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Background Information

The pre-Columbian Maya kept whole libraries of books containing information about their history, beliefs, astronomy, and calendrics. Most of these were destroyed during the Spanish Conquest, but four ­ the Paris, Dresden, Madrid, and Grolier Codices­ survive today.

Pre-Columbian Maya books are called codices or screen-folded manuscripts because each book was made of a long strip of paper which was folded like a screen. The paper was made from the inner bark of various species of fig tree (Ficus cotonifolia, Ficus padifolia) which was pounded into a pulp with stone implements called bark beaters. Natural gums were used as a bonding substance to hold the pulp together. A coating of fine white lime was applied to both sides of the paper sheets to provide a smooth finish upon which to paint hieroglyphs, calendrics and figures. The codices were painted on both sides of the paper so to read them you would read along one side of the paper strip, from left to right, and then turn the codex over and read the other side.

The Paris Codex was rediscovered in 1859 by León de Rosny in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Apparently it had been forgotten after previous discoveries in the 1830’s and 1955. When de Rosny rediscovered the codex in a basket of old papers in a chimney corner wrapped in a piece of paper with "Pérez" written on it. Thus the codex was first named the Codex Pérez or Peresianus. It has also been called the Codex Mexicanus after its country of origin. Its name has now been changed to the Paris Codex to prevent confusion with a 19th century compilation of early Colonial Maya writings that are now lost which is also called the Codex Pérez.

Only a segment (22 screen-folded pages) of the original Paris Codex has survived. The codex pages measured 12.5 cm horizontally and 23.5 cm vertically. As the fine white lime coating has eroded from the edges of the pages, some of the hieroglyphs and images in these areas are now lost. The codex was painted in many colors (black, red, turquoise, tawny, blue, pink) with the outline of the hieroglyphs and images painted in black. For ease of viewing, only the black outlines are reproduced in this digital image of the codex.

The Paris Codex contains information on calendrical cycles, history, gods
and spirits, weather, and astronomy. It is unique of the four surviving codices because it includes historical information and describes Maya constellations. A comprehensive treatment of the Paris Codex was published by Bruce Love in 1994: The Paris Codex, Austin: University of Texas Press.

The image numbers in this digitized version follow the sequence of pages, when the Codex is opened to view the pages from left to right. The 2 pages, which bear the seal of the BIBLIOTHÈQUE IMPERIALE, are the outer surfaces, when the Codex is closed. The hieroglyphics, which are visible on the original document but came through faintly in the photographic facsimile taken by Theodore Willard, have been enhanced with dotted lines.

The digital images of the pages of the Paris Codex in this site were obtained from:

The Codex Perez; An Ancient Mayan Hieroglyphic Book, A photographic facsimile reproduced from the original in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, by Theodore A. Willard. Glendale, California: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1933.

Copyright information

Images in the Paris Codex are in the public domain and are not subject to copyright restrictions. However, the Library requests users to cite this URL and the Northwestern University Library if they wish to reproduce files from its digitized documents collection.



Persons and Departments involved in the project:


Tom Mann, Bibliographer / Collection Management, NU Library
Cynthia Robin (consultant), Assistant Professor, NU Anthropology Dept.

Dan Zellner, Multimedia Services Specialist / Digital Media Services, NU Library

Stephanie Batkie, DMS student consultant
Abby Moy, DMS student consultant
Susan Rhee, DMS student consultant
Larry Sun, DMS student consultant