Binding Techniques Codicology Covers

New Book: Coptic Bookbindings in the Pierpont Morgan Library

A long-awaited book has finally been published, and my copy has just arrived: Theodore C. Petersen’s Coptic Bookbindings in the Pierpont Morgan Library, edited by Francisco H. Trujillo (Ann Arbor: The Legacy Press, 2021).

Theodore C. Petersen (1883-1966) studied the leather covers and binding structures of the many Coptic codices in the Morgan collection in the first half of the 20th century. He never published the results of his work, but he produced a typewritten manuscript with a number of drawings. Many of us managed to get copies of copies of copies of snippets of this manuscript here and there over the years, but the full manuscript was not widely available to the public until now.

Francisco Trujillo has provided an introduction and edited Petersen’s text. The catalogue is accompanied by Petersen’s line drawings and excellent new color photos.

While this is a catalog, it should be noted that the volume is about more than just the Morgan collection. There is a detailed discussion of early bookbinding in general and Petersen’s analysis of early bindings outside the Morgan collection, such as that of the Akhmimic Proverbs codex in Berlin:

There are several more sample pages shown at the site of Oak Knoll Press, where the book is being sold. I’m very much looking forward to reading this volume. Thanks to Francisco Trujillo, the team at the Morgan Library & Museum, and the people at Legacy Press for producing such an important (and great looking) volume.

And finally, for those wanting a closer look at the Coptic bindings and some of Petersen’s drawings, visit the collection of digital images at the Morgan.

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.

Antiquities Market Codicology Palaeography

Welcome to The Early History of the Codex

Welcome to The Early History of the Codex: A New Methodology and Ethics for Manuscript Studies (EthiCodex). This blog will be a space for updates on the project, which officially begins in August 2021 and runs through July of 2026.

This first post is intended to introduce the project and provide some background. Early Greek and Latin codices (defined for the purposes of this project as those produced between roughly the second and the seventh centuries CE) are usually thought of as individually important because they preserve some of our most ancient copies of Christian and classical texts. But as a group, these books also have the potential to help us understand the development and spread of the technology of the codex. The last effort at a comprehensive overview of early codices was Eric G. Turner’s groundbreaking book, The Typology of the Early Codex, published in 1977.

Since the appearance of Turner’s Typology, many new codex fragments have come to light, and the fields of papyrology and book history have developed in a number of ways.

First, there is a new level of appreciation for the book as physical object. In addition to the main features that interested Turner (page size, writing surface, and quire structure), other material aspects of ancient books have come to be seen as worthy of note: the sewing of the binding, cover construction, and “paratextual” features, such as titles, chapter divisions, decorations, and marginal notes, to name a few. These kinds of features were not always high on the list of priorities for editors in the early twentieth century, who were mainly (and understandably) interested in publishing texts. The result is that it can be difficult to study these features systematically across the corpus of early codices.

Second, there is a growing recognition that the most common method of assigning dates to early codices (analysis of handwriting, or palaeography) is highly subjective and not as reliable as previous generations believed. Thus, up to the present, most conclusions about the development of the codex have been based on insecure foundations.

Third, recent years have also witnessed an increased awareness of ethical problems with the study of ancient manuscripts. That is to say, the study of ancient books is the study of cultural heritage property, much of it acquired under dubious circumstances.

What is needed is an ethically responsible and efficient way to handle a growing body of complicated evidence. We need to more systematically describe and catalog the physical features of early codices and codex fragments and build a larger corpus of securely dated samples. At the same time, we need to recognize that more advanced studies of items that are unprovenanced or that have been obtained through questionable means are problematic. To that end, The Early History of the Codex plans the following activities thanks to the generous support of the Research Council of Norway:

  • Conduct provenance research into the ownership histories of early Greek and Latin codices.
  • Produce detailed physical and codicological descriptions of the make-up of the earliest Greek and Latin codices.
  • Design an open-access database making codicological data and provenance information for an estimated 2500 early Greek and Latin codices easily searchable and freely available online.
  • Make a systematic canvassing of museum and library collections containing ethically acquired early papyrus and parchment books to determine willingness to have AMS radiocarbon analysis carried out on their early codices and then fund this analysis.

The ultimate goal is a new history of the development of the codex. But we also hope that the data we produce will be useful to scholars in many academic fields, from ancient history and classics to art crime and cultural heritage.

Thanks for reading, and keep an eye on this page for updates on the project.