Rare Books

The Codex of Govora

Middle Ages
Leather, cardboard, textile fibers, paper, typographic inks
Printing, binding, pounding, stamping, polishing, engraving, pressing
Length = 20 cm; width= 14.5 cm

    The Codex of Govora

    Text: dr. Ginel Lazăr

    176 paper sheets with filigree / Dating: 1640 / The place where it was created: The Royal Typography of the Govora Monastery / The ruler of Wallachia: Matei Basarab / Metropolitan bishop: Kir Theofil / Translator: The monk and scholar Mihail Moxa / Editors and typographers: Udriște Năsturel, Meletie Macedoneanul and the hieromonk Ștefan from Ohrida / Beneficiary: The Orthodox Church on the Romanian territories / Research: Ginel Lazăr, Ph.D. / Photo: The National History Museum of Romania (through the “MANUSCRIPTUM” project), Ginel Lazăr, Ph.D, Cristina Carșote, Ph.D. candidate.


    On the territory of the previous Hința estate, within the commune of Mihăiești, 17 km from the city of Râmnicu Vâlcea, on a lofty hill, the Govora Monastery is erected like a majestic medieval city. An alley paved with stone leads to the entrance to the monastery, which is accessible beneath the bell tower, as if through a tunnel, locked up by two old Brâncovenesc gates. The ensemble of buildings on the precincts is basked in a spotless white, which is a characteristic of this monastery. The monastic settlement is one of the oldest and most special historical, architectural and cultural monuments in Romania. The church and the buildings of the monastery have undergone three different stages of construction, corresponding to the three royal founders, namely Radu the Great (1495-1508), Matei Basarab (1632-1654) and Constantin Brâncoveanu (1688-1714). Since its very beginnings, the Govora Monastery has been offered large estates and royal privileges, here living a large community of scholar monks. During Matei Basarab’s reign, the monastery becomes one of the main foci of culture in Wallachia. 


    The church of the present day monastery, dedicated to the Assumption, dates back to Constantin Brâncoveanu’s time. Situated in the middle of the precincts, the church has a trefoil plan with polygonal apses and a porch, with columns decorated in stone. The painting is of the fresco type, in the Brâncovenesc style, belonging to the period 1711-1712. It was made by painters from the artistic school of the Hurezi Monastery, named Iosif, Hramite, Teodosie, hieromonk Ștefan. The altar screen is made of gilded lime wood, decorated with floral motifs in semi-relief, and the canonic painting is of great artistic value. The exterior of the church is, obviously, painted in white, decorated with a medium carved stone belt. The works for renovating the church and enlarging the monastery were carried out from Constantin Brâncoveanu’s order, through the tireless care of abbot Paisie. 


    During Matei Basarab’s reign, several typographies were installed in Wallachia. They had the role to print church books in Romanian and, thus, the process of translating the divine service into Romanian is initiated, by reading Cazania from the pulpit, in the language of the people. Later, towards the end of Șerban Cantacuzino’s reign, we witness the gradual removal of the influence that Slavonic had as a language of cult in church and its replacement with Greek. Gradually, Romanian was also introduced in the altar, by reading the Gospel and the Apostle, but the liturgical service was still officiated in Slavonic, because there were no church books for the officiation of the divine service in Romanian. The process was slow and lengthy, because of the incongruences between the Slavonic church music and the Romanian linguistics, which, at that time, was deficient in “dogmatic subtleties”. In conclusion, from Matei Basarab’s epoch to Constantin Brâncoveanu’s time, in churches, the fundamental books, such as Cazania, The Gospel, The Acts of the Apostles were read in the language of the people, whereas The Liturgy, with its melodic part, was officiated in Slavonic or Greek. Thus, Romanian was partially introduced in church, for the benefit of the believers. 


