Why didn’t the book kill the scroll?

A recently discovered scroll showing Blessed John Beche being led to execution

The Role of the Scroll
by Thomas Forrest Kelly,
WW Norton, 181pp, £19.99/$29.95

In 1387, Bishop John Fordham of Durham entertained King Richard II at his London palace with a lavish banquet. There were three courses, though not as we would recognise them today. In the first, guests feasted upon the heads of boars and roasted swans, among other delicacies. In the second course they enjoyed roasted herons and cranes, while during the third they were served quail, venison, rabbits, partridges, pigeons, larks and a “dish of gely”. The menu was printed on scrolls, two of which have survived and are kept in London and New York.

They are of interest to Thomas Forrest Kelly, the author of this book, not least because they demonstrate how scrolls were still in use nearly a millennium after they were superseded by codices (books).

The latter came along in the fourth century and must have been quite an innovation. Kelly, a professor at Harvard, notes how early representations of Evangelists carrying books of the Gospels must have looked rather cutting-edge compared to the scroll-bearing Old Testament prophets with whom they were often juxtaposed.

In such a context a scroll would have suggested antiquity. Indeed, they were used extensively in Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilisations. The Byzantine historian Zonaras claimed that in the great library of Constantinople there was a 100ft scroll made from the intestines of snakes and containing the Iliad and the Odyssey written in gold.

By the Middle Ages, however, for every scroll there were thousands of books. Yet scrolls had not died out and continued to be produced. In this well-illustrated and highly readable volume Kelly attempts to discover why their appeal endured.

One reason is that scrolls were sometimes practical when books were not. Scrolls often consisted of sheets that could be added or removed, meaning they could be lengthened or shortened at will, giving them a flexibility that made them ideal for continuous updating or amendments. They were just the thing for recording cooking recipes, experiments in alchemy, medicine, music, rolls of arms, maps for pilgrimages and royal genealogies.

The English in particular preferred scrolls for record-keeping. Those used as “gift lists” in the Tudor times show Henry VIII had a penchant for gold, while Elizabeth I was “inclined towards clothing, personalised jewellery and trinkets”.

It is a pity that Kelly may not be aware of the discovery of a scroll in the British Library in 2016 which reveals how such documents were also used to record land, buildings and goods seized from the Church during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This scroll is an inventory of the plunder from St John’s Abbey in Colchester. It depicts Blessed John Beche, its last abbot, being led out by the Earl of Essex, mounted on a horse, to his execution on the adjacent green. It was common for scrolls to be beautifully adorned and illustrated even when, as in this case, they dealt with important administrative matters.

Scrolls used for religious devotion were particularly ornate and in the Middle Ages they were often used to record indulgences and prayers, for instance. Among the finest examples is the Lorsch Litany, an 8ft scroll produced in Germany in the 9th century to help Benedictine monks to recite the Litany of the Saints. Such religious scrolls were large enough to hang from walls, but others were so small they could be concealed under clothing, where they were sometimes kept as portable protection against disease or tragedy.

While decades of research into scrolls by the author has resulted in a fascinating glimpse of their use throughout history, what is equally interesting is the role of the scroll in our own times. Certainly, it continues to have its place in the religious observances of the Jewish people and in Japanese and Chinese art. But scrolls also exist in the folklore of the West, occasionally emerging in popular culture to suggest antiquity or something sacred, authoritative, exotic or mysterious. Far more prosaic is the daily use of “scrolling” for reading a lengthy PDF, Word document or page on a smartphone or computer screen. The author notes that if substantial texts of this kind were printed off without page breaks, the only suitable way to store them would be to roll them up.

The obvious significance of all this is that reports of the death of the scroll have been greatly exaggerated. But more significantly, the survival of the scroll might also suggest that the emergence of new media, however dominant they may become, does not necessarily render obsolete other effective forms of record.

That should give hope to all who value the internet but who also like newspapers and magazines, cherish reading and collecting books, watching films at the cinema and on DVD and listening to music on both CDs and vinyl.