The current release supports Markdown and reStructuredText. Both implementations stay as close as possible to the original descriptions and specifications of these formats.

The markup gets parsed into a generic document tree model shared between all parsers. This means that there are some adjustments in terminology (e.g. a bullet list in reStructuredText is called an "unordered list" in the Markdown syntax description).

It also means that there are some tree element types which are not produced by the Markdown parser, like table, footnotes or citations, as reStructuredText is much more feature-rich than the original Markdown syntax.

The unified model allows to create renderers that do not have to deal with any of the specifics of an individual markup syntax.

Markup Extensions

Laika supports several convenient features for processing groups of documents. These are built as extensions to both Markdown and reStructuredText parsers. They can be switched off when you run these two parsers in strict mode:


The extensions are documented in their respective section linked to from the list below:


Markdown is very easy to learn, very lightweight, and produces documents which are fairly easy to read, even when you don't know anything about Markdown.

However, Markdown also has a few issues. First, there is no real specification, only a page with a syntax description that leaves many questions unanswered. Secondly, its feature set is fairly limited, lacking functionality for more advanced usage like technical documentation or entire books. As a consequence extensions have been added to almost every Markdown implementation without much agreement between them.

Laika currently largely sticks to the original syntax description, except for the features listed in the previous sections which are added to all parser implementations supported in Laika. Other popular Markdown extensions like kramdown or MultiMarkdown may be supported in future releases.

Laika also fully passes the official Markdown Test Suite. These tests are integrated into the Laika test suite.

Getting Started

Even if you do not know much about Markdown formally, it is very likely that you have already used it. This document is not going to provide a syntax overview and refers to the official documentation instead. It will primarily focus on anything specific to the way Laika handles Markdown.

To get an overview over Markdown syntax, these documents may be used:

  • For a description of the syntax see the official syntax documentation.

  • For trying out small snippets of Markdown and checking how the various existing Markdown implementations handle them, the Babelmark tool can be used.

  • For using Markdown in Laika, the Using Laika Embedded page should answer most of your questions.

  • For the special treatment of verbatim HTML in Laika, see the following section.

Laika tries to follow the official syntax documentation. In cases where it is silent on how to handle certain edge cases, the Babelmark tool has been consulted and usually the approach the majority of available parsers have chosen has been picked for Laika, too. There is currently only one (known) minor exception:

  • Laika does not detect a header if it is not preceded by a blank line. Supporting this would be disadvantageous for three reasons: it goes against Markdown's design goal of promoting readability, it would slow down the parser and it would open the doors for accidental headers. According to Babelmark, there are at least two parsers (Pandoc, Python-Markdown) that agree.

GitHub Flavored Markdown

Laika supports the syntax of GitHubFlavored Markdown through an ExtensionBundle that must be enabled explicitly:


When using the sbt plugin it can be added to the laikaExtensions settings:

laikaExtensions += GitHubFlavor      

These are the parsers this extension adds to standard Markdown:

  • strikethrough (spec)
  • auto-links (urls and email addresses - spec)
  • fenced code blocks (spec)
  • tables (spec)

Subtle Differences to the GitHub Specification

  • Spec Alignment: The Laika implementation is an extension of classic, standard Markdown, in a similar fashion as GitHub Flavored Markdown had initially been defined. However, GitHub's spec has since moved on and is now based on the CommonMark spec. This should not make a huge difference for the most common use cases as CommonMark stays pretty close to classic Markdown and the syntax that has since moved to CommonMark (e.g. fenced code blocks) is included in Laika's extension. You'll probably only notice differences around any of the subtle lower-level ambiguities in Markdown's syntax.

  • Auto-Links: The parsing of URIs in auto-links is based on the relevant RFCs and not on the rather informal description in the GitHub spec. This should not make any difference for the most common use cases. The RFC based URI parser has been part of Laika for years (as reStructuredText natively supports auto-links) and its higher level of correctness justifies the bypassing of the informal description of GitHubs spec.

  • Fenced Code Blocks need a preceding blank line to be recognized by Laika's parser. This is due to technical limitations (the built-in paragraph parser does not know about all the rules of parser extensions). Future versions might lift this restriction, but it would require additional features for how extension parsers register with the host language to allow to specify a line test that causes interruption of a paragraph.