    Matei Basarab’s epoch was one of genuine cultural effervescence, marked by the crystallization of the Romanian artistic school, without which the Cantacuzino-Brâncovenesc cultural flourishing would not have had the expected success. Ruler Matei Basarab remarked himself by a special zeal in his activity of a cultural Maecenas, at the same time being an advocate of Orthodoxy and its tradition in the Romanian space. The voivode’s cultural and moral personality will impose him as one of the greatest founders of churches in the medieval epoch. He was a spiritual patron, who built, renovated and restored tens of places of worship, both in Muntenia and Moldavia and to the south of the Danube or on the Athos Mountain. In this cultural context are also included the works for the reconsolidation, extension and renovation of the monastic complex at Govora (Râmnicu Vâlcea County). Here, at the Govora Monastery, the second royal typography attested in Wallachia is installed in 1637. Moreover, the pious ruler will found the first Cultural School in the Voivodship, which he will provide with an income of 1000 gold coins per annum. The administrative, typographic and scholar activity is coordinated by the Father Superior Meletie Macedoneanul, a skillful tachygrapher and scholar, trained in the Greek-Slave tradition from the Athos Mountain (Zografu) and Macedonia (Ohrida). The typography at Govora will print five books (of Slavonic redaction or in Romanian, with Cyrillic alphabet), in remarkable graphic conditions, between 1637 and 1644. 

    The Codex of Govora. The first code of laws in Wallachia 

    In 1640, The Code of Church Laws or The Small Codex (entitled like this because of its format) is printed in Romanian, with Cyrillic alphabet. The work is the first collection of legal, canonical and civil provisions in Romanian. It was translated from a Slavonic edition based on a Byzantine Nomocanon. This difficult task was assigned to Mihail Moxa, the erudite monk from the Bistrița Monastery (Râmnicu Vâlcea County). The verses for the Coat of Arms, the annotation after the preface (incipit), as well as the last annotation (the colophon), were signed, in order, by Urilă (Udriște) Năsturel, Meletie Macedoneanul and hieromonk Ștefan from Ohrida. They were written in Slavonic, being among the last manifestations of this language as a language of cult in church, before it gradually disappeared. Unlike them, the preface of Theofil, the Metropolitan Bishop of Wallachia, was written in Romanian, with Cyrillic alphabet. The bishop explains the purpose of printing this book in the language of the country: “I have thought that all the nations have a book in their language. Therefore, I, the humble servant of My Lord, Jesus Christ, have reckoned to print this book, namely The Codex, in the Romanian language”. The Orthodox believers in Transylvania benefitted from a similar edition of the Codex, with a preface signed by the Metropolitan bishop Ghenadie II. From the title page, we can sum up the contents of the first Codex in Romanian, which is based on the Apostles’ laws, grouped and developed in the plenary sessions of the seven ecumenical councils, and on the Teachings of the Church Fathers. Beyond the importance of this legal, mainly clerical, publication in Romanian, the first edition of The Codex of Govora has its limitations. These are emphasized in the complex geo-politic and ethno-cultural context of Muntenia in the 17th century.

    The imperial Byzantine model (Byzance apres Byzance) was applied from the top to the bottom, ignoring the social factors. Although the intended purpose was to combine the traditional Romanian mentality with the Byzantine civil and canonical rigors, the result was rather conflictual regarding the ways to perform the rites of passage: baptism, wedding, funeral. Their functioning was due to the constraints imposed by religion. The norms of criminal law on crimes and punishments are regarded from a profoundly religious perspective. Crime is considered a sin, and punishment is regarded as redemption. The traditional ethics is also inspired by religion, being reduced to the fear of sin. “Whoever marries someone from another religion shall repent for five years, and the priests who will officiate their wedding shall repent for three years outside the church”. Women could not “get a devilish look”, which implied wearing masks or men’s clothing. Any deviation from normality was severely sanctioned, because “this is what God established”. The social pattern of the rural community had to be strictly complied with, in order not to attract the divine wrath. For these reasons, The Codex can be considered a form without substance, a legislative and religious corpus of Byzantine origin, transposed into the confusing medieval Romanian reality.  Therefore, after a decade, another version of The Codex (The Re-shaping of Laws with God) will partially manage to re-shape the concept of Codex in a relatively indigenous form. The universe of the Romanian village passed on various norms that used to harmonize the relationships within and outside the family – described by the phrase “the law of the land”. Life itself was guided by two principles: the traditional custom and the Christian belief. Whereas the traditional custom was described by the formula “this is how I have seen things done”, the Christian belief relied on the rigid maxim “You must believe and not doubt”. The degrees in which people got involved in these customs were varying from fear to piety, and constraints were much better understood than volunteer responsibility, for which reason clearly formulated punishments are stipulated in the law. Moreover, the punishments were applied “according to the Christian Codex”, although Nomocanons were combining the canonical law with the civil one.    The custom was the law of the Country, and Christian justice was the governing ethics. 




