Unlocking the secrets of the world's most intriguing codices


By David Frank



A codex is an ancient, hand-painted, or written manuscript, often with a fascinating origin and history. These manuscripts or entire books are an endless source of fascination to scholars who seek to decode their mysteries. Here are just a few of the most famous to whet your appetite.


The Dresden Codex

Uncovered in Dresden, Germany, this is apparently the oldest surviving manuscript from the Americas (the Mayan Codices), as it dates from the 11th or 12th century.  The pages unfold, like an accordion, creating an unbroken manuscript that is 12 feet long. The intricate Mayan hieroglyphs, intriguingly mention an undiscovered text from 3-400 years earlier, which recounts the history of the region and provides astronomical tables. The codex can be viewed in the museum of the Saxon State Library.

The Codex Leicester

Consists of 32 pages of scientific writings by Leonardo da Vinci. In it, he discusses his scientific theories and observations on a variety of subjects including astronomy; water; rocks and fossils, air, and the moon's light. It was purchased in 1994, by Bill Gates, for the equivalent, in today's values, of $54 million. It has been unbound and is displayed each year in a different city around the world.

The Cologne Mani Codex   

Dated from the 5th century AD, at 4.5cm x 3.8cm is the smallest ancient Codex discovered so far. It draws on earlier sources the tiniest ancient codex yet discovered, measuring only 4.5 x 3.8 cm. According to the website Evidence Central, the brief text can be related to Nephi's vision in the Book of Mormon.

The Codex Gigas

At three foot high the Codex Gigas is the largest known illustrated manuscript. It's also known as 'The Devil's Bible',  due to an astonishing  full-page illustration of the devil. There are several intriguing legends related to its creation. Although it appears to be the work of a single hand, experts estimate that it should have taken over 20 years to create. However, the style of the text and illustrations is absolutely consistent, betraying no signs of deterioration or improvement in the skills and abilities of the author.  For this reason, the legend that the author was a monk who sold his soul to the devil, and produced the work in a single night, grew up.  Scholars still argue about whether the portrait of Satan was intended as a tribute or a warning. 

The Gospel of Judas

Created 280AD, and written in Coptic, this gnostic text purports to represent a series of conversations between Jesus and Judas Iscariot.  According to one translation, this codex may present Judas as carrying out the will of Jesus Other translators claim that it describes him as a 'demon', and as there is no consensus, the interpretation remains influenced by religious belief.

The Treatise of the Vessels

Dated to 1648, this manuscript claims to reveal the location of the legendary treasure of King Solomon's temple. It also mentions the Ark of the Covenant, which it claims, will only be revealed upon the arrival of the Messiah.  Whereas some have taken its guidance literally and attempted to pinpoint the treasure's hiding place, other scholars claim it was written more as entertainment than as a literal guide for treasure hunters. 

The Grolier Codex 

Although it is named after the private New York club where it was displayed, this fascinating hieroglyphic text has been authenticated as a genuine Mayan work. Dating from the 13th century, it is, therefore, one of the oldest known manuscripts from South America. It is covered with ornate depictions of the gods and also tracks the movements of the planet Venus, as well as offering tantalizing insights into the everyday life of the Mayan civilization.  Can be viewed in Mexico City's Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

De Arte Venandi cum Avibus

This beautiful manuscript, written in Latin around 1240, is a comprehensive treatise about ornithology and falconry, on the orders of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor. The surviving texts exist in two-book versions (now in Rome, Vienna, Paris (2x), Geneva, and Stuttgart, as well a six-book 'comprehensive' version, which can be viewed in Bologna, Paris, Nantes, Valencia, Rennes, and Oxford.  It provides a unique insight into the hunting and bird-watching practices of the 13th-century aristocracy.

The Rohonc Codex

A true mystery, the Rohonc codex was uncovered in Hungary in the early 1800s. The author is unknown, the text is in an unknown language and even the system of writing is all unknown.  A source of fascination for academics and amateur detectives, it has been widely studied, though with no tangible conclusions being reached, and many Hungarian experts believing that it is nothing more than an elaborate 18th-century fake. The paper on which it is written has been dated to the 16th century, however, the Codex could have been produced much later. The manuscript can be viewed in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

The Voynich Codex

This mysterious manuscript, discovered in 1912, and carbon-dated to the 1400s, is packed with spectacular illustrations of plants, and symbols of cosmology as well as a fair number of naked women.  There has been an ongoing debate about the language in which it's written as, to date, it has proved undecipherable: despite efforts to crack the linguistic code (including the use of AI) many experts have claimed it is either written in a sophisticated code, the evidence of a lost language, or gibberish.  Certainly, no interpretation has proved to be conclusive and the most intriguing mystery which surrounds it is that of the author him (or her)self, and the intention behind the years of painstaking work involved in its creation.  The Voynich Codex is currently housed in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University.
These are just a few of the better known ancient codices which continue to fascinate scholars and amateur historians alike.  Others contain the earliest versions of the New and Old testaments, treatises on the culture of South America before the Spanish colonization, or works of poetry and literature that speak to us from across the ages. We hope this brief overview will encourage you to carry out more research to uncover these treasure troves of historical interest.