AskDefine | Define codex

Dictionary Definition



1 an official list of chemicals or medicines etc.
2 an unbound manuscript of some ancient classic (as distinguished from a scroll) [syn: leaf-book] [also: codices (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. an early manuscript book
  2. a book bound in the modern manner, by joining pages, as opposed to a rolled scroll
  3. an official list of medicines and medicinal ingredients


early book

Extensive Definition

A codex (Latin for block of wood, book; plural codices) is a book in the format used for modern books, with separate pages normally bound together and given a cover. It was a Roman invention that replaced the scroll, which was the first form of book in all Eurasian cultures.
Although technically any modern paperback is a codex, the term is used only for manuscript (hand-written) books, produced from Late Antiquity through the Middle Ages. The scholarly study of manuscripts from the point of view of the bookmaking craft is called codicology. The study of ancient documents in general is called paleography.
New World codices were written as late as the 16th century (see Maya codices and Aztec codices). Those written before the Spanish conquests seem all to have been single long sheets folded concertina-style, sometimes written on both sides of the local amatl paper. So, strictly speaking they are not in codex format, but they more consistently have "Codex" in their usual names than do other types of manuscript.
The codex was an improvement upon the scroll, which it gradually replaced, first in the West, and much later in Asia. The codex in turn became the printed book, for which the term is not used. In China books were already printed but only on one side of the paper, and there were intermediate stages, such as scrolls folded concertina-style and pasted together at the back.


The basic form of the codex was invented in Pergamon in the 3rd Century BCE. Rivalry between the Pergamene and Alexandrian libraries had resulted in the suspension of papyrus exports from Egypt. In response the Pergamenes developed parchment from sheepskin; because of the much greater expense it was necessary to write on both sides of the page. The Romans used similar precursors made of reusable wax-covered tablets of wood for taking notes and other informal writings. The first recorded Roman use of the codex for literary works dates from the late first century AD, when Martial experimented with the format. At that time the scroll was the dominant medium for literary works and would remain dominant for secular works until the fourth century. Julius Caesar, traveling in Gaul, found it useful to fold his scrolls concertina-style for quicker reference, as the Chinese also later did. As far back as the early 2nd century, there is evidence that the codex—usually of papyrus—was the preferred format among Christians: in the library of the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum (buried in AD 79), all the texts (Greek literature) are scrolls; in the Nag Hammadi "library", secreted about AD 390, all the texts (Gnostic Christian) are codices. The earliest surviving fragments from codices come from Egypt and are variously dated (always tentatively) towards the end of the 1st century or in the first half of the 2nd. This group includes the Rylands Library Papyrus P52, containing part of St John's Gospel, and perhaps dating from between 125 and 160.
In Western culture the codex gradually replaced the scroll. From the fourth century, when the codex gained wide acceptance, to the Carolingian Renaissance in the eighth century, many works that were not converted from scroll to codex were lost to posterity. The codex was an improvement over the scroll in several ways. It could be opened flat at any page, allowing easier reading; the pages could be written on both recto and verso; and the codex, protected within its durable covers, was more compact and easier to transport.
The codex also made it easier to organize documents in a library because it had a stable spine on which the title of the book could be written. The spine could be used for the incipit, before the concept of a proper title was developed, during medieval times.
Although most early codices were made of papyrus, papyrus was fragile and supplies from Egypt, the only place where papyrus grew, became scanty; the more durable parchment and vellum gained favor, despite the cost.
The codices of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica had the same form as the European codex, but were instead made with long folded strips of either fig bark (amatl) or plant fibers, often with a layer of whitewash applied before writing.
In Asia, the scroll remained standard for far longer than in the West. The Jewish religion still retains the Torah scroll, at least for ceremonial use.

Notable codices

Codices are usually named for their most famous resting-place, whether a city or a private library. N.B.: this is mostly a list of notable books that happen to have Codex in their usual name, as opposed to e.g. Gospels, Bible etc. Most of the books in the List of manuscripts and List of illuminated manuscripts are also codices.


For further readings

  • David Diringer, The Book Before Printing: Ancient, Medieval and Oriental, Courier Dover Publications, New York 1982, ISBN:0486242439
  • C.H. Roberts – T.C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex, Oxford University Press, New York – Cambridge 1983.
  • L.W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, Cambridge 2006.
codex in Afrikaans: Kodeks
codex in Czech: Kodex
codex in German: Antike Kodices
codex in Modern Greek (1453-): Κώδικας (παλαιογραφία)
codex in Spanish: Códice
codex in French: Codex
codex in Galician: Códice
codex in Korean: 코덱스
codex in Italian: Codice (filologia)
codex in Hebrew: קודקס
codex in Hungarian: Kódex
codex in Japanese: コデックス
codex in Norwegian: Kodeks
codex in Polish: Kodeks (książka)
codex in Portuguese: Códice
codex in Russian: Кодекс (книга)
codex in Slovak: Zákonník
codex in Slovenian: Kodeks
codex in Finnish: Koodeksi
codex in Swedish: Codex
codex in Ukrainian: Рукописна книга
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