Binding Techniques Codicology Covers Models Papyrus Single-quire Codices

Making a Model of P46, Part 3: Papyrus Codices, Spine Strips, and Covers

In my previous posts about making a model of Beatty-Michigan codex of the Pauline epistles (P46, TM 61855), I discussed the sizes of the bifolia and the curious fact that P46 seems to lack any evidence for the presence of protective parchment or leather stays in the center of the quire. Another issue related to the absence of evidence for stays is a similar lack of evidence for the presence of a spine lining strip or a cover. Just as the stays prevent the binding thread or tacket from ripping the papyrus leaves at the center of the quire, the spine strip protects the outermost bifolia from the binding agent, and the cover protects the whole codex.

Several of the Nag Hammadi codices have well preserved leather spine strips that are now kept together with the covers. Here is the cover of Nag Hammadi Codex IX (TM 107749). Notice the papyrus scraps that still adhere to the spine strip.

Nag Hammadi Codex IX, inside of leather cover, showing spine strip at center with papyrus fragments still adhering; image source: The Claremont Colleges Digital Library

A spine strip also appears to have been preserved with the Crosby-Schøyen Codex (TM 107771), The darker leather is just visible along the spine in this photograph of the codex before it was disassembled:

Crosby-Schøyen Codex before conservation, showing spine lining strip at left; image source: William H. Willis, “The New Collections of Papyri at the University of Mississippi,” in Leiv Amundsen and Vegard Skånland (eds.), Proceedings of the IX International Congress of Papyrology (Oslo: Norwegian Universities Press, 1961), 381-392, plate 2.

In the case of P46, the absence of evidence for a cover and spine strip is understandable, since the outermost bifolia of P46 did not survive. So, even though there is no surviving evidence for either a spine lining strip or a cover, it seems reasonable to expect that they existed. Based on that reasoning (plus the practical point that threads cut right through the papyrus without a spine strip), I added a leather spine strip to the model I made.

Model of P46 showing a hypothetical spine lining strip, snake weight at right to keep the quire closed

I decided not to put a cover on this model, but I am pretty firmly convinced that P46 and indeed most papyrus codices, probably had covers. I recall reading somewhere (I can’t come up with the exact reference) that perhaps the presence of covers on papyrus codices was exceptional. I find this a bit difficult to believe for a couple reasons.

First, papyrus codices, especially single quire codices, tend not to stay closed. There is a snake weight in this image above to hold the codex shut because what it “wants” to do is spring open. A cover with a flap and ties keeps the codex codex closed.

Second, papyrus leaves do not do well without some form of protection. This quire endured just a few trips between office and house in my backpack, and it already has begun to show signs of wear at the edges.

Papyrus books with leather covers, however, are surprisingly durable. The model I made of Nag Hammadi Codex VI can be shaken around by the cover and generally abused without showing any significant damage. I think this kind of cover must have been the norm for papyrus codices in antiquity.

Binding Techniques Codicology Models Papyrus Single-quire Codices

Making a model of P46, Part 2: Missing Stays

In my first post about making a model of P46 (TM 61855), the papyrus codex of Paul’s letters in Greek that is split between the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin and the University of Michigan, I discussed the different sizes of the bifolia. Now I want to turn to the elements that usually protect the central folds of papyrus codices, the stays on the inside of the quire. In the case of P46, these items do not survive (if they ever existed at all).

The single-quire papyrus codex is a relatively straightforward construction. A stack of papyrus sheets folded in half and bound. The binding can either be directly through the central fold or “stabbed” through the codex from front to back.

For larger (that is to say, thicker) single-quire codices, it seems as though binding through the central fold would be the more practical option. From ancient examples that have survived in a relatively good state of preservation, like several of the Nag Hammadi codices, we have learned to expect leather or parchment stays at the center of the quire in order to protect the papyrus from being torn by the pressure of the binding agent, whether it is thread or a leather tacket.

In the image below of Nag Hammadi Codex VI (TM 107746), which was bound with two leather tackets through two leather stays, the lower stay is visible, still in place:

Nag Hammadi Codex VI, opened to the center of the quire, with lower leather stay in place (the upper stay is obscured by a feather; the hand belongs to Marianne Doresse; image source: The Claremont Colleges Digital Library

(Side note: Does anyone know if there are other images showing the Nag Hammadi books with the stays in place before they were disassembled?)

Stays have survived in several of the Nag Hammadi codices. When the papyrus leaves of the Nag Hammadi books were removed and mounted, the stays were stored together with the covers. The cover and stays of Codex VI are now in the Bibliotheca Alexandria:

Leather cover of Nag Hammadi Codex VI with stays and tackets (BAAM Serial 0935); image source: Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum

In other surviving single-quire codices, the stays have survived only occasionally. But when such stays are absent, there is often evidence that they were once present in the form of stains or discoloration on the central bifolium in exactly the place(s) where we might expect stays. We see this in the Bodmer Menander codex (TM 61594):

Bodmer Menander Codex, center of quire; image adapted from separate images from the Bodmer Lab

A similar discoloration (lightening) can be seen in the central bifolium of the Crosby-Schøyen codex (Schøyen MS 193, TM 107771). With the Berlin Proverbs codex (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Ms. or. oct. 987, TM 107968), which has been rebound in a modern binding, we have a glass frame that preserves a parchment strip that was almost certainly the stay from the center of the quire:

Remains of the parchment stay, unidentified piece of leather, and binding thread from Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Ms. or. oct. 987; image source: Paola Buzi, The Manuscripts of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin preussischer Kuluturbesitz, Part 4 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2014), plate 5a.

This all makes sense. When papyrus is folded, it weakens. When it is punctured for binding, some reinforcement would seem necessary around the points of friction between the papyrus and the binding agent. I have learned from unpleasant experience that binding threads or leather tackets will rip right through a whole stack of papyrus sheets if they are unprotected. So, it’s quite curious to me that there does not seem to be evidence for any protective stays at the center of the single quire that makes up P46.

If we digitally reunite the now separated halves of the bifolium at the center of the quire, we see no evidence of stays (the color mismatch between the two folia here seems to be due to different conditions during photography):

Beatty-Michigan Pauline epistles codex (P46), center of the quire; image adapted from Chester Beatty Digital Collections

There is evidence of two pairs of binding holes through the central fold of the codex, but there is no evidence (at least as far as I am aware) for the presence of stays. I’m genuinely puzzled as to how the binding would have worked without stays. For my model, I used linen thread and included a pair of parchment stays just to make the codex stable and usable:

Model of P46, open to the center of the quire

If I were to do it again, I would probably use leather stays, as the parchment stays have already begun to tear slightly under the pressure of the binding threads.

In the next post, I’ll talk about some other aspects of the model.

Making a Model of P46, Part 1: The Size of the Bifolia

Making a Model of P46, Part 3: Papyrus Codices, Spine Strips, and Covers

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.