Tablet to Tablet: The Codex

The codex, opens a new window is considered the first book form—pages bound together and placed between two thicker pieces of material—and the earliest example appears in the historical record in the first century CE.

Codices had many advantages over the scroll: they were portable, readers could easily locate a specific section of the text, and they could contain longer texts. For example, the Gospel of Matthew took an entire scroll, but early codices often included all four Gospels and the Book of Acts. The earliest known manuscript of the Christian Bible is the Codex Sinaticus, opens a new window, which dates to the 4th century CE.

Early codices were originally written by hand, and many were illustrated with gold and silver, making them appear to glow. These works of art are known as illuminated manuscripts, opens a new window. One of the most famous European illuminated manuscripts, opens a new window is the Book of Kells, opens a new window, a digitized copy of which is available online, opens a new window.

In the Americas the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan peoples also created their own codices starting around 1000 CE. These books contained pictographs rather than written script and focused on the ritual calendar, divination, ceremonies, and speculation about the gods and the universe. These codex were usually folded accordion style. One of the most famous pre-Columbian codices is the Dresden Codex, opens a new window. One of four remaining Mayan codices, it depicts divination calendars, astronomical calculations, and rituals.

Want to learn more about illuminated manuscripts? Please visit the "Reading the World: Tablet to Tablet Exhibit" at the Mandeville Branch all November. This week you can create your own book using a single sheet of paper.

We also highly recommend the British Library's blog posts, opens a new window featuring the illuminated manuscripts in their collection, opens a new window! You can visit their online exhibit, opens a new window and view digitized manuscripts,, opens a new window too. 

We also have some interesting books about illuminated manuscripts at the library and on Hoopla:

Tablet to Tablet: The Codex

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