The great age for the discovery of papyrus manuscripts in Egypt was of course the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But a handful of papyrus manuscripts, more specifically Latin papyrus codices, also survived from antiquity in European libraries.
In his paleographical handbook published in 1893, Edward Maunde Thompson gave a list of these. As it turns out, images of most of them are available online:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
(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:
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):
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:
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):
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:
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.
One of the most useful exercises to do when trying to understand the construction of an early codex is to build a model. With early codices, it is always the case that we don’t have all the information that we need to accomplish this with total accuracy, but the process of making a model helps bring to light some of the unanswered questions. I’ve mentioned on the Variant Readings blog some of the models I’ve made in the last few years–for instance, Nag Hammadi Codex III (TM 107743) and Codex VI (TM 107746).
In connection with an article I recently wrote, I made a model of the papyrus codex containing Paul’s epistles in Greek split between the Chester Beatty Library and the University of Michigan (a.k.a. P46, TM 61855). It is another single-quire codex. It’s the largest (that is to say, the thickest) codex that I have tried to make. Nag Hammadi Codex VI had 20 bifolia, Codex III had 40 bifolia, and P46 is estimated to have had 52 bifolia. Only 43 bifolia survive, but the pages of the codex were numbered, so the reconstruction of the size of the quire is reasonable (though not certain, as I discuss in the aforementioned article).
Over the next few posts, I’ll describe some the issues I encountered in making the model. The feature item I’ll discuss is the size of the bifolia.
When a thick single quire is folded in half, the innermost sheets protrude. Ancient bookmakers solved this problem by making the outermost bifolia of the quire broader than those in the center of the quire. In the case of the better preserved Nag Hammadi codices, this change in size can be clearly documented with leaf by leaf measurements. P46 is a bit more damaged, and so we must do some estimation to determine the original dimensions of its bifolia. The breadth of the central bifolium of P46 is reasonably well preserved, with just a bit of wear on the edges. The original breadth was likely about 26.8 cm. The outermost bifolia of the codex have not survived, and the outermost bifolia of the codex that do survive are quite damaged. In his thorough PhD dissertation on P46, Edgar Battad Ebojo has estimated that the outermost bifolium of the quire likely measured about 32 cm (based on the measurements of the largest surviving bifolia). So, between the innermost and outermost bifolium, there was likely a difference of just about 5 cm, as illustrated below.
With a total of 52 bifolia, each bifolium should be about 1 mm less wide than the previous one from outside to inside. So I decreased the breadth of each sheet by 1 mm as I cut them. The resulting stack looked like this:
Even with this adjustment, however, I found that the central bifolia still protruded a bit when the quire was folded.
I had similar results with my model of Nag Hammadi Codex III:
I suspect that these large single-quire codices in antiquity probably did have this uneven fore-edge. I am aware of only one good photograph of an ancient intact single-quire codex that clearly shows the fore-edge; this is the Berlin Akhmimic Proverbs codex (TM 107968). The codex is of course damaged, but it does appear that the central bifolia protrude quite noticeably (and this in spite of the fact that the outermost bifolium is about 4 cm broader than the central bifolium). (Side note: I’m unsure of the ultimate source of this photo; I found it in Sharpe’s chapter, but I don’t know where he got it. I would love to have an image developed from the original negatives, as there are many details that cannot be made out in this scan.):
It is sometimes suggested that the fore-edge of single-quire codices could have been trimmed after binding to achieve a flat endge (e.g. in James Robinson’s writings on the Nag Hammadi codices). This is in theory possible, but I wonder how, in practical terms, such trimming would have been carried out in antiquity (I’m genuinely curious; suggestions are welcome!). It seems like it would be a tricky procedure with ancient cutting tools. For now, my assumption is that the bifolia of single-quire codices were cut to size before folding.
In the next post, I’ll discuss the binding of P46 and the use of stays in single-quire codices.