  • Tables: Since Laika is a tool that uses an internal AST that abstracts away the features of a specific output format, it does not follow the exact syntax for HTML output as shown in the GitHub spec. Specifically it does not render table cells using the deprecated align attributes. Instead it renders the cells with classes (alignLeft, alignCenter, alignRight or none) so that the cells can get styled in CSS.

Verbatim HTML

Finally there is one major difference to standard Markdown: the parsing of verbatim HTML elements is not enabled by default, but it can be switched on if required.

When using this feature you need to be aware of the fact that it ties your markup files to HTML output. Laika supports multiple output formats like HTML, PDF, XSL-FO and in the future epub, and markup files containing raw HTML could not be used for those.

When the markup originates from user input in a web application, it would not be safe to use without additional filtering. By default Laika does not filter any tags, not even <script> tags, but whitelist filtering can be added fairly easily through Laika's customization hooks like Document Tree Rewriting or Customizing Renderers.

To enable verbatim HTML elements you have to change this standard expression:




This installs both, the required parser and renderer extensions.


The reStructuredText project is part of Python's Docutils project. It is considerably more feature-rich than Markdown, with support for tables, citations and footnotes. It is also more strictly defined than Markdown, with a detailed specification and clearly defined markup recognition rules.

On the other hand, adoption is not nearly as high as for Markdown, and some of the syntax is more verbose and less intuitive or legible than Markdown.

Apparently there is no official test suite for reStructuredText, therefore to add a realistic test to the Laika test suite a full transformation of the reStructuredText specification itself is integrated into Laika's test suite.

Getting Started

This document is not going to provide a syntax overview and refers to the official documentation instead.

To get started with reStructuredText, these resources may be used:

Support for Standard Directives and TextRoles

The Python reference parser supports a number of directives and text roles out of the box, and Laika offers implementations for most of them. They are all registered by the default ReStructuredText parser instance so that you only have to explicitly register any further custom extensions.

For a detailed specification of these standard extensions, see:

Supported Directives

Laika supports the following directives:

  • Admonitions: attention, caution, danger, error, hint, important, note, tip, warning and the generic admonition
  • Document Structure: contents, sectnum, header, footer, title, include
  • Containers: compound, container, topic, sidebar, rubric, table, parsed-literal, code
  • Quotations: epigraph, highlights and pull-quote
  • Images: figure and image
  • For Substitution Definitions: replace, date, unicode
  • Other: meta, raw

The following limitations apply to these directives:

  • code does currently not support syntax highlighting (it allows to set the language though, so client-side highlighters can be integrated if required).
  • sectnum does currently not support the prefix, suffix and start options.
  • include does not support any of the options apart from the filename, due to the way document trees are traversed very differently in Laika.
  • raw does not support the file or url options.
  • unicode: does not support the various trim options, as that would require modifying adjacent elements (and no other directive has this requirement, therefore API/implementation changes did not seem justified)
  • date: Uses the patterns of java.text.SimpleDateFormat instead of Python's time.strftime function.

Supported Standard Text Roles

The following standard text roles are fully supported:

  • emphasis
  • strong
  • literal
  • subscript (and sub alias)
  • superscript (and sup alias)
  • title-reference (and title alias) - the default role
  • raw (+ format option)

Unsupported Extensions

The following extensions are not supported:

  • math, csv-table, list-table, target-notes and class directives
  • math, pep-reference and rfc-reference text roles

There are various reasons for excluding these extensions, some of them being rather technical. For example, the target-notes and class directives would require processing beyond the directive itself, therefore would require new API. Others, like the pep-reference text role, seemed too exotic to warrant inclusion in Laika.

Extension Options

Finally some of the defaults for these extensions can be changed through the API:

val transformer = Transform.from(ReStructuredText).to(HTML).withRawContent

enables both the raw directive and the raw text role. They are disabled by default as they present a potential security risk.

object RstExtensions extends RstExtensionRegistry {
  val blockDirectives = Nil
  val spanDirectives = Nil
  val textRoles = Nil
  override val defaultTextRole = "my-role-name"

val transformer = Transform from ReStructuredText to HTML using RstExtensions

sets the text role my-role-name as the default role for the transformer.

Implementing a Custom Directive

Laika comes with a concise and typesafe DSL to declare custom directives and text roles. It is fully documented in Extending reStructuredText.