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  • The Role of the Scroll: An Illustrated Introduction to Scrolls in the Middle Ages by Thomas Forrest Kelly
  • Katherine Hindley

scrolls, manuscript studies, drama, legal history, medieval Europe

Thomas Forrest Kelly. The Role of the Scroll: An Illustrated Introduction to Scrolls in the Middle Ages. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019. 208 pp., fully illustrated in color. $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-393-28503-1.

In the standard, simplified narrative of book history, the codex replaced the scroll and is being replaced in turn by the e-book. However, just as the e-book seems unlikely to kill the codex any time soon, the codex did not eliminate the scroll. Although typical medieval examples work differently than ancient scrolls, opening vertically rather than horizontally, the form persisted through the Middle Ages and beyond. As Thomas Forrest Kelly points out in The Role of the Scroll, it persists even now: the scrolling action of online reading recalls the continuous text of a scrollformat manuscript. Placing the scroll (Kelly's preferred term) at the center of his investigation of medieval manuscript culture reasserts the importance of this neglected form.

Kelly's preface sets out two key goals for the book. First, he aims to provide "an exploration, a set of highlights of some of the most interesting scrolls in medieval history, [putting] them in the context of the people who made them, commissioned them, and used them" (xiii). Second, he aims to answer the question, "Why make a scroll when you could make a book?" (xiii). The primary focus is on manuscripts produced in medieval western Europe, although the introductory chapter has a broader geographical and chronological reach, discussing scrolls om Asia, A ica, and the ancient world. The rest of the book is divided into chapters according to possible reasons for making scrolls: those that grow, those that represent continuous space or time, those used for performance, those intended for private or secret use, and those used in the conduct of a ritual. As Kelly notes, more than one of these reasons might apply to any given manuscript.

Each chapter consists primarily of short case studies of particular manuscripts or manuscript types that illustrate that chapter's key reason [End Page 343] for choosing a scroll over a codex. The manuscript discussions provide glimpses of life in medieval Europe: scrolls containing the recipe collection The Forme of Cury introduce information about spices and feasting, for instance, while scroll-format inventories of New Year's gifts received in Elizabethan England spark paragraphs on gift exchange at court. The book therefore serves as a series of windows onto medieval European culture. This is both positive and negative in terms of Kelly's goals. It provides a clear and lively impression of the range of areas in which scrolls were used and, for a nonspecialist reader, an engaging introduction to an unfamiliar period. However, it also moves the focus om form to text, meaning that the emphasis on why to choose a scroll can be lost.

The general reasons Kelly proposes for making scrolls are useful, and it is clear om the wealth of examples he provides that these are categories into which many surviving scrolls fall. However, the book's goal of showcasing especially interesting and extraordinary examples of scrolls is to some extent contradictory to its goal of explaining why a scroll might be made, since any explanation for why scrolls were chosen over codices requires equal attention to the most typical of surviving examples. While the reader is given a very welcome introduction to the richness of the scroll form, the book's arguments about individual scrolls occasionally fail to differentiate between things a scroll can do, and things a scroll can do that a codex cannot. For example, scrolls are said to be appropriate for recipe collections "partly because [the scroll] can grow, and partly because it can be opened to the recipe wanted" (53). While the possibility of extending a scroll may be important in the choice of form, it is surely not realistic to suggest that a scroll can be more easily opened to the desired recipe than a codex. A similar...


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pp. 343-346
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