Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Galen on the Parchment Codex

While reading through the physician Galen of Pergamon's (129- ca. 215 CE) recently re-discovered writing "On the Avoidance of Grief," I came across a reference to the parchment codex.
In this particular piece Galen is writing in response to a friend's inquiry into Galen's amazing state of happiness despite the recent calamities that have befallen him. Galen writes in order to instruct his friend on the discipline of avoiding grief despite the hardships of life.
One of the most interesting aspects of this writng are the details Galen gives on libraries in Rome, the copying of books, and the contents of his own library. Apparently a large fire burned a section of Rome (the Sacred Way) that housed several libraries and personal book collections, including Galen's own. While listing his literary losses,  Galen mentions one item that was especially important to him.

"What then, you will say, is even greater than all the things mentioned that might be able to cause distress? Well, I will tell you this: I was entrusted with the possession of the most remarkable medical recipes, such as no one else in the entire Roman world (possessed)--fortune, in part, contributing to this and I myself, in part, contributing equally. In fact, two-fold fortune granted me each (of the recipe collections) along the way. The first of which is as follows: A certain rich man of those around me hastened to find knowledge concerning effective medications, with the result that he purchased some recipes in the amount of more than one hundred gold coins. He set about this task in such a way as to purchase not only all recipes that were held in esteem by (physicians) today in Asia, but also by those (physicians) of the past. These medical recipes were preseved, with upmost care, in two parchment codices that a certain one of the heirs--himself most dear to me--gave to me of his own accord without being asked." ("On the Avoidance of Grief," 31-33)

There are a few observations that can be made regarding Galen's reference to codices.

1) These parchment codices are specifically used to hold notes, not a literary composition. This is in contrast to bookrolls mentioned in the surrounding context.

2) Even though Galen obviously valued this collection of recipes, he only possessed one copy of the codices.

Though Galen's codices were not meant for circulation, the fact that he only possesed one copy of such a valuable collection sits in stark contrast to Craig Evan's declaration,
"In late antiquity, no one produced a single exemplar of a work and then circulated it" ("How Long Were Late Antique Books in Use?", 33).
Coupled with this is the contrast between parchment codices and literary bookrolls. Perhaps this can shed some light on the early Christian preference for the codex?


Evans, Craig, "How Long Were Late Antique Books in Use? Possible Implications for New Testament Textual Criticiam," Bulletin for Biblical Research 25.1 (2015): 23-37.

Rothschild, Clare K. , and Trevor W. Thompson, "Galen: "On the Avoidance of Grief"," Early Christianity 2 (2011): 110-129.

An image of the Nag Hammadi codices. Likely similar to what Galen's codices would have looked like.


  1. Tim,
    Just a question, does a gift from a private collection really count as being circulated in the way Evans or others use that term?


    1. Thanks for the question Tim. I agree with you that the codex is not the best comparison with Evans's statement. But in the surrounding context Gapen mentions many of his books that he only owned one copy and lamented their loss.

  2. Thanks for this. Do we know if leather-bound parchment codices would have been something one would self-produce if they wanted a notebook, or were these being "mass produced" and sold?

    1. Hello Ben, thanks for the comment. Apologize for the delayed response, I have been traveling out of state for the last week.
      There is really only fragmentary evidence on the codex and what we do have does not mention how they were produced. Though Quintilian does briefly mention a few aspects about the parchment codex. I would say that nothing with regard to books was mass-produced at all, but it is possible that an artisan bookshop in the city marketplace may have had a notebook or two ready made on-hand to be sold. More than likely the parchment codex was made on demand, either by the buyer requesting one to be made by a local craftsman, or by a skilled slave manufacturing one, or even by the person desiring a parchment codex.