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Christian Late Antiquity: Paleography

Section 6: Codicology and Page Layout in Christian Late Antiquity


The period of the development of Half-Uncial and Uncial script is also the period of the transition from roll to codex as the dominant form of the book. The reasons for the rise of the codex are much disputed. The numbers of surviving books in each form, however, make it clear that the codex was becoming the dominant form by the time the earliest examples of Half-Uncial and Uncial script appear.

  • 2nd century: 90% of surviving books are rolls.
  • 4th century: 80% of surviving books are codices.
  • 6th century: nearly 100% of surviving books are codices.

Furthermore, 80% of surviving Christian books from late antiquity are in codex form.
Source: William A. Johnson, "The Ancient Book," The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, ed. Roger S. Bagnall (Oxford, 2009), 256-281.

As a result, we almost invariably see Half-Uncial (2nd-5th centuries, but with most survivals from late in that period) and Uncial script (5th-8th centuries) in codices.

Those codices are usually, though not always, made of parchment. There were papyrus codices in antiquity, but papyrus is comparatively ill-suited to the codex form because it does not stand up well to folding.

Papyrus, a product of Egypt, did continue to be used in Europe into the early Middle Ages, but with less and less frequency by the start of the 8th century. One of the Uncial manuscripts we looked at earlier in this lesson is actually a mixed parchment-papyrus codex from the turn of the 8th century in Gaul. Parchment forms the outer bifolium of each quire, and the inner bifolia are made of papyrus. (We see something similar with parchment and paper manuscripts at the end of the Middle Ages.) This is far from a common situation and seems to be an artifact of the transition from one writing support to another.

Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, MS lat. 16, f. 4v.
(on parchment)
Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, MS lat. 16, f. 5r.
(on papyrus)


The interplay of script, text, decoration (if any), and blank space on the page varies over time, from region to region, and with type of book. Beginning with this lesson, we will consider layout features that we associate with the scripts we are studying and with the periods we are focusing on in each unit.

The emergence of the codex, whether of papyrus or parchment, seems to be associated with a new aesthetic of the layout of text on the page. Whereas the papyrus roll presented the reader with a series of long, narrow columns, the earliest codices usually, though not always, have single-column pages.

The written area of these books is usually framed by ample empty parchment. Sparse marginal apparatus might include marks indicating correspondences with other texts, collation with another version of the text, or scriptural citations. But manuscripts of this period do not have the extensive glossing and marginal commentaries we see later in the Middle Ages.


Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, MS 15, f. 6r,
used under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.
© Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 210 f. 4r.


Texts from before the 8th century, especially those from areas where late forms of Latin were spoken, observed the ancient habit of writing in scriptio continua, with no breaks between words.

However, in late antiquity we do see several scribal strategies for helping the reader perceive sense- and syntax-units on the page. One is the layout per cola et commata — "by clause and phrase" — introduced by Jerome in his Vulgate translation of the Bible. In a copy of the Bible laid out per cola et commata, every new sense/syntax unit starts on a new line, so the text looks a bit like verse with ragged line ends. An example is the Harley Golden Gospels, below left.

In text presentations of the same period in which the text fills out a rectangular written area, we sometimes see large spaces between sentences, even if there are no spaces between words, as in Vatican manuscript Pal. lat. 210, below right. Large spaces between sentences may may be an accommodation to the difficulty of tracking scriptio continua when it is written in a single column with long lines.

In both layouts, litterae notabiliores, which may be colored or simply a larger version of the letters of the main text, also help punctuate the page.

Layout per cola et commata

© The British Library Board, Harley 1775, f. 193r.

Layout in long lines with breaks between sentences

© Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 210 f. 4r.

Despite a preference for single-column layouts in codices of late antiquity, we do find double-column layouts. This was a practical choice especially for larger-format Bible manuscripts laid out per cola et commata, because a single column of short lines of text would be very profligate of parchment, even for a super-luxury manuscript. Two columns of text per cola et commata made it possible to fit longer biblical texts, or even whole Bibles, in a single codex. With a spacious Uncial script, this layout was a user-friendly solution in the era before regular word separation, as we can see in this Gospel manuscript from around the year 600.

Double columns, per cola et commata layout

The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, Auct. D. 2. 14, f. 130r.

In the next unit, on Insular manuscripts, we will see these scripts and layouts adapted for use in countries where Latin was not a native language.

Biblical and patristic manuscripts in these plain-page layouts with Uncial and Half-Uncial script were carried to England and Ireland at the conversion of those countries to Christianity, where they were both imitated and transformed by adaptation to native artistic traditions.

Repeatedly through later centuries, the unadorned single-column page with plenty of space around the text was associated with antiquity, because in most cases the oldest manuscripts later scribes knew were those of late antiquity, or books modeled directly on them. Layouts based directly or indirectly on this model were popular in times and places where scribes wanted to convey the authority of antiquity.


If you read Latin, go to the Classical Antiquity Transcription lesson to learn about abbreviations in Latin manuscripts and practice reading Uncial and Half-Uncial script. If you have already finished that transcription lesson, move on to the Christian Late Antiquity Transcription exercises. Otherwise, go directly to the Insular Paleography lesson to learn about the scripts of the British Isles in the early Middle Ages.