'Laocoon', in the Codex Justiniani
Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum
The Codex Justiniani, called the 'Digest' or 'Pandects', goes back to 534 when the Emperor Justinian had imperial decisions and enactments compiled as part of his programme to codify Roman law. When law began to be studied in western European universities, starting with Bologna in the 11th century, the 'Pandects' became valued as basic legal texts. The need for huge textbooks like the Codex Justiniani fuelled the development of workshops to produce books outside of monasteries. In England, Oxford became a manuscript producing centre, turning out books like this one, which was owned by Merton College.
This dense page shows the specialised layout that was developed to present heavily glossed texts (texts with explanatory notes in the margins or between the lines). The 'Pandects' text is in larger writing in two columns in the centre of the page. The wide margins are designed to hold the glosses, which ideally are written next to the relevant text. Throughout the manuscript, decorative figures which appear to have nothing to do with the law text and glosses are placed next to the beginnings of subsections. Here, near the top, a young woman reads from a book, while below a man struggles with snakes, reminscent of the ancient Roman priest, Laocoon, who was killed by sea serpents.