Sphinx and Markdown


  • Understand how static site generators build websites out of plain text files.

  • Create example Sphinx documentation and learn some Markdown along the way.

We will take the first steps in creating documentation using Sphinx, and learn some MyST flavored Markdown syntax along the way.

This lesson is built with Sphinx

Try to compare the source code and the result side by side.

Our goal in this episode is to build HTML pages locally on our computers.

Before we start, let us verify whether we have the software we need

You may need to activate your CodeRefinery conda environment we set up in the installation instructions. This was covered as part of the installation instructions, but the most usual command to do this is:

$ conda activate coderefinery

Check whether Python is available (you should see a version; precise version is not so important):

$ python --version

Python 3.11.5

Check whether Sphinx is available (you should see a version; precise version is not so important):

$ sphinx-build --version

sphinx-build 5.3.0

Check whether the quickstart tool is available (you should see a version; precise version is not so important):

$ sphinx-quickstart --version

sphinx-quickstart 5.3.0

Check whether MyST parser is available (you should see no output):

$ python -c "import myst_parser"

If the above commands produce an error (command not found or module not found or ModuleNotFoundError), please follow our installation instructions. But please don’t give up if you don’t have these - the episodes after this one will work even without these tools.

Exercise: Sphinx quickstart

Sphinx-1: Generate the basic documentation template

Create a directory for the example documentation, step into it, and inside generate the basic documentation template:

$ mkdir doc-example
$ cd doc-example
$ sphinx-quickstart

The quickstart utility will ask you some questions. For this exercise, you can go with the default answers except to specify a project name, author name, and project release:

> Separate source and build directories (y/n) [n]: <hit enter>
> Project name: <your project name>
> Author name(s): <your name>
> Project release []: 0.1
> Project language [en]: <hit enter>

A couple of files and directories are created:




Documentation configuration file


Main file in Sphinx


Directory where docs are built (you can decide the name)


Your own HTML templates


Static files (images, styles, etc.) copied to output directory on build


Makefile to build documentation using make


Makefile to build documentation using make (Windows)

Makefile and make.bat (for Windows) are build scripts that wrap the sphinx commands, but we will be doing it explicitly.

Let’s have a look at the index.rst file, which is the main file of your documentation:

.. myproject documentation master file, created by
   sphinx-quickstart on Sat Sep 23 17:35:26 2023.
   You can adapt this file completely to your liking, but it should at least
   contain the root `toctree` directive.

Welcome to myproject's documentation!

.. toctree::
   :maxdepth: 2
   :caption: Contents:

Indices and tables

* :ref:`genindex`
* :ref:`modindex`
* :ref:`search`
  • We will not use the Indices and tables section now, so remove it and everything below.

  • The top four lines, starting with .., are a comment.

  • The next lines are the table of contents. We can add content below:

.. toctree::
   :maxdepth: 2
   :caption: Contents:


Note that some-feature.md needs to be indented to align with :caption:.

We now need to tell Sphinx to use markdown files. To do this, we open conf.py and replace the line:

extensions = []

with this line so that Sphinx can parse Markdown files:

extensions = ['myst_parser']

Let’s create the file some-feature.md (in Markdown format) which we have just listed in index.rst (which uses reStructured Text format).

# Some feature

## Subsection

Exciting documentation in here.
Let's make a list (empty surrounding lines required):

- item 1

  - nested item 1
  - nested item 2

- item 2
- item 3

We now build the site:

$ ls -1


$ sphinx-build . _build

... lots of output ...
build succeeded.

The HTML pages are in _build.

$ ls -1 _build


Now open the file _build/index.html in your browser.

  • Linux users, type:

    $ xdg-open _build/index.html
  • macOS users, type:

    $ open _build/index.html
  • Windows users, type:

    $ start _build/index.html
  • If the above does not work: Enter file:///home/user/doc-example/_build/index.html in your browser (adapting the path to your case).

Hopefully you can now see a website. If so, then you are able to build Sphinx pages locally. This is useful to check how things look before pushing changes to GitHub or elsewhere.

