The Codex in the Halloween Special

I’m glad I don’t make my living doing hot takes, because my idea of being timely is finding something to write about in a TV episode that’s only a year old. And in a Halloween special only two weeks after Halloween.

So. In S11:E5 of Bones, the murder victim turns out to be the unlikely owner of an Ancient Book. They never explicitly say it’s a medieval manuscript, but they do treat it more carefully than they would a modern reprint. I don’t know where all these gothy students on TV get their hands on priceless national treasures, but it seems like the FBI should investigate that as well. The book signals straight away that Ancient Ancientness is going on:

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Bonus: some Danish lessons from the subtitles. “Yes.”

The symbol is the same as the one found on a spooky tomb earlier. If only this series had a polymath genius or two in it who could figure it out. (Apologies for the image quality in this post, only proper screenshots I’ve managed.)

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“I recognize this symbol, it is the Nordic rune Uruz.”

It’s a rune (for rune names, see my published work)! Ancient Spooky Things must be afoot. Why this specific rune is never really explained, but that doesn’t matter, as we see Brennan open the book and we get SO MANY RUNES.

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“Exactly, pagan symbols, a headless body, Halloween?” These Danish lessons are getting really useful.

This is where I started grinning, as would other medievalists with me (except for one palaeographer friend of mine, whose FB comment to this image was “SHE IS TOUCHING THE INK!!! WHY IS SHE TOUCHING THE INK????”) (don’t touch the ink, kids). These aren’t random runes on a page, this is a specific manuscript. Specific and very recognizable, as it’s the only one of its kind; you don’t get the nickname Codex Runicus for nothing.

Its proper shelf mark is AM 28 8vo, which tells you a couple of things. It’s number 28 in the Arnemagnæan (AM) manuscript collection, a low number in a big collection of manuscripts housed in Iceland and Denmark. This particular manuscript is housed in Copenhagen, in the very building I work in these days (Copenhagen is also the reason why my Netflix subtitles are in Danish). You can also see that it’s a pretty small manuscript (octavo, or 8vo, is the format). Much smaller than its Bones counterpart – the real measurements are about 18 x 12.5 cm. This is where I’ll restrain myself from giving a minor lecture on formats and 17th century manuscript collection and instead point the interested reader to places like http://haandskrift.ku.dk/ and https://handrit.is/.

So what’s in the Codex Runicus? The same thing as its TV alias, the Liber Sub Umbras?

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“Alchemical recipes, blood rituals, druidic rituals, necromancy.”

…no, not really. Sorry. The opposite, in a way: the Codex Runicus is a law codex. It dates to about 1300 and contains medieval laws for what is now southern Sweden and was then eastern Denmark – Skåne, Halland and Blekinge. If it mentions necromancy (I doubt it does), it’s only to set out the punishment for it. The pages we see the most of in the episode are these:

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The prop designer for the series has done some very nice work making it look more Ancient Alchemical with the symbol on the left and some rearranging and copying, but the text on the right hand side (the recto page) is taken from this:

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The image is from the online facsimile, where anyone can leaf through this wonderful thing. And what is the Ancient Spooky Necromancy text? It’s the beginning of the church law of Skåne. The word biskup ‘bishop’ is right there on line 3. So yeah, the pagan symbols are not so pagan.

The funny thing about the Codex Runicus is that it’s probably written in runes for much the same reasons as runes are used in pop culture now: to signal something Ancient. It isn’t a normal 14th century manuscript, basically one of a kind, and the spelling shows that it was copied from a manuscript written in the Latin alphabet. To my mind, it’s an early example of an intellectual interest in runes as representing the old Scandinavian culture, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s used to copy down laws. It’s a wonderful manuscript, but the rune use is the exception, not the rule.

I would be a bad runologist if I didn’t end by pointing out that this manuscript also contains the oldest written music in Scandinavia on the penultimate page. Here’s an interpretation of it with the lines from the manuscript shown. Only the first sentence is attested, the rest is modern.

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