The codex format—sheets of material written on both sides and attached at one edge—came into use around the beginning of the era and by the fourth century had superseded the scroll. Although of the structure of the codex bookblock and sewing methods survives in many earlier manuscripts, the fourth century provides the earliest examples of books actually in their bindings.

Sheets (two leaves, four pages) for these earliest codices were cut from rolls, the height of the page by twice its breadth, producing a rectangular format; the square shape of many codices was dictated by the shape of the skin. Pagination, foliation, quire signatures, pricking, and ruling were frequently used at an early date, but quire makeup was irregular, and the arrangement of pages with like surface facing like was intermittent.

Variants of bookblock makeup were a single quire of sheets piled one on another and folded in the middle, multiple quires formed by placing folded sheets one within another, and occasionally quires of single sheets folded individually. These quires had to be attached to each other sequentially.

Stab sewing, in which the needle went through the leaves at a right angle to their plane and slightly in from the spine edge, resembled the sewing of wooden tablets and was probably loosely tied, as the tablets had to be, to allow the book to open all the way back. Sewing through the fold was usually done with two separate needles and threads. Individually folded sheets were stab sewn; single quires were sewn with two single stitches of leather or cord; multiple quires were sewn with two separate chains of stitches.

Although a few wooden boards without bookblocks are thought to be early, most fourth-century boards consisted of layers of waste papyrus cartonnage (paper boards) pasted inside leather covers to stiffen them. The bookblock was either sewn through the outer cover or to a spine lining of leather or parchment, which adhered to it. In some cases two boards, double the size of the book, were made. Each was folded in half, laced to either side of the book, and finally (after the book was covered) glued together to hide the attachment. The first and last leaves of the bookblock were often pasted down inside the covers to reinforce the attachment.

or sheepskin, usually tan, brown, or dark red, was used for covering. Many fourth-century covers, such as the Nag Hammadi codices and the Bodmer Papyri, had one or more flaps extending from a fore-edge and were fastened with an encircling thong and small ties.

In the sixth to eighth centuries, early techniques continued in use, with the addition of cloth spine linings, sewing all along the fold, and board attachment by numerous leather tongues laced through wooden boards. Methods of fastening were elaborated and there are traces of colored, embroidered decoration (headbands) at each end of the spine.

There were few changes in structure in the eleventh and subsequent centuries; books were written on paper; braided loops attached over pegs were used for fastening. In decoration, the Coptic horror vacui reached its peak.

Coptic binding techniques are the prototypes of almost all those in use today throughout the Western Hemisphere and the Near East.


  • Cockerell, D. “The Development of Bookbinding Methods: Coptic Influence.” The Library 4 (1932):170-90.
  • Kasser, R., ed. Bodmer XVII, Actes des Apôtres, Epîtres de Jacques, Pierre, Jean et Jude. Introduction, p. 7 (fastenings) and 1961. 8 (spine lining). Cologny-Geneva, 1961.
  •  . Bodmer XXIII, Esaie, XLVII, 1-LXVI, 24 en sahidique. Introduction, pp. 8-15 (flaps and fastenings).
  • Lamacraft, C. T. “Early Book-binding from a Coptic Monastery.” The Library 4 (1939-1940):214-33.
  • Petersen, T. C. “Early Islamic Bookbindings and Their Coptic Relations.” Ars Orientalis 1 (1954):41-64.
  • Robinson, J. M. “The Construction of the Nag Hammadi Codices.” In Essays on the Nag Hammadi Texts, ed. M. Krause. Nag Hammadi Studies 6. Leiden, 1975.