Glossary of terms

This page just defines a few terms for the benefit of the casual browser, so that you can get on with the rest of the pages without feeling baffled. The subject of ancient book production is a fascinating one, but outside the scope of these pages. I've given enough so you can follow it up yourselves. Perhaps one day I will sit down and write some pages on the subject.

Most of the information on this page can be gained from Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, F.G.Kenyon, Books and Readers in ancient Greece and Rome, and some of his other papers, and other books and papers in the bibliography. I haven't given detailed references for each statement, as I don't have the books in front of me at the moment. Maybe some other time.

My other reference for all of this is Michelle P. Brown, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts : A guide to technical terms.


The technical (Latin) term for the modern form of book, as opposed to the roll, the ancient form. The word is Latin, and originated as Caudex, meaning block of wood1. The earliest codices (plural) were made from thin strips of wood. Later the wood was covered with wax, to form the wax tablets-type of notebook (such as the example found in the Roman fort of Vindolanda, on Hadrian's Wall), and much used as a notepad. In the first century BC sheets of parchment were folded to make crude codices for the same purpose. Martial records in his epigrams the first steps towards making these a form for literary book production. The codex could also be made of Papyrus. The codex gradually replaced the roll - for law books by 250AD, and generally by 400-450AD. However Christians appear to have used it for their own works from the beginning, and the Gospel of Mark may even have been written originally on one2.

There is nothing to indicate whether Tertullian's works were originally in roll or codex form. It is worth noting that the technology change at this time has been held responsible for the loss of many ancient writings, as works written on rolls had either to be copied to the new medium or be left to moulder away on the less convenient older medium. Many ancient works were no longer extant in the Late Roman period - the compiler of the Theodosian Code, ca 450AD, records that the works of earlier jurists such as Ulpian and Papinian were only extant in digest form3.


1. Sanders, H.A., The beginnings of the modern book, also Kenyon, F.G, Books and Readers.
2. Roberts, C.H, The Ancient Book and the Ending of St. Mark.
3. Christ, Karl, The handbook of medieval library history, note 1.


A single leaf of a codex. It has two sides, recto and verso, in that order.

Things can get more complex (although not on these pages!) If you take a piece of parchment and fold it, you get a double folio, or two leaves. Take 4 sheets and fold them and you get 8 leaves, 16 sides / pages, which is called a quaternion, or a quire.

Note also that the term 'folio' can refer to a large book size - twice the size of quarto?


A book size, half the size of quarto.


Made by scraping down and smoothing animal skins, a fine white paper-like sheet can be created. The finest grade is known as vellum. It's origin is unclear, but there is some connection with the city of Pergamum, as the Latin name for it (charta pergamenum) makes clear. A few parchment rolls were made, but papyrus was definitely preferred for all forms of book, until the codex took over from the roll. Papyrus sheets could also be used to make a codex, but the result was unsatisfactory. Consequently codices used parchment as a rule, although papyrus codices from Egypt do exist. The gradual disappearance of the papyrus plant from Egypt meant that parchment was used almost exclusively from the 6th century onwards, until the technology to make paper became known, in the 14th century. Very late manuscripts are written on paper, and can be very hard to tell from early printed works.

Parchment looks like high-quality, thick white paper. It has a slight tendency to curl, so the pages in a medieval manuscript tend to have a 'wave' in them.


Standard size for a manuscript or early edition. Literally one-quarter of a full-size sheet of writing paper. Larger than A4, smaller than A3. The Barraeus I've seen had pages 21 x 33 cms (8.25 x 13 inches).


In a codex, this means the first side of a leaf. Manuscripts do not tend to have page numbers in the modern fashion. Instead pages are referred to by the folio number, and the side. So if you open a book, the first thing you see is the recto of folio 1. Turn that page, and you are looking at the verso of folio 1, followed by the recto of folio 2. And so on. Sometimes labelled 'r' or 'a'.

Could also mean the inside (writing) surface of a roll. See verso for more details.


The reverse of a leaf. See recto for more details on recto and verso. Sometimes labelled 'v' or 'b'.

The word has a different meaning for a papyrus roll, where it means the outside, which was rougher and not usually written on.


This page has been online since 10th December 1999.

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