Monday, January 22, 2007

What’s That - A ‘Codex’, You Say?

Originally, I chose the name Codex Celtica for this blog as I needed a phrase unlikely to be already taken, and I thought, well this’ll do me as it’s an obscure academic term. (See ‘About This Blog’.) ‘Codex’ can refer to physical form - an early form of folded and sewn book used before printed books appeared. It’s also used to refer to content, namely works containing legal codes, i.e. a body of laws, and this meaning is still in use in Europe. For example, the European Union has the Codex Alimentarius, a 16,000 page legal code backed by the WHO, the WTO and the pharmaceutical industry. (You may’ve read about it in the news this past year as it is banning homeopathic cold remedies, vitamin supplements, or other cheap non-patent medicines, but will allow foodstuffs containing genetically modified material.) In museum terms, it is used to refer to handwritten notebooks, including by Da Vinci. A recent [15-1-07] Los Angeles Times article, “The Da Vinci Codex Versus The Museum Code,” deals with Leonardo Da Vinci's ‘Codex Leicester’, a 72-page illustrated scientific notebook which was sold by the estate of Armand Hammer to Microsoft founder Bill Gates in 1994 for enough to keep the Hammer art museum in LA going ever since. And of course there are other “Da Vinci Codexes”, the term codex being applied to other surviving Leonardo manuscripts. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum opened an exhibition of these in September 2006. As well as the V & A's own ‘Codex Forster’ manuscript was a 1,000-page compilation of Da Vinci's best-known work, known as the Codex Atlanticus. Named for its first established owner, the Earl of Arundel, in the 17th C. England’s greatest art collector, the Codex Arundel held in the British Library is a portfolio-style notebook of writings in Leonardo's famous 'mirror writing'. The content of these codices included outlines of ideas, sketches, formulae, and “his shopping list and regrets about the effect of drinking too much wine.”
Then there are the “Maya Codices,” with the sacred laws of the Mayan civilisation. I gather these remained largely untranslated for centuries due to the Catholic church wilfully destroying so many of them – something that evokes DVC’s historical scenario. Knowledge of the Maya civilisation, the subject of Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto, is based largely on the few surviving Maya Codices, known as The Madrid Codex, The Dresden Codex, and The Paris Codex. The Bible itself is taken from a codex, the Codex Amiatinus, earliest surviving manuscript on from which the Latin Vulgate version was taken and thought based on another codex, the Codex Grandior of Cassiodorus as well as the writings of St. Jerome. Called by some "the finest book in the world", its two-column calligraphy is a product of the Celtic monastic movement, being a work commissioned in 692 by Bede’s mentor Abbot Ceolfrid, founder of Wearmouth Abbey and its calligraphy school. (A gift copy of this work is still used by the Pope as his own personal Bible.)
The term codex is also now being applied to the latest theory about 'the longest running treasure hunt in the world', the Oak Island Money Pit, a mystery sometimes connected to the Templars, where the landscape clues are referred to as a First Nations or native American equivalent to a codex. The Da Vinci Code itself uses the term as an “alphabet-inspired code breaking device.”
Post-DVC, it seems to be coming into more general usage due to novels, TV shows and games using the title, which offers the appeal of a close variant on the already-overused word Code. There’s Douglas Preston’s The Codex, which seems to be a family-inheritance treasure hunt related to Mayan codices that may hold the cure to cancer. There’s plain Codex (no “The”) by Lev Grossman, a “cerebral thriller”, which Amazon says deals with mediaeval literature and a related computer game, thus offering “an added twist for the technophile” in “the emerging genre of literary history thrillers.” A series of novels (Celtika, The Iron Grail) from fantasy author Robert Holdstock (of Mythago Wood fame), is called The Merlin Codex, where the codex in question purports to be Merlin’s real story, his autobiography that he notionally left behind for posterity as a handwritten manuscript.There’s even a game show: Channel 4’s latest attempt to cater to the Da Vinci Code market this winter has been a Sunday-evening game show hosted by Tony Robinson, the actor who followed up playing Baldrick on BBC’s cult historical sitcom Blackadder by presenting history documentary series – C4’s long-running Time Team, and last year’s The Real Da Vinci Code (reviewed here earlier). C4’s Codex series involves a team locked in the British Museum at night and having to solve a set of riddles and puzzles about an ancient civilisation.Excerpt from Ptolemy atlas showing early Europe, with key descriptionsThe C4 show uses ‘the codex’ to mean a cylinder containing a parchment scroll with a secret on it. In TDVC Dan Brown posited such a cylinder, which he named a cryptex, which had a combination-lock set of rotatable dials reminiscent of the German WWII Enigma machine. If you just broke it open, a glass vial would release the vinegar inside, turning the papyrus into mush, as happens in the end. I’ve always been suspicious about this. There’s an expression in British politics that today’s news is just tomorrow’s fish‘n chip wrapping. This derives from the fact that before the EU’s Codex Alimentarius was brought in to regulate British food, fish‘n chip shops used newspaper as insulation-wrapping. And even when the chips were so soaked in vinegar it penetrated right through, it did not eat away the newspaper but left the newsprint still visible. Now a palaeographer who was also suspicious of this plot device has done tests showing that vinegar will not dissolve, or even damage, ancient papyrus….. All that trouble, when anybody who got their hands on that cryptex over the centuries could’ve just whacked it open.
Of course there are other codices which have never been found by historians, but which they presume existed as the now-lost sources of surviving early accounts. For example, as indicated in our earlier Ptolemy-map-as-codex item [image detail above], the earliest classical source of information about Britain likely comes from a now-lost periplous, and soon we will take a closer look at that mystery, for it holds a key to the puzzle which is the main subject of this blog.