What does “Codicology” mean?

The origins of the term “Codicology” can be traced back to Alphonse Dain, a French scholar of Byzantine and Hellenic studies, who first coined the term in his seminal work “Les manuscrits” in 1949. Dain, recognizing the need for a single word to describe the study of manuscripts in English, noted that the Germans already had a word for it, namely “Handschriftenkunde”- . Consequently, Dain proposed “Codicology” as a neologism by combining two words: “codex” or “codocis” in Latin, meaning “book(s)”, and “-logia” in Greek, meaning “the study of a certain subject”. Hence, the word “Codicology” signifies the study of books, particularly manuscripts.

However, it is important to note that Codicology is a vast field of study, encompassing many different areas of research. Thus, while the term may seem all-encompassing, it is not without its limitations. For instance, it does not address the specific study of ancient writings, which is the domain of “Paleography”. Paleography, which also derives from Greek roots “palaiós” and “graphein”, meaning “old-write”, is the study of ancient writings, including those found in manuscripts (think of Caroline Minuscule, Humanistic Script, Beneventan Script, etc.) As such, it is a distinct but complementary field to Codicology, with its own set of methodologies, terminologies, and theories.

Codicology and Palaeography
The Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, f 166v 167r

Codicology vs Palaeography

You might be wondering why these two words appear in this page together. Well, they are both equally important when studying manuscripts. They are often used to indicate the same thing. So let’s give a look:

  • Codicology focuses on the physical aspects of the book. Observing the details of a manuscript, a codicologist is able to learn more about a its origins, provenance, and its role in the life of who owned it, dating, etc.[1]. It essentially takes the path of looking at the “big things to the small things” in order to better understand a book.
  • Palaeography focuses on the history of the scripts and the handwriting. Analyzing a manuscript, a paleographer is also able to discover the place of origin of book, dating, etc. [2]. Here the path is instead inverted: first we give a look a something very specific (the style in which the words are written) and from there we work our ways to the big things, in order to understand what a book is trying to tell us.

These definitions are exactly what makes choosing between codicology and palaeography complex. Both reach the same exact goal, but in different ways. The goal is always the same: understanding a manuscript and its origins better. Some researchers are of the opinion that codicology is part of palaeography, others believe it’s the other way around, with codicology being the better word[3].

The truth is that there is no single-word that really encompasses the whole wonderful universe that surrounds a medieval book, and that’s OK. Both are fantastic and, depending on how you proceed to study a manuscript, and expertise,  you can be a palaeographer or codicologist, and you should always seek the advise of someone who might know more about some other details you ignore.

For example: A palaeographer would be able to say that manuscript Hatton MS 116, Oxford, Bodleian Library, was very possibly at Worcester at a certain point, since the glosses in the manuscript are written by the legendary Tremulous Hand of Worcester. A codicologist might arrive to the same conclusion analyzing the parchment, the binding, the layout, etc. Both excellent research methods.

Codicology and Palaeography example
Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 116

References & Footnotes

References & Footnotes
1 Hunter, Timothy. “Codicology.” The Oxford Companion to Western Art. : Oxford University Press, 2001. Oxford Reference. 2003. Date Accessed 10 Jul. 2017 <>.
2 Beal, Peter. “palaeography.” A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450–2000. : Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference. 2011. Date Accessed 10 Jul. 2017 <>.
3 Beal, Peter. “codicology.” A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450–2000. : Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference. 2011. Date Accessed 10 Jul. 2017 <>.
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