When is a tea towel not a tea towel?

When it’s a book.

Umm, well, sort of……

A book, or the form of the book which we now know, is a codex. This derives from the latin caudex, meaning stem or rootstock of  a tree and was the name given to the first bound books. We still talk about pages being ‘leaves’ or a book being ‘loose leaf’.

Before codices people wrote upon clay or wax tablets, carrying one around to make notes on and wiping the notes away when they were no longer wanted.  Or, if records had to be made, firing the clay so that the writing on them was affixed ( some were fired inadvertently, see The First Library ).

The ancient Egyptians used papyrus, made from the plant of that name, as early as 2400 BCE, but this was rolled into scrolls, like the Book of the Dead. In China and the far East people wrote on silk, bark and bone, until the invention of paper in the first century BCE. It was used in scroll form too, though also folded concertina-style into what are now called ‘butterfly books’ (lovely descriptive name).  Writing was developed much earlier (see In the beginning….).

In Europe parchment or vellum replaced papyrus, though the scroll was still in use until it began to be replaced by the codex in the 3rd or 4th century CE. A codex was a collection of sheets of parchment or vellum attached together along a spine. The form had lots of advantages. It could be opened at any given point, for random access and laid flat upon a table, a ‘hands free’ usage. Someone reading a scroll, usually attached to wooden end posts, would have to use both hands, or weigh down the ends.

Printed books came later of course. First in China and then in Europe ( see From Gutenberg to Google ).

But what’s all this got to do with a tea towel?

The tea towel in question is the Kirby CODEC tea towel.  This daily record of the results in the three cycling Grand Tours of 2017 – Il Giro d’Italia, Le Tour de France and La Vuelta a Espana – made by Carlton Kirby, Eurosport commentator,  has been turned into three tea towels, for charitable purposes by Alison Gayler. Funds are being raised for the African charity Qhebeka ( formerly a sponsor of the cycling team MTM Qhebeka, now known as Team Dimension Data ). Fellow commentator, Brian Smith, formerly managed this team.

Only 725 have been produced overall and all the issues are wildly over-subscribed. I look forward to receiving my Tour and Vuelta editions (complete with numbered slip signed by Kirby, to prove it’s authentic). Unfortunately I missed out on the Giro ( see photo above right, courtesy of Ali ).

As you can see from Carlton’s comment below, the tea towel is so called because a CODEC is a term, most often used in computing, to describe the encoding of data. So it is a repository for information, not unlike a book, though not specifically in relation to one such. After all, the tea towel is flat, more like a piece of papyrus, not bound, like a book.

But I’ve enjoyed speculating and it will not have escaped notice that the terminology of the development of the book is also the terminology of the computer, one of which I’m using right now to blog. We ‘scroll’ up or down a document, we read it on our ‘tablet’ and there are web-sites called ‘parchment’ (educational), ‘vellum’ (publishing software) and ‘papyrus’ (a charity).

Plus ça change…..

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2 thoughts on “When is a tea towel not a tea towel?

  1. Hello Story Bazaar! As you may know a “Codec” is a device, often indeed a computer program, for either encoding or decoding a data stream. My tea towel is a lovely copy of my encoded record of a cycling race. It’s an aide memoir. Hope this helps. Fond regards, Carlton xx

    • Hi Carlton, I will amend the blog post to say so. I didn’t know, by the way, but I do now. Thanks for the mention – we’re just watching the downloaded Vuelta as live now. It’s in that flat empty area by Utrera. Regards, Julie

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