Note that you can change the styling by editing conf.py and changing the value html_theme (for instance you can set it to sphinx_rtd_theme (if you have that Python package installed) to have the Read the Docs look).

Exercise: Adding more Sphinx content

Sphinx-2: Add more content to your example documentation

  1. Add a entry below some-feature.md labeled another-feature.md (or a better name) to the index.rst file.

  2. Create a file another-feature.md in the same directory as the index.rst file.

  3. Add some content to another-feature.md, rebuild with sphinx-build . _build, and refresh the browser to look at the results.

  4. Use the MyST Typography page as help.

Experiment with the following Markdown syntax:

  • *Emphasized text* and **bold text**

  • Headings:

# Level 1

## Level 2

### Level 3

#### Level 4
  • An image: ![alt text](image.png)

  • [A link](https://www.example.org)

  • Numbered lists (numbers adjusted automatically):

1. item 1
2. item 2
3. item 3
1. item 4
1. item 5
  • Simple tables:

| No.  |  Prime |
| ---- | ------ |
| 1    |  No    |
| 2    |  Yes   |
| 3    |  Yes   |
| 4    |  No    |
  • Code blocks:

The following is a Python code block:
  def hello():
      print("Hello world")

And this is a C code block:
#include <stdio.h>
int main()
    printf("Hello, World!");
    return 0;
  • You could include an external file (here we assume a file called “example.py” exists; at the same time we highlight lines 2 and 3):

```{literalinclude} example.py
:language: python
:emphasize-lines: 2-3
  • We can also use Jupyter notebooks (*.ipynb) with Sphinx. It requires the myst-nb extension to be installed.

Exercise: Sphinx and LaTeX

Sphinx-3: Rendering (LaTeX) math equations

Math equations should work out of the box. In some older versions, you might need to edit conf.py and add sphinx.ext.mathjax:

extensions = ['myst_parser', 'sphinx.ext.mathjax']

Try this (result below):

This creates an equation:
a^2 + b^2 = c^2

This is an in-line equation, {math}`a^2 + b^2 = c^2`, embedded in text.

This creates an equation:

\[a^2 + b^2 = c^2\]

This is an in-line equation, \(a^2 + b^2 = c^2\), embedded in text.

Exercise: Sphinx autodoc

(optional) Sphinx-4: Auto-generating documentation from Python docstrings

  1. Write some docstrings in functions and/or class definitions of an example python module:

def multiply(a: float, b: float) -> float:
    Multiply two numbers.

    :param a: First number.
    :param b: Second number.
    :return: The product of a and b.
    return a * b
  1. Add a file api.md in the same folder as index.rst, with the following content:

# API reference

## example

.. automodule:: example
  1. In the file conf.py add 3 lines and modify “extensions”:

# this is a trick to make sphinx find the modules in the parent directory
import os
import sys
sys.path.insert(0, os.path.abspath("."))

extensions = ['myst_parser', "sphinx.ext.autodoc"]
  1. List the api.md file in index.rst.

  2. Re-build the documentation and check the “API reference” section.

Confused about reStructuredText vs. Markdown vs. MyST?

  • At the beginning there was reStructuredText and Sphinx was built for reStructuredText.

  • Independently, Markdown was invented and evolved into a couple of flavors.

  • Markdown became more and more popular but was limited compared to reStructuredText.

  • Later, MyST was invented to be able to write something that looks like Markdown but in addition can do everything that reStructuredText can do with extra directives.

Good to know

  • The _build directory is a generated directory and should not be part of the Git repository. We recommend to add _build to .gitignore to prevent you from accidentally adding files below _build to the Git repository.

  • sphinx-autobuild provides a local web server that will automatically refresh your view every time you save a file - which makes writing and testing much easier.

  • This is useful if you want to check the integrity of all internal and external links:

    $ sphinx-build . -W -b linkcheck _build



  • Sphinx and Markdown is a powerful duo for writing documentation.

  • Another option is to use reStructuredText, see the Sphinx documentation and the quick-reference

  • In the next episode we will learn how to deploy the documentation to a cloud service and update it upon every git push.