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Storage medium
Wax tablet rem.jpg
Reconstructed Roman wax tablet , a predecessor of the book
predecessor Scroll
successor book

Code or Codex , plurality codes or manuscripts or codes ( latin codex , plurality codices ), originally referred to a stack of labeled or labeling provided or wood wax panels, subsequently enclosed by two pieces of wood block folded or stitched Papyrus - or parchment sheets . In Latin codex (originally caudex ) meant “tree trunk” or “block of wood ”, later also “book” or “notebook”.

During the Roman Empire , the codex came into use alongside the older book form of the scroll , before it became the leading book form of late antiquity in the 4th century AD, which has not changed significantly until modern times. With the replacement of the scroll by the Codex, papyrus was increasingly replaced as a writing material by the more noble and more expensive, but not dependent on imports, parchment. The advantages of the code were that it was easier to use and that it was easier to look up cross-references in the context of Bible exegesis.

Writing materials

Codices were made from different writing materials. In the scientific literature, the following Latin terms have been used for this (often used in abbreviated form):

codex papyraceus
Codex from papyrus layers
codex membranaceus
Codex with pages made of parchment
codex chartaceus
Codex with paper pages
codex bombycinus
Codex with pages made of tissue paper

There are some Aztec codices written on Amatl , a material made from tree bark.

Wooden board codices

While writing tablets from the time of the pharaohs have survived in ancient Egypt and tablets dating from at least the 8th century BC have been found in the Middle East, in archaic and classical Greece writing tablets are only indirectly (figuratively, literarily or inscribed) attested. The oldest surviving tablets (Greek pinakes ) with Greek inscriptions date from the Hellenistic period . In Greece, its use was essentially limited to document archiving and everyday notes.

For the Roman world, archaeological finds since the imperial era attest to the widespread use and versatile use of individual wooden tablets (lat. Tabulae ) that are connected to form blocks . The tablets were prepared differently to accommodate the lettering. The dealbatae had a whitewashed writing surface. A layer of wax was applied to the slightly recessed surface of the ceratae , into which the writing could be imprinted or scratched with a pointed metal pen, the stilus . In the cities buried by Vesuvius in AD 79 (e.g. Pompeii and Herculaneum ) numerous original wax tablets were found. The non-ceratae were particularly thin wooden tablets for writing on with ink, which was applied with a calamus ( writing tube ) or a metal pen.

The wooden tablets that were mentioned in the Iliad and that have been used since the 6th century BC. BC are figuratively documented, could be connected in pairs with a kind of hinge made of cord to form a diptych. Three connected tablets formed a triptych, a larger number a polyptych. A soil find from Vindolanda (Britain) attests to the shape of the Leporello , which was composed of folded thin wooden tablets.

Before the Romans took over the papyrus roll from the Greeks, the wooden tablet codex was the book form of early Latin prose literature (e.g. the works of the older Cato ). In Greece, as in the Roman world, it was always in use alongside the scroll.

Parchment and papyrus codes

It was probably the Romans, who had been familiar with parchment as a writing material since the 2nd century BC, who replaced the wooden tablets with folded parchment leaves. In the imperial era, from the 1st and especially the 2nd century AD, parchment codices were used more and more frequently. At the end of the 4th century AD, this book form finally prevailed against the role. The papyrus code is modeled on the parchment code and its origin is more recent. Especially in Egypt and in the neighboring areas where papyrus was produced, the material typical of scrolls was also used for codices.


A codex usually consists of folded parchment or papyrus sheets (cut from commercially available rolls). These are layered in layers, bound to the spine with the fold or at least firmly connected to the binding, which usually consists of wooden covers. Early papyrus codices sometimes show different grain directions on opposite pages; in later copies the grain is uniform. The open parchment code shows either two hair or two flesh sides (so-called Gregory rule). The pages of the code are written on on both sides. As with the scroll, the title of the codex can be found on the last page; It was not until around the 5th century AD that the title was used at the beginning of the code.

Two basic forms of structure can be distinguished: the single-layer code and the multi-layer code.

The single-layer code (the exercise book principle)

From the early days of the Codex to the 4th century, there are often copies that consist of a single layer (and in this respect correspond to our current school notebooks). Several sheets of paper, folded once in the middle and opened again, are placed on top of one another and sewn with a thread along the fold line. This structure allows only a relatively small scope and has further disadvantages. The more sheets are used for the codex, the greater the tension when the book is closed: it gapes, the spine can tear, and the stitching thread can cut into the inner sheets; The latter can be prevented by inserting a parchment or leather strip in the inner fold. When using sheets of the same size, the depth of the single-layer block increases from the outside to the inside, which can be remedied by appropriate cutting of the book edge or avoided by using sheets of different sizes. But it also means that the inner leaves are narrower and either the edges or the columns are narrower. The single-layer structure seems to be known so far only for papyrus codes. One example is the famous Bodmer Codex (around 300 AD), which contains, among other things, the full text of the Menander comedy Dyskolos .

