Thinking With the Codex


A book that survives the centuries is immeasurably useful to the student of history, not just for its text but for the context it provides. A tome four hundred years old is indicative of someone who believed its contents worthy of the significant investment required for its creation.

Sultan Baybar’s Qur’an

The Qur’an as a document is one of the most widely influential works in recorded history. This version by Sultan Bayars of Mamluk was produced in Cairo between 1304 and 1306 AD, and is the oldest known surviving Qur’an from that period. The entire text is inscribed with gold, with periodic illuminations of traditional geometric patterns and quotations.

Wynkin de Worde - The History of Helyas

An example of medival European prose, this book relays the story of the titular Knight of the Swan. Its text is in black type with now-unfamiliar punctuation, accompanied by occasional woodcut illustrations. There are occasional page signatures that demonstrate how the printer arranged the pages in the press, and how the printed pages were assembled.

Guido Bentivoglio - Relationi fatte in tempo delle sue nuntiature di Fiandra e di Francia

This document from 1629 is a printed collection of letters from Cardinal Bentivoglio during his time in France. The text is not in black type, and on at least one page there is a faint watermark indicating the printing house.


Comparison between these three texts is inexorably linked to discussion about the merits and limitations of their forms. Sultan Baybar’s Qur’an is undoubtedly the most valuable of the three, but from a certain point of view it is required to be so as part of its nature as a hand-crafted tome. The other two are printed works, and are therefore assumed to have less inherent value. Even if the time investment in a hand-crafted tome was equivalent to the time a printer spent assembling blocks of type, the ease of replication means that the “time value” of such construction is divided among all the books created by the printing process. From this perspective, printing press books are less valuable than their handwritten counterparts. Certainly such an attitude is more conducive to the annotative style of reading discussed by Hooks in How to Read Like a Renaissance Reader, where one is expected to mark and comment on a text as one consumes it. It is difficult to imagine a respectful reader making margin notes on a gold-lettered Qur’an. Yet there is still the virtue of greater distribution, the most revolutionary feat of the printing press, that demonstrates the most crucial point to make in this comparison. The printed books and the hand-lettered tome are pursuing opposite goals. The Qur’an is a status object, while the printed books are meant for consumption.


The relationship between scribed and printed books is comparable to the relationship between print and electronic texts. The older medium requires greater labor, which logically translates to greater value. However, the newer medium provides greater accessibility and distribution, thus granting it cultural influence beyond the reach of its predecessor. It is only a matter of time before we are introduced to the next iteration of this cycle.