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The Codex

The Latin word codex has come to mean the form of book we, in the Western world at least, are familiar with as a book. Because of the superiority of vellum over papyrus as a foldable writing material and the advantages for reading of folded pages hinged together rather than being rolled, the Christian church, in roughly the 2nd through 4th centuries, adopted and promoted the use of the codex for spreading their religious teachings. Eventually it became the standard form for all books, following the spread of Christianity.

For the codex, the vellum was cut into sheets which, after being ruled by the scribe with a blunt tool, were written on and were then folded and arranged in proper sequence. These folded sheets were gathered together in units of four, each gathering or section constituting a quaternion, from which our word "quire" is derived. The gathered quires were at first just stitched through the folds singly by the bibliopegus, or binder, but soon groups of quires began to be stitched one to another by winding the sewing threads around a strong strip of leather or vellum placed at right angles to the folds at the back of the book. They were then usually encased between two wooden boards, which were afterwards covered with roughly-cured skins. The codex in appearance and construction is surprisingly like our present-day hand-bound book.

The vellum flat book had numerous advantages over the book-roll. It was more convenient to handle, and since the text was written on both sides of the sheet, a codex manuscript occupied far less space on the shelf than the rolled book. Hence a single codex could hold the contents of a work which must be distributed through many volumes in roll form. Being more compact, it was much easier to read and convenient to carry.

The shape of the codex was square and the title was usually written at the end of the text, even down to the end of the 15th century. To the title was sometimes appended such items as the date, the name of the scribe, and other details concerning the manuscript. This matter was all in a sort of final paragraph called the colophon.

The reason for binding books is primarily to preserve them intact: to prevent damage to, or separation of, the text pages. That wooden boards were used as covers on early manuscripts was doubtless due to the fact that the vellum on which they were written had a strong tendency to curl, and could not be made to lie flat without some pressure. Even the weight of the heavy wooden boards wasn't enough, and the added pressure produced by placing metal clasps over the edges of the books was resorted to in order to keep these texts from yawning. A piece of leather was often pasted over the spine of the book and drawn over onto the sides of the boards far enough to cover the joint where the boards were hinged to the spine, leaving the front part of the boards without a leather covering. Thus we have the mediaeval "half-binding". Later, the leather was made to cover the boards entirely, developing the "full-binding", which of course offered an excellent opportunity for decorative designs.


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