    The book is printed on manual paper with black carbon ink. At the beginning of every chapter, we notice the presence of dropped caps (ornamental capital letters), which are printed in black ink. The volume has annotations in iron gall ink on the first and the last two pages, which refer to the circulation of the book. The Codex was previously restored by someone unqualified, because it can be noticed that the paper, especially in the first and the last fascicle, was completed by covering the text. The sheet of paper with the title page, the verses for the Coat of Arms and the continuation of the Metropolitan Bishop Teophil’s preface are missing. In addition to these, other pages of the book are missing (and they have been replaced, inside the book, with Japanese paper). The anterior and posterior endpapers are missing. We notice that the volume was stitched on three raised ribs. Capital-band missing.


    The block of the book: It shows tears and creases of the pages. Some parts are missing from the paper support. Lacks of pages. The paper is gnawed or has become fragile. It has gotten brownish (dark) and there are halos (bright areas). There are deposits of dust and dirt that has adhered to the area of the corners. Dirt that has adhered to the edge. Wax stains. 

    Biological degradation: On some pages, there are traces of insect excrements.                          

    Restoration proposal: On the basis of the visual analyses, as well as of those carried out in the Laboratory of Physical-Chemical and Biological Investigations of the National History Museum of Romania, where microscopic analyses were combined with X-ray fluorescence analyses (XRF), the specialists proposed the following restoration and treatment works:

    - the paper sheets will be dusted with a soft brush;

    - the existing wax deposits will be removed with a scalpel blade;

    - the thicker adherent dirt in the area of the corners will be cleaned by rubbing with an eraser;

    - the book will be totally unbound and the page numbers will be written in pencil. After the dry cleaning, the wet cleaning will be performed by the immersion in water at a temperature of 25-30°C;

    - the pages will be dried under a light press, between pieces of felt; afterwards, the cracks, empty spaces and missing pages will be completed;

    - the completions will be made with Japanese silk foil, as similar as possible to the original paper, both in thickness and in color. The cracks will be restored with a Japanese veil. After the restoration and completion, they will be dried between felt pieces and scales. After finishing this operation, we shall clean the completions with a scalpel;

    - the pages will be grouped in fascicles, as they initially were, and the volume will be completed;

    - the following operation will be the stitching on three raised ribs. The stitching will be made on a frame. After finishing the stitching of the volume, the spine will be glued with shoemaker’s paste;

    As the original endpapers do not exist, new ones will be made; cardboard covers will be also made, of a thicker cardboard of the pasteboard type; the wrap of the covers will be cut on the size of the cardboard covers and it will be made of a new vegetable tanned leather, which is going to be purchased from the Institute for Textiles and Leather, Bucharest.

    Following the recent microscopy analyses, the presence of the filigree could be noticed on the paper sheets of The Codex.

    CURRENT CONSERVATION: The Codex of Govora was professionally photo-scanned (in December 2011), at a very high resolution, through the “Manuscriptum“ project, initiated and coordinated by the general manager of the National History Museum of Romania, Mr. Ernest Oberländer-Târnoveanu, Ph.D. The total number of the pages that were scanned through the “Manuscriptum” program is of 359. The book is kept in the Dep. Mss. & Tip. I of the ational History Museum of Romania, being wrapped in filter paper and Japanese silk foil with neuter Ph. and in a layer of netex. It is embedded in antistatic and fireproof polyethylene foam, stored and kept in a special aluminum box, controlled from the viewpoint of microclimate.

