THE ROLE OF THE SCROLL by Thomas Forrest Kelly


An Illustrated Introduction to Scrolls in the Middle Ages
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An overview of medieval scrolls highlights their intricate beauty and various uses.

In a generously illustrated and informative survey, distilled from the Medieval Scrolls Digital Archive website,, Kelly (Music/Harvard Univ.; Capturing Music: The Story of Notation, 2014, etc.) focuses on the creation and use of scrolls in the Middle Ages at a time when books had been in common use since the advent of the codex in the fourth century. Why did people make a scroll when they could make a book? Scrolls, notes the author, have the advantage of being able to grow as needed to take on more information. In fact, “we are now in the new age of the scroll. All you have to do is look at your computer screen, tablet, or e-reader, and just scroll down.” In Egypt, scrolls—such as the Book of the Dead—were made, laboriously, from papyrus; Egyptian papyrus also was the basis for literary scrolls in Greece and Rome. A long work, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, required several scrolls, depending on the length of papyrus. Because new entries could be added, scrolls were useful for financial, legal, and other record-keeping. Kelly identifies scrolls that contained lists of gifts; recipes for cooking, medicine, and alchemy; prayers; petitions; and the testimony of witnesses in trials. Because scrolls could be unfurled in a linear manner, they became useful as maps and guides for holy pilgrimages; similarly, because they could indicate change through time, they were used to record histories and genealogies. In medieval plays and other performances, each actor’s part was written separately on a scroll that could be hidden in the performer’s hand. A director’s scroll served as a combination of promptbook and stage manual. Miniature scrolls, some to be worn hidden in amulets, often contained prayers, magic spells, cryptic inscriptions, or the “names of exotic deities or demons.” Kelly closely examines the many scrolls illustrated and provides some context that illuminates medieval life.

An illuminating volume designed to whet the reader’s interest in perusing an extensive website.

Pub Date: April 30th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-393-28503-1
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2019


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