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What is a Scroll?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A scroll is a large roll of parchment, papyrus, paper, or another flexible writing material which is used to store and display printed information. At one time, scrolls were the primary method of information storage, until the codex or bound book was developed. Some examples of ancient scrolls can be seen in museums all over the world, and scrolls continue to be produced for very specialized purposes, such as Jewish religious services.

Because scrolls are so closely bound with ancient knowledge and the written word, they often appear as decorative motifs in a variety of locations. The word “scroll” itself was first used in 1405, and it is descended from a long line of words which all related to printed and rolled materials. Oddly enough, by 1405, the scroll had been largely supplanted by the codex.

A classical scroll was designed with rollers on either end, allowing people to turn the scroll to the appropriate page. Many scrolls included built in rods for the purpose of rolling them, although scrolls could also be manually rolled. In order to view a specific page, people would have to painstakingly roll the scroll to the area of interest, rolling up the slack as they went along to keep the scroll from sprawling out of control.

A shorter version of the scroll was known as the roll. Rolls were often used for things like bookkeeping and other administrative tasks, and “roll” in this sense lives on in the modern phrase “rent rolls,” which references the rents collected by a landlord every month. Ancient rolls are almost as fascinating as scrolls, because they contain interesting data about trade and economics; studying rolls allows people to see how much things cost, and how various situations were handled in administrative offices.

While scrolls look neat to modern viewers, they were quite a pain to handle. They were typically extremely large, very cumbersome, and hard to use. Imagine, if you will, being forced to roll through every page in a book to look something up, rather than just flicking to the appropriate page, and you will see why the scroll died out when a better idea came along.

In the Jewish community, scrolls are used for important religious information, most classically storage and display of the Torah in Jewish houses of worship. Torah scrolls are often unrolled on ceremonial occasions, and they are stored in a special box for protection. Several firms produce Torah scrolls and other religious material which is still presented in scroll format.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By osmosis — On Apr 08, 2008

I've never thought about the fact that a scroll would actually be difficult to use, let alone find something on. It gives a whole new meaning to "scrolling down."

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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