Codicology Establishing Dates Palaeography

When is a Codex Not a Codex?

A number of challenges face anyone who undertakes a study of the early development of the codex. Two such challenges are “built in” to the corpus of surviving codices and codex fragments: Very few samples have precise and secure dates, and some samples are of ambiguous format (that is, it’s not clear they are actually codices). In this post, I want to look at a piece that raises both these issues. Consider the set of papyrus fragments known as P. Rainer Unterricht (MPER N.S. 15) 7+8+10 (TM 63194), G 26011 b, G 26011 c+d, and G 26011 e.

What we have here are a group of rectangular fragments now framed as three separate items. The fragments contain Greek alphabetic exercises copied against the fibers. On the side with horizontal fibers, fragments 26011 b and 26011 c+d have only faint traces of writing (they were perhaps washed clean in antiquity). Fragment e is inscribed on the horizontal fibers with a math problem. Below are images of the three frames, first showing the horizontal fibers of each piece (top) and then showing the vertical fibers (bottom):

P. Rainer Unterricht (MPER N.S. 15) 7+8+10;
images adapted from: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

The issue of dating is fairly straightforward: There is no firm basis for a date. The most recent editors relied on the analysis of handwriting, and given that the text is copied in a less than competent hand, assigning a precise date with confidence is very difficult, as the editors readily acknowledge (“Eine noch ganz und gar ungeübte Handschrift datieren zu sollen, stellt eine mehr als problematische Aufgabe dar”). The editors describe the hand as first century. This is possible, but it is certainly not necessary.

More interesting is the question of the format of these pieces. The online catalog of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek classifies the fragments as a codex. The Leuven Database of Ancient Books classifies the pieces straightforwardly as follows: “Book form: codex; columns per page: 1.” But both parts of that description are open to question. If we assume that what we are seeing here are leaves of a codex, then the alphabetic exercises are written in multiple columns to the page (sometimes even with vertical lines drawn between columns):

P. Rainer Unterricht (MPER N.S. 15) 8, detail;
image source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

But in fact we are almost certainly not looking at leaves of a codex.

The most recent editors assign the pieces three distinct numbers, but they note that all three items seem to be of the same material (“aus dem gleichen Material”), and they describe the group as a roll (“Rolle”). In a 2008 study, however, Jean Lenaerts argued that the papyri were part of a “carnet” (notebook):

“Je n’hésite pas à appeler cette entité un «carnet» scolaire, qui était vraisemblablement celui d’un apprenant adolescent ou adulte. Probablement taillés dans un rouleau, les trois coupons se succédaient dans l’ordre 7. 8 et 10, et leur fonnat quadrangulaire laisse à penser que le «carnet» était constitué de feuillets volants.”

It may be that Lanaerts’ description of the fragments as a notebook made of loose sheets has led others to describe this item as a codex, but I very much doubt these papyri ever formed part of a bound or unbound codex. Although the pieces as they are framed are indeed basically square, the squares are of quite different widths. But what makes the codex hypothesis especially improbable is the fact that the scripts on “fragment e” are upside down relative to one another:

P. Rainer Unterricht (MPER N.S. 15) 10;
image source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

That the writing on one face of the papyrus is upside down relative to the writing on the other side implies that we are most likely dealing here with a reused roll or simply loose sheets. It is therefore most unlikely that these fragments represent a first-century codex. It is possible (but hardly necessary) that they were produced in the first century. It is extremely unlikely that they ever were part of a codex.

P. Rainer Unterricht (MPER N.S. 15) 7+8+10 should not be considered part of the corpus of early codices.

2 replies on “When is a Codex Not a Codex?”

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