, quill) must conform to strict specifications, and be prepared specifically for the purpose of writing a Torah Scroll.
  • The scribe may not write even one letter into a Torah Scroll from memory, but must have a second, kosher scroll opened before him at all times.
  • The scribe must say every word out loud before copying it from the correct text.
  • Every letter must have sufficient white space surrounding it. If one letter touches another in any spot, it invalidates the entire scroll.
  • If a single letter is so marred that it cannot be read at all, or resembles another letter, whether due to the writing, or a hole, tear or smudge, this invalidates the entire scroll. Each letter must be sufficiently legible so that even an ordinary schoolchild could distinguish it from other, similar letters.
  • The scribe must put precise space between words, so that one word will not look like two words, or two words look like one word.
  • The scribe must not alter the design of the sections, and must conform to particular line-lengths and paragraph configurations.
  • A Torah Scroll in which any mistake has been found, cannot be used, and must be fixed within 30 days, or buried.

The Torah scroll contains 304,805 letters (or approximately 79,000 words).
Other books of the Tanakh are also written in scroll form, as well as the small mezuzah scrolls found in the door frames of most orthodox, conservative and reform Jewish households. Some Jewish families own their own Megillah scroll for use during Purim.

There is a difference between the כְּתִיב (Ketiv), what is and must be written (in consonantal text, with vowels omitted), and the קְרֵי (Qere), what is read.

Syria and Babylon[edit]

The Jewish communities in these countries used the same techniques to manufacture scrolls, but using deer skins. The scrolls from these areas were known for their quality and durability, and were later imported into European and Indian communities.

Non-Jewish vellum manufacturing also took place after the 3rd century BC.

Greece and Rome[edit]

Scrolls were used by the ancient Greeks. In Roman usage the scrolls were written latitudinally, usually placed on podiums with roll holders from which the rolls were unwound.[citation needed]

The Romans eventually found the scroll too cumbersome for lengthy works and developed the codex,[citation needed] which influenced the modern book.

Early Christian era[edit]

Scrolls continued to be used during the Early Church era until the Early Middle Ages.

European Middle Ages[edit]

Scrolls virtually ceased to be produced in Europe during the Middle Ages, and were reintroduced for rare use in official treaties and other international documents of great significance during and after the Baroque Era of the 17th century. These were usually written on high quality vellum, and stored in elaborate silver and gold cases inscribed with names of participants. Earlier examples were written in Latin.

In Southern Italy scrolls were in use for liturgical texts (Exultet).

Scrolls were in use for administrative purposes all over Europe. In English they were often referred to as "rolls", hence the Great Rolls of the English Exchequer, and titles such as Master of the Rolls, still used in the 21st century.

West and Central Asia[edit]

Scrolls continued in use longer in the Islamic world, often elaborately decorated in calligraphic writing that included use of gold embossing and pigments when used for the writing of the Qur'an.

East Asia[edit]

Scrolls continued in use longer in East Asian cultures like China, Korea and Japan.

The Chinese invented and perfected 'Indian Ink' for use in writing, including scrolls. Originally designed for blacking the surfaces of raised stone-carved hieroglyphics, the ink was a mixture of soot from pine smoke and lamp oil mixed with the gelatin of donkey skin and musk. The ink invented by the Chinese philosopher, Tien-Lcheu (2697 B.C.), became common by the year 1200 B.C.

Later other formats came into use in China, firstly the sutra or scripture binding, a scroll folded concertina-style, which avoids the need to unroll to find a passage in the middle. By about 1,000 CE, sheet-based formats were introduced, although scrolls continued to have a place. Traditional painting and calligraphy in East Asia is often still performed on relatively short latitudinal paper scrolls displayed vertically as a hanging scroll on a wall or horizontally and flat as a handscroll.

Song Dynasty copy of the Wise and Benevolent Women, original by Gu Kaizhi, 13th century, Palace Museum.

Replacement by the Codex[edit]

The codex was a new format for reading the written word, consisting of individual pages loosely attached to each other at one side and bound with boards or cloth. It came to replace the scroll thanks to several problems that limited the scroll's function and readability. For one, scrolls were very long- sometimes as long as ten meters. This made them hard to hold open and read, a difficulty not helped by the fact that most scrolls in that era were read horizontally, instead of vertically as scrolling virtual documents are read now. The text on a scroll was continuous, without page breaks, which made indexing and bookmarking impossible. Conversely, the codex was easier to hold open, separate pages made it possible to index sections and mark a page, and the protective covers kept the fragile pages intact better than scrolls generally stayed. This last made it particularly attractive for important religious texts.[3]

Another aspect that made the codex more attractive that the scroll was ease of copying. It was possible to hold open a codex with one hand and write notes- or copy the text- with the other. For early Christendom this was an invaluable asset, as the ability to mass reproduce their gospels was in high demand. Early Medieval Christians were some of the first to adopt the codex over the scroll.[4]

The codex began to replace the scroll almost as soon as it was invented. For example, in Egypt by the fifth century, the codex outnumbered the scroll or roll by ten to one based on surviving examples, and by the sixth century the scroll had almost vanished from use as a vehicle for literature.[5] However, in other places the scroll lingered. As mentioned above, English monarchs used so called “statute rolls” to record important legislation until well into the middle ages. Scrolls were also commonly used in theater productions, a practice from which the term “actor’s roll” was coined.[6]

Modern era[edit]

Torah Scrolls are still used today in Jewish religious observance with almost insignificant changes despite the thousands of years in practice.

Some cultures use scrolls as ceremonial texts or for decoration—such as a hanging scroll—without any obvious division of the text into columns. In some scroll-using cultures painted illustrations were used as header decorations above the text columns, either in a continuous band or broken into scenes above either a single or double column of text.

One of the few modern texts the original of which was written on what is effectively a scroll is the manuscript of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, typed onto what he called "the scroll", made of taped-together sheets of paper.

The verb "to scroll" is much used in the age of screen displays—computer displays, rolling credits in films and so on—with the screen filled with text moving (scrolling) up or down or sideways, appearing at one edge of the display and disappearing at the other as if being unrolled from one side of a scroll and rolled up at the other.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Beal, Peter. (2008) "scroll" in A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450–2000 Online edition. Oxford University Press, 2008. http://www.oxfordreference.com Retrieved 21 November 2013.
  2. ^ Dever, William G. (2002). What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-8028-2126-3. p. 99
  3. ^ Lyons, M. (2011) Books: A Living History. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications. p. 35-36
  4. ^ Frost, Gary, "Adoption of the Codex Book: Parable of a New Reading Mode", The Book and Paper Group Annual, Retrieved 12/1/2014
  5. ^ Roberts, Colin H., and Skeat, T.C. (1987), The Birth of the Codex. London: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, p. 75.
  6. ^ Lyons, M. (2011) Books: A Living History. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications. p. 37

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