- Michelle P. BrownMichelle P. BrownInstitute of English Studies (Emerita), School of Advanced Study, University of London
The codex occupies an iconic role in Western culture. Usually narrowly applied to the folded book form of the age of print, it owes its origins and development to pre-print manuscript culture. As early as the 1st century ce, the Roman poet Martial was recommending that his readers buy the new codex form. But then, as now, publishers were slow to retool, and the ancient scroll technology continued until the 4th century, when the codex, initially the preserve of the underclasses (notably the early Christians, who valued it for its portability and cross-referencing suitability), achieved popularity as the focus of Christianity, a religion of the book. Wax tablets—the less formal medium of the day—continued in use for drafting of text and image and for informal purposes into the early 20th century. From the 5th century onward the use of decoration and paratextual features such as punctuation served to help navigate and articulate the text and images, illustrated the narrative, or explored the multivalent meaning of text through image.
Both men and women, religious and secular, wealthy or poor, figured in the production of medieval books, as authors, makers, and users. Documentary evidence and that detected within the books themselves gives a picture of the ways in which literary works were composed, captured in writing, published, disseminated, and accessed. Each manuscript is unique, but together they provide a portal into a thousand years of thought.