Introducing the Medieval Codex

Nimra Sheikh

The word “codex” (pl. “codices”) comes from the Latin “caudex” or tree trunk. The codex united several texts in something recognizable as a modern book. Codices were typically covered, made of parchment, and contained pages (or folia) or relatively uniform size. The earliest mention of a codex was the first century, but it came to be widely used from the fourth through fifteenth centuries.[1] Many scholars associate their increased popularity with the spread of Christianity as it provided a way for texts to be grouped together – something commonly associated with the Christian bible.[2] However, codices had other advantages over the earlier scrolls, in that they were portable and could be easily searched.

Generally, medieval manuscripts were put together in a scriptorium (pl. scriptoria), which literally means, “place for writing.” These soon came to be a standard feature of medieval monastic houses. By the fifteenth century, it was also common for codices (or manuscript books) to be produced in commercial workshops. In both cases, the scribes wrote by hand. For this reason, the codex is also known as a manuscript book from the Latin for “hand” (manus) and “written” (scriptus). They were generally written on parchment, or animal skin. This could be of varying quality. The skin side, or what had been the external skin of the animal was rougher and darker than the flesh side.[3]

Scribes used a stylus, or a quill pen dipped in ink. There were several different ways of making ink, most commonly carbon or charcoal mixed with resin. Many scribes added material to color the ink. Red ink, dyed with vermillion or rust, was used to add subheadings to the text such as titles, or directions for the reader to perform in liturgy or on stage. These were known as rubrics (red-letters). Blue and green ink was also used, but these were more expensive and used mainly for decoration.[4]

As well as being practical, codices were extremely beautiful. It was common for certain manuscripts, particularly liturgical texts, books of hours, important chronicles, or even literary works to be illuminated. The word illuminated comes from the Latin illuminare meaning “to light up.” The process of illumination technically refers to gold leaf being applied to the page. The area that was to be illuminated was covered in an adhesive substance known as gesso. A very thin sheet of gold leaf was applied to the area the excess was removed by blowing softly. The gold leaf was used to illuminate both script and images.[5] It was also common for illuminated manuscripts to be decorated with bright paints or inks.[6]

As a book, the most important feature of a codex was the text. Early writing was an art.  Each text in a codex generally began with an elaborate initial capital. These could be animated, containing figures (either human or animal) that did not necessarily have any relation to the text. In other cases, the animated initial could depict a particular event (generally a bible story) thought to have some relevance to history. These are generally known as “historiated initials.” The initial capital could also be decorated with colors, symbols, or gold leaf. The same practice was common to mark important sections of the text, or important events (such as the death of Christ in the Passion Gospels). It was also common for the first page of a codex or text in a codex to be especially ornate.[7] The image below is taken from an Italian Psalter (Prayer book) from the second half of the twelfth century.

London, British Library, Yates Thompson MS 40, f. 9v

Early medieval texts were typically written in uncials, or mainly capitals. Later scripts became more complex and often included elaborate marks indicating where a word was abbreviated. The art of reading medieval scripts is known as paleography. The writing in manuscripts reveals much about the time and place it was written.[8]

As well as initials, codices generally contained a number of images. In medieval texts, the relationship between word and image was more pronounced than in the modern world and they should not be seen simply as decoration. In some instances, the role of images in conveying the message was particularly important, as the owners of the codex may not have been completely literate. It was common for codices to contain full-page illustrations.

It was particularly common for codices to contain symbols that were important to the owners. To modern scholars, this can provide information about the ownership or origins of the manuscript. For example, a manuscript produced in or owned by a Franciscan house might include images of friars or nuns related wearing Franciscan habits in biblical scenes. For example, it was common for Francis of Assisi (†1226) to be depicted at Christ’s Crucifixion. In other cases, for example for books of hours or prayer books it was common for the patron or owner to be depicted at prayer or even participating in the biblical story. The image below shows a historiated initial from a fifteenth-century Franciscan prayer book. It depicts Francis of Assisi surrounded by three angels representing poverty, chastity, and obedience.

[image unavailable: source unknown]

Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, Marley Collection.

Political or literary events were usually more literal, but still conveyed important ideas about the hierarchy, or the scribe’s political views. From the twelfth century onwards it was also common to find manuscripts decorated with heraldic imagery. This was closely connected with the concept of chivalry. It often contained images of knights in full armor and particular devices such as crests or figures such as the lion and unicorn supporting a shield. The shields were typically emblazoned with distinct patterns showing allegiance to particular families, guilds, or societies.[9]

Another important aspect of the medieval codex was marginalia. In many cases, this was simply an explanation of, or attempt to draw attention to, the contents of a particular section. Images in the margins could include animals, flowers, leaves, or symbols. Marginalia did not always relate to the text, and could even be irreverent or humorous.  On common theme in medieval marginalia was of a knight battling a large snail or a monkey playing bagpipes.[10] The image below depicts the latter found in a manuscript known as the Isabella Breviary, a fourteenth-century prayer book from the South Netherlands (modern day Belgium).

Detail from a full strew border of a monkey playing bagpipes, from the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library, Additional 18851, f. 13 [?]

Codices – particularly illuminated codices – were primarily religious in the earlier middle ages. In the later middle ages, more secular texts such as romances, medical books, or chronicles also became common.[11] By the sixteenth century, the printing press made books available more cheaply and wider distribution became possible. Manuscript codices became more rare in the early modern world and are primarily characteristic of the medieval period.

[1] Roberts, Colin and T.C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex (London: Oxford University Press, 1983).

[2] James E. Bowley, “Bible,” in The Oxford Enclyclopedia of Books of the Bible  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 73-8.

[3] Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, Introduction to the Medieval Manuscript (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007), p. 77.

[4] Ibid, pp. 18-20.

[5] Ibid, pp. 33-4. Cf. Christopher De Hamel, The British Library Guide to Manuscript Illumination (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).

[6] Clemens and Graham, Introduction, pp. 18-34,

[7] Ibid, 25-8.

[8] Leila Avrin, Scribes, Script, and Books: The Book Arts from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Chicago: American Library Association, 2010), pp. 182-91

[9] Cf. Adrian Ailes, “Heraldry in Medieval England: Symbols of Politics and Propaganda,” in Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England, ed. Peter Coos ad Maurice Keen (Oxford: Boy dell Press, 2002), pp. 83-104.

[10]Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion Books, 2013). For the snail see pages 32-5.

[11] For a discussion of various genres see, Clemens and Graham, Introduction, pp. 181-258.

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