A New Project: The Early History of the Codex

A busy semester is now winding down, and I’m happy to announce that in August, I’ll be kicking off a new, five-year project: The Early History of the Codex: A New Methodology and Ethics for Manuscript Studies (EthiCodex) based here in Oslo at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society, thanks to the support of the Research Council of Norway.

The beginnings of the technology of the codex have intrigued me for a long time now, but I recognized early on that there were a number of methodological hurdles involved in thinking critically about this kind of historical phenomenon. The codicological details of many of our earliest surviving codices and codex fragments have in many cases not been as richly described and cataloged as they could be. And on top of that, most of the corpus of surviving samples of early codices lack a secure date. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am skeptical of the use of palaeography (the analysis of handwriting) to yield high-precision dates for manuscripts of the Roman era (for more details on that, see the discussion here).

Over the years, however, I came to recognize that in addition to these methodological problems, there were also ethical issues to face: Many of these books are unprovenanced and were were acquired unethically, or even illegally. Colleagues like Roberta Mazza have forced us (i.e., me) to ask: How should we, as scholars who study ancient manuscripts, respond to this fact?

This project is an attempt to begin to fill in the many gaps in our knowledge about these ancient manuscripts while at the same time taking seriously the problem posed by the illegal antiquities market. To achieve this goal, the project has four secondary objectives.

  1. Conduct provenance research into the ownership histories of early Greek and Latin codices.
  2. Produce detailed physical and codicological descriptions of the make-up of the earliest Greek and Latin codices.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 goal, then, is to increase the number of securely dated manuscripts, but to avoid adding value to manuscripts that were obtained in an unethical way. And what is to be done about those unethically sourced manuscripts? We catalogue and organize the existing published data about those codices and flag them as ethically problematic. In this way, if colleagues do decide to study them, they will at least have a clearer idea of what they might be getting themselves into.

The project will be hiring two postdoctoral research fellows for three-year appointments (2022-2024). The application portal for the positions is now open here. Contact me if you’re interested!

This entry was posted in Codices, Codicology, Radiocarbon analysis. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to A New Project: The Early History of the Codex

  1. Fascinating! Will Coptic codices also be studied?

    • Hi Melissa! The Coptic material will definitely factor in to the overall question of the early history of the codex, but the database is focused on compiling and reassessing the data for Greek and Latin codices. The excellent PAThs project at Sapienza sponsored by the ERC (http://paths.uniroma1.it/) has already done a lot of the work in compiling this kind of codicological and provenance data for early Coptic books.

  2. Timothy Mitchell says:

    Brent, this is wonderful news. I too share your fascination with codices. Ever since I read Turner’s “Typology of the Early Codex” I’ve wanted to tackle making a comprehensive database of codices where researchers can mine data (such as size and shape).
    How will this information overlap with databases such as LDAB? Or will it at all?

    • Hi Timothy, Thanks for your note. Yes, the ability to search codices by page dimensions or height-to-width proportions is one of the needs motivating the project. There will be overlap with the LDAB in some basic data, but the idea is to supplement some aspects of the LDAB. Because the LDAB covers multiple formats (rolls, codices, sheets), things like dimensions can be difficult to record and render coherently searchable (we ran into this problem working on the digitization of the Bodmer collection, which ended up having much less functionality than we had hoped). With a database limited to codices, that kind of physical data can be systematized and organized more easily. On the provenance side, we hope to incorporate the ability to search by dealers and particular purchase lots, to supplement the “ancient archive” feature of the LDAB.

  3. Tom Hennell says:

    Really interesting; given your skepticism over dating; how might you propose to attach dates to manuscripts for this dataset?

    • Hi Tom, The funding for the project includes support for radiocarbon testing. The goal will be to identify collections with ethically and legally sourced early codices or codex fragments and to explore possibilities for testing materials from these collections. Many collections have non-destruction policies in place, but recent studies have shown that successful analysis can be carried out on minute samples, so I am hopeful that some progress can be made in this area.

  4. warkentg says:

    Hello, Brent. This project interests me greatly, as I am a book historian writing about the long material history of the codex; My chapter on the codex’s emergence (I refuse to use the term “invention”) is still in the works, though much of the rest of the book is in rough draft. It’s been deeply frustrating to research because of the uncertainty of provenance data, dating, and descriptions, e.g..will the presence of sewing holes be among your diagnostics? Because of the historical scope of my study (from the beginnings of the codex to the print era) I need to know what scholars in other fields are doing. I look forward to your results. Germaine Warkentin

  5. Lawrence Norman says:

    Hello Mr. Nongbri,

    I have been doing some research on the origins of the codex. All of the fragments where the → text is continued on the ↓ are assumed to be a page from a codex.
    One of my contentions is that some of the extant fragments containing New Testament text were never more than just a single leaf. Briefly, here are a few items to consider:
    – The content of some of these fragments makes a complete context from which to present a sermon.
    – Some of the fragments present difficulties in estimating pagination when considering margins, spacing and letter size.
    – The extant fragments, as a whole, represent an interesting ratio of sections (i.e. beginning, middle, end) if they are all from codices.


    Lawrence Norman

  6. Pingback: New Site for Posts on Codices and Codicology | Variant Readings

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