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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.