Aug 4, 2022

Rolling, Scrolling, Flipping, Folding

 Yin Liu

This sketch by the Norwegian comedy show Øystein og jeg has become somewhat of a classic for digital humanists and for book historians; it reminds us that the bound codex, the most familiar and stereotypical form of the book for us now, was once a new technology. Of course, the comedy sketch is far from being historically accurate, and medieval people in Europe were quite familiar with codices, but it is true that they were also familiar with a different book form that we tend not to think of today: books that were opened and navigated not by separating and turning leaves, but by unrolling a strip of material.

 Much good work has been done, continues to be done, and has yet to be done, on the rolled-up forms of books and other documents in medieval Europe (and, indeed, globally). But at this point the researcher is confronted with widespread disagreement about terminology. For starters, many scholars (e.g. Pamela Robinson) refer to scrolls or rolls and codices as examples of book formats, but J. P. Gumbert has argued that we should be using the term forms, on the grounds that the word ‘format’ already refers to a different concept in bibliography, the size of a printed book based on how many times a sheet of paper is folded to make its pages. I’m reluctant to enter into any sort of debate with scholars more knowledgeable and distinguished than I am, but let’s accept Gumbert’s argument and go with ‘form’.

Now let’s take a hint from that Øystein og jeg sketch and ask ourselves not how the book was made, but how a user ‘opens’ and then navigates it. To open a codex, you lift and flip leaves. But there are documents that are designed to be opened by being unrolled. These are usually called scrolls or rolls.

Enrolled Acts of Parliament, Westminster, UK. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

But here again there is considerable confusion about terminology. The terms scroll or roll have been applied to three distinct forms that appeared in medieval England:

(1) a continuous strip of material, made by attaching pieces side-to-side, unrolled horizontally;

(2) a continuous strip of material, made by attaching pieces end-to-end (i.e. top-to-bottom), unrolled vertically;

(3) a stack of long strips of material, sewn together along the top edge, unrolled vertically.

Form (1) was most common in antiquity, in Mediterranean regions; the Romans called this a volumen, because it was rolled up (Latin volvere, ‘to roll’ – compare English revolve). The English word volume comes from this term because a ‘book’ was the amount of text that one could fit onto one of these rolled-up things – hence also the term bookroll, and the practice of dividing up a very long text into sections called ‘books’ or ‘volumes’. Typically, the text could be found on the inside surface of the strip (the face), written in vertical, side-by-side columns called paginae, from which English gets the word page. To navigate the document, you unroll a section at a time, rolling up the left side as you unroll the right. To make it easier, the strip can be rolled around one or two wooden rods (umbilici), or even stored on a winding mechanism. This form was uncommon in medieval England, but it did occasionally occur, and people throughout medieval western Europe knew that ancient books took the form of scrolls – especially the Jewish Scriptures.

Form (2), unrolled vertically, was much more common in the Middle Ages, when it was often called a rotulus. Typically, the text was written across the width (the short dimension) in a single long column. This continuous-strip form was usually associated with certain text types where the potential extendability of the document, or the sense of continuity projected by the form, was important. For example, a mortuary roll commemorated a recently deceased member of a religious community; it was sent around to other institutions where prayers for the soul of the person would be added to the end, lengthening the roll as it travelled from one religious house to another. In the 1200s and 1300s, royal genealogies in England were often mapped out on long vertical strips, which made it easy to show the real or imagined continuity of a lineage. 

Form (3) complicates matters because this form is often called a ‘roll’, and indeed is stored rolled up, but it is actually a stack form rather than a strip form – rather like an elongated and flexible legal pad. It is unrolled for use, but navigated by flipping the membranes upward over the top edge, where they are sewn together. This form, in English contexts, is usually called a ‘pipe roll’ or an ‘exchequer-style’ roll, and was common for accounting and administrative records. 

