A 15-century Pocketbook
In the 15th century, Flemish craftsmen created the first pocketbook in history, the Codex Rotundus, a unique late-medieval manuscript comprised of 266 pages containing a lavishly illuminated Book of Hours written in Latin and French.
The Codex Rotundus is generally considered the first pocket, not because there were no other pocketbooks, but because it is one of a kind. Miniature Bibles and other Books of Hour were much larger than the Codex Rotundus, and generally of the same rectangular shape as their larger counterparts.
The manuscript is round and made of wood and parchment sheets, with symmetrical pages forming a small block bound together to build a block of 3cm in height with a diameter of 9cm.
The manuscript includes 3 full-page miniatures and an additional 30 historiated initials depicting mainly religious content, including psalms, depicting biblical scenes from the Old Testament, and stories from the life of Jesus Christ as well as various saints.
Its cover is red leather and is secured with three metal clasps in the shape of Gothic letters. The words are written in both Latin and French, and the pages are formatted to look realistic. This extraordinary book is still admired today for its unconventional format
Who Made the Codex Rotundus?
Although the book doesn’t preserve the name of the artist or artists responsible for its magnificent illuminations, various stylistic elements firmly point to its origins in the milieu of the Burgundian court (specifically from the area of Bruges).
On folio 24r, the initial D of the commissioner is visible, with a coat of arms that has been attempted to be erased by a subsequent owner.
Despite this, some details are still visible, such as the Cleves carbuncle in a reddish hue and a blue heart-shaped shield, leading to the assumption that the first owner was the Count of Cleves and Marck.
Remnants of a coat of arms in the opening initial “D” of the manuscript strongly suggest that this private devotional book was created for Adoph of Cleves (1425-92), nephew of Phillip the Good and cousin to Charles the Bold, successive Dukes of Burgundy.
The anonymous author was part of the Flemish school, having learned various writing and craft techniques from the old masters of Dresden.
Although some researchers are sceptical that Cleves had any involvement in the book of psalms from The Middle Ages, the Burgundian court was known for being a hub of art and culture at the time. Speculation points to an artisan in a workshop in Bruges, Belgium, creating the work and presenting it to the world in the mid-1840s. However, the origin of the Codex Rotundus remains shrouded in mystery.
Where to See the Codex Rotundus
The Codex Rotundus is rightly celebrated for its beauty and uniqueness. The original Codex Rotundus is held by the Dombibliothek Hildesheim (Hs728) in Germany.
The book is currently on display in the library of Hildesheim Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of the Assumption of St. Mary and located in Germany.