    Specialized contributions: Expert restorer Cristina Petcu, Ginel Lazăr, Ph.D., chemist Cristina Carșote, Ph.D. candidate.

    The price of the book, established after “calculating the whole expense” was of 21 silver costands. The costand was a silver coin that circulated in the first half of the 17th century, representing the fifth part of a ducat.


    The transliteration of the title page:

    “This Codex is a code of laws, the work of the Apostles, completed after seven councils, and the work of the Church Fathers, the teachers of the world. It was printed in the printing house of His Serene Highness Io Mathei Basarabă Voevodă, the ruler of the entire Wallachia: at the Govora Monastery, in the year 7149 after Creation, namely 1640 AD”.  

    The translation of the Slavonic Incipit by Meletie Macedoneanul, the Father Superior of the monastery:

    “By the order of His Serene Highness Io Mattheiu Basarab Voivode and with the blessing of his Holiness, Archbishop Theofil, appointed the Metropolitan Bishop of the entire country of Wallachia by the mercy of God, this book, entitled The Codex, was printed by me, the humblest of the priests, Meletie Macedonenul, the Father Superior of the community of people at the Govora Monastery, dedicated to the Assumption. Therefore, if you find anything wrong, I beg you, the readers of this book, to correct it with the kindness of your spirit and to bless, not to curse us, the toilers, because it has not been written by an angel, but by a hand made of clay and prone to error.” 

    The translation of the Slavonic colophon by Ştefan from Ohrida:

    “On the will of the Holy Father, with the help of the Son and the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit, this book was translated from Slavonic into Romanian by Michail Moxalie and, afterwards, by the order and on the expense of His Serene Highness Io Mattheiu Basarab Voivode and with the blessing of his Holiness, Archbishop Kir Theofil, the Metropolitan Bishop of the entire country of Wallachia, I, the hieromonk Ştefan from Ochrida, have toiled for printing this book. It started to be written in the year 7149 after Creation, namely 1640 AD, on a Monday, after the first Sunday of the Great Lent; it was completed on a Monday, in the seventh week of the Great Lent in the same year. Therefore, I beg the readers to correct any mistake they might find in the text, to grant their forgiveness to the one who has written this text (after the manuscript) and not to curse us, the ones who have printed this book.” 



    Chapter 6 (about the bishops [and priests])

    The priest who will marry for the second time shall be excommunicated.

    The priest who will fall into fornication or will use his body in a shameful way (with birds or animals) shall be excluded from officiating the liturgy; if he is training to become a priest and all these are revealed he shall give up priesthood.

    Chapter 8 (about parents and children)

    The son who will unfairly tell swear words to his parents “must rightfully die”, because his parents gave him light and life. However, if he regrets what he has done, he will get a canon of repentance, then he will beg his parents for forgiveness and mercy.   

    The son who will hit his father with a stick shall have his hand cut off.

    Chapter 20 (about the dead woman)

    The woman who practices witchcraft or the male sorcerer shall repent for three years and, if they are monks or nuns, they shall repent for five years. 

    Chapter 21 (about the thieves in church)

    Whoever is caught stealing in church shall give back more than they have stolen, shall be hit with the stick for 30 times on their back and for 24 times on the soles of their feet, to teach them not to steal anymore.  

    Chapter 27 (about the thieves from graves)

    Whoever unearths the bodies of the dead to take off their clothes and steal them shall repent for five years and shall prostrate themselves for 100 times every day.

    Chapter 38 (about the priest without an antimension). [The antimension is a liturgical cover, without which the liturgy cannot be officiated]. If an unbaptized child is given the Eucharist, his parents shall repent for a year and shall prostrate themselves for 50 times [every day].

    Chapter 39 (about the woman who gives birth during the Great Lent)

    The woman who gives birth during the Great Lent (the fast before Easter) shall fast for 40 days and receive the Eucharist.