Court roll (pipe roll form), Wakefield (Sowerbyshire), 1406. Image: Y. Liu
Unfortunately, these three forms are often not distinguished by terminology. Sometimes (1) and (2) are both called ‘scrolls’, sometimes all three forms are called ‘rolls’. Sometimes rolled book-forms in Antiquity are called ‘scrolls’ and rolled book-forms in the Middle Ages are called ‘rolls’. My own practice has been to use the term ‘scroll’ for horizontally oriented forms and ‘roll’ for vertically oriented forms, but it is then still necessary to distinguish the ‘pipe roll’ form.

To complicate matters, there are also medieval documents that are folded rather than rolled. Some are folded continuous strips: so-called ‘concertina’ or ‘accordion’ books. Sometimes they were genealogies, sometimes calendars, and they have some obvious affinities with rolled forms. But there are also folded stack forms, such as the small portable documents that Gumbert has helpfully documented under the term ‘bat books’ and that are often called ‘folding almanacs’. All of these folded forms are commonly navigated by some combination of flipping and unfolding.

Let’s see what happens if we attempt a typology of book forms based on the physical actions of a user navigating through the document. (The terms are synonyms in each type except that ‘bat books’ are a distinct form.)

•    unroll/roll horizontally: scroll, volumen, horizontal roll
•    unroll/roll vertically: roll, rotulus, vertical scroll, chancery-style roll
•    unroll/roll and flip vertically: pipe roll, exchequer-style roll
•    unfold/flip in various directions: accordions, concertinas, bat books, folded books
•    flip horizontally: codex

Does it matter whether one unrolls a roll book vertically or horizontally? Or whether one has to unfold sections of a book as well as flip through its pages? I think so, but I will save a more detailed discussion of an example for another blog post.

I’ll end this post by suggesting that these physical actions for navigating a book, corresponding to the design of the book form, have approximate equivalents in digital environments:

  • rolling: analogous to scrolling (up and down, or side to side)
  • flipping: analogous to clicking or swiping
  • unfolding: analogous to zooming in or out (in that you are expanding or contracting your field of view)

Do these methods of navigating digital documents matter? Surely they do too; but that, again, is another discussion.

References and Further Reading

Bäuml, Franz H., and Richard H. Rouse. ‘Roll and Codex: A New Manuscript Fragment of Reinmar von Zweter.’ Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 105 (1983): 192–231.

Cavallo, Guglielmo. ‘Between Volumen and Codex: Reading in the Roman World.’ In A History of Reading in the West, edited by Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane, 64–89. Cambridge: Polity, 1999.

Gumbert, J. P. Bat Books: A Catalogue of Folded Manuscripts Containing Almanacs or Other Texts. Bibliologia, volume 41. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016.

Gumbert, J. P. ‘Book-Form Classes: A Proposal.’ Gazette du livre médiéval 60, no. 1 (2013): 102–6.

Hartnell, Jack, ed. Continuous Page: Scrolls and Scrolling from Papyrus to Hypertext. Courtauld Institute of Art, 2019. DOI: 10.33999/2019.15.

Holz, Stefan G., Jörg Peltzer, and Maree Shirota, eds. The Roll in England and France in the Late Middle Ages: Form and Content. De Gruyter, 2019.

Laborderie, Olivier de. ‘The First Manuals of English History: Two Late Thirteenth-Century Genealogical Rolls of the Kings of England in the Royal Collection.’ Electronic British Library Journal (2014, art. 4): 1–25.

Medieval Scrolls Digital Archive, Harvard University, 2022, at

Robinson, Pamela. ‘The Format of Books: Books, Booklets and Rolls.’ In The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, edited by Nigel J. Morgan and Rodney M. Thomson, 39–54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Schmidt, Victor M. ‘Some Notes on Scrolls in the Middle Ages.’ Quaerendo 41 (2011): 373–83.

Wood, Susan. ‘Literacy and Luxury in the Early Empire: A Papyrus-Roll Winder from Pompeii.’ Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 46 (2001): 23–40.

No comments :

Post a Comment