The multilayer code

The second form of construction avoids the difficulties described above by working with several layers of fewer sheets. The layers are individually tacked, placed on top of one another and sewn together. Most of the multi-layered ancient codices used single layers of four arcs (quaterniones). But there are also one (Uniones), three (Terniones), five (Quiniones) and even nine arches (Noniones) positions. The number of sheets in the layers can also vary within one and the same code. With the formation of the multi-layer codex in the 4th century AD, the development of the form of the book used today was completed.

Format and scope

The Rupertsberg Giant Codex , 12th century, comprises 481 sheets of parchment and weighs around 15 kilograms.

Codices 6 to 40 cm high have been preserved. The earliest copies from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD have an upright rectangular format and are less than 300 pages in length. A trend towards larger square formats can be observed since the 4th century; in individual cases the volume can exceed 1,600 pages. The smallest known parchment mini-format, the Manicodex (dating to the 4th to 6th centuries) of the Cologne University Collection , has 192 pages in length and is only 45 mm high and 38 mm wide.


One of the advantages of the Code over the scroll is its hardcover. Thirteen exceptionally well-preserved bindings of single-layer papyrus codes from the 4th century have been found near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. The bindings consist of goat or sheep leather stiffened with papyrus cardboard , with the hair side forming the outside of the binding. Protruding leather straps with straps are used to firmly enclose the closed book on all sides.

A simpler form of the antique binding consists of two rectangular wooden panels, which are connected by a glued-on leather strip that forms the spine of the book. The book block is attached to the cover by thread stitching. An example of this form is provided by the 3rd century cover of a (no longer existing) Coptic book in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin; in this case the wooden lid is decorated with ivory inlays.


Codex Sinaiticus, 4th century (excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew)

The code was usually written on before binding, so the writer first had to calculate the size of the book in order to estimate the amount of writing material needed and to be able to arrange the layers appropriately. For orientation in the unbound book, the writer used pagination before writing . In most of the surviving codices, the pagination is in the middle of the upper margin; sometimes individual layers are also numbered. Subsequent pagination also occurs; they already served as reading aids for the user. Before writing, even lines were scratched into the parchment pages of the codex with a sharp pen. To ensure a standardized throughout the Code text area to achieve, all layers were superimposed before the ruling and pierced at the four corners of the document mirror. In most codes, each page has only one title block, but there are copies with two or more columns per page. So is z. For example, in the two oldest known full Bibles, the Greek manuscripts Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus , the text of some poetic books is arranged in two columns, while that of all other books is arranged in three (Codex Vaticanus) or four columns (Codex Sinaiticus). The column structure seems to have been taken from the tradition of the papyrus roll, where short lines were considered a quality feature; This is related to the fact that the codices described in several columns show calligraphic tendencies. Above all, however, narrow columns in large-format manuscripts have the advantage that the eye can find it more easily from the end of one line to the beginning of the next.

Displacement of the role by the code

The codex took the step beyond using it as a notebook in the 1st century AD. The poet Martial (approx. 40-102 AD), who in various of his epigrams repeatedly promotes the new book form, which is not yet familiar to the reading public, gives first indications of the literary works of the most widely read Greek and Roman authors in codex form : Homer , Virgil , Ovid , Cicero and Livius . The oldest original fragment of a Latin parchment code (called De bellis Macedonicis ) was found in Oxyrhynchos , Egypt (now in the British Library in London). The code, which deals with the war between the Romans and the Macedonians, is dated to the end of the 1st century AD. Despite all the practical advantages offered by the new book form of the Codex over the scroll, it was not until the 4th century AD that the Codex finally supplanted it. At least the elitist classes of society continued to have a preference for traditional roles.

A sociological reason for the gradual displacement of the scroll by the code is seen in the fact that the Christians (approx. Since the 2nd century) adopted it as a book form with which they could also formally differentiate themselves from the old pagan scriptures. Codes could also be more easily hidden during the persecution of Christians. Another group of authors who soon adopted the code form - albeit not for ideological, but for practical reasons - were lawyers.

A practical benefit of the code was its much larger capacity compared to the role. The regular double-sided labeling enabled space to be saved. In addition, the code was easier to keep. In addition, it was easier to use when reading and looking up. Unlike the scroll, which the reader had to hold with both hands, reaching for the Codex required only one hand and left the other free to leaf through or write. The easier finding of text passages changed the reading habits. Older classical and legal literature, which was still written on rolls, was systematically transferred in the form of a code or was eliminated from tradition. Since the end of the 4th century, newly written works were immediately written in codices. This also offered the advantage of greater protection of the writing, because turning the pages of the papyrus, some of which were brittle, was considerably more spared than when unrolling.

In the course of this development, a number of structural elements were created that served to organize the larger, coherent amounts of text. With incipit and explicit not only the beginning and end of the complete works were selected, but also the beginning and end of his individual books. Different fonts as well as decorative and structural elements developed, for example in the form of decorative strips and decorated initials . Code pages with wide margins were ideal for the user to add comments , comments, and references; In the times of the book scroll, additional scrolls had to be created for this purpose.

See also

More general:

More special:


Web links

Commons : Codices  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Commons : Manuscripts  - collection of images, videos, and audio files
Wiktionary: Codex  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations