The Binding of Codex Bezae

“It is indeed defective and not copied correctly enough right from the beginning, nor is it in good enough condition as it should be, as may be seen from several parts in a different hand which have been inserted, and the barbarous notes of some ignorant old Greek monk added everywhere.”

- T. Bezae (in a letter to Cambridge University Library about the codex).

I was recently afforded a day of consultation with Codex Bezae at the Cambridge University Library. The Manuscripts Room of this library is one of the friendliest and most accommodating I have yet encountered. Much of my understanding of the most recent re-binding of Bezae is indebted to the head of the conservation department there who walked me through its construction and compared it to more recent binding procedures that are distinctly different.

The Current Binding.

Part of the catalog item is a two page typewritten treatment report by Stan Cockerell, who rebound Bezae in the 60’s. The treatment report chronicles the status of the manuscript at that time and its conservation process. Cockerell removed the codex from its 19th century binding and found that most of the outside fold of each folio had been severely damaged, as well as many of the interior folio leaves. Additional to this were seven saw cuts in the spine done at the time of its 19th century rebind. Such damage is consistent with a rebind in which the spine has been scraped of any original glue, and then each signature (gathering, quire) is re-sewn at five original points along with two rows of kettle stitching on the top and bottom of the spine. The conservation treatment here was similar to that of Siniaticus in that every leaf was flattened on clips. But unlike Siniaticus, “the number of repairs runs into several thousand.” Page tears and splits were either sewn or repaired with PVA adhesive along with a few different types of toned vellum and paper. Damaged folio backs were guarded with linen. (Bezae is a rather damaged text, lots of corrosive ink, ox gall stains, and tearing.) After all of these repairs were completed, the repaired signatures were sewn to vellum meeting guards with linen thread spaced every ½ inch. A meeting guard is simply a folded piece of material onto which a signature is sewn, they “meet” each other along their respective folded edges: m.g. > < sig. These meeting guards are then bound just like signatures along the spine, in this case on five large cords. The volumes were split at folios 175 and 176 to match the facsimile edition, and then laced onto English oak boards wrapped to about four inches or so in a pale alum-tawed pigskin. Cockerell said he wanted the codices to have a “mellow” feel.

These days the binding process would have been different in that rather than a flat-back binding with meeting guards, the entire codex would have been reconstructed and guarded folio by folio, re-sewn, and then bound on a hollow-back binding. Both are secure, lay flat, virtually adhesive free bindings. But the latter method tends to preserve the original codex construction and provide better visual access to the spine.

The Original Binding.

My mission in this consultation was to use Bezae as a test case to see if it were possible to find traces of the original binding structure of the earliest major rebound biblical codices. I was looking for hints of its original structure that had survived at least two re-bindings, one far more professional than its predecessor. These would be any of the following: Original alpha-numerical binding aids along the tailpiece of the codex on each signature that would have helped in the original binding process. Any tooling marks or signs of extant original adhesive. Folios on which it was possible to see a definitive and consistent sewing pattern that would most probably have been original.

1. Unfortunately, I didn’t find too much. In his monograph on Bezae, Parker enumerates 18 or 19 different hands in the manuscript, one of which is responsible for the Greek alpha-numeric numbering of each signature on the lower inner margin of the last page of each. Additional to this are three different sets of numbering and markings from binders or curators of the manuscript. One of these is in ink Roman numerals at the top fore-edge of each verso and recto. The other two are sets of ordinal numerals written in pencil and ink. I couldn’t find any catalog data on the codex that would link any of these much later hands to a particular time other than a possible match between the hand on one of the sets of folio numbering and a few sentences self-dated to 1898 on a set of folio maps in the box of scraps and whatnots that are part of the Bezae catalog item (see below). Such data would be somewhat irrelevant, however, the original folio numbering is consistent with Roman practice, albeit in Greek script (as they fall on the Greek side of the manuscript).

2. As far as tooling marks are concerned, Bezae is a very distinct example of the ruling of text-blocks. All the original adhesive had been removed excepting the possibility that one of the vellum scraps in an envelop with the codex had some adhesive (definitely not from Cockerell’s binding) that could either be from its 19th century or original binding. Other than that, the current codex has been so drastically cleaned and guarded that it would be difficult to find any tooling marks on the spine or endsheets.

3. Due to the binding previous to Cockerell’s, the sewing pattern is completely indeterminate. I got as close as Cockerell, who surmised that the original codex was bound on five cords, probably proportionally spaced as they are now (as the original codex was a bit larger than it currently is). And such a sewing pattern would be consistent with early European binding. The saw cuts on each folio have left a set of elongated holes that obscure any original manufactural marks.

As a result, there isn’t too much that one can say about the binding of Bezae. This consultation did, however, sharpen my attention to details that could be indication of original binding structure should all the right circumstances be in place. If Bezae had been rebound according to contemporary re-binding procedures, and had not been mangled by a 19th century binder, then it would be possible to surmise how the original codex had been constructed. Even if each signature had been fairly badly damaged, it would really only take three or four solid leads to detail its original sewing pattern with some certainty. Furthermore, extant endsheets and spine lining material would only enhance such conjecture, giving us further clues as to their method of attachment to actual covers. Bezae does not afford such data, but others may.

The “Bezae Box.”

There was a box of material that can be seen along with Bezae. Its contents are as following:

1. A few exhibition labels, on one of which E.A. Lowe is cited as sourcing the codex in “a near-East centre” (Egypt or Palestine) in the early fifth-century. A different label claims “Sicily” as its provenance.
2. Cockerell’s treatment reports along with a remarkable set of photos of the manuscript in various states of repair. A few of these were published in Parker’s monograph.
3. Two envelops of vellum scraps presumably leftover from the re-binding.
4. The Corpus Christianorum edition of the Vulgate text of the supplemental pages of Bezae by J. Mizzi.
5. Several sets of folio maps (a handwritten diagram of each folio) that had been checked and signed by four different librarians (1898, 1949, 1952, 1962) claiming “all here.”
6. Blank reconstructions of each folio, probably for re-binding practice.


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