I have a confession to make: I am a parchment-bindomaniac. A vellum-case addict. I can’t get enough of the things. And there is just one man responsible for my condition: Professor Nicholas Pickwoad, conservator, bookbinding historian, Director of the Ligatus research centre and all round binding guru. Back in 2010 I was very fortunate to attend his week-long course on European bookbinding 1450-1820 at the London Rare Books School, an experience which opened my eyes to the amazing variety of binding types, materials used and techniques employed.
Of all the bindings we were shown during the week (and believe me, Professor Pickwoad owns many many slides!) my favourites were those made from parchment*. While fine binding connoisseurs may flock magpie-like to the brightly coloured, richly-gold-tooled goatskin of an 18th century French binding (of which, incidentally, we’re fortunate to hold many thanks to William Hunter), when I wander the Special Collections stack my eye is automatically drawn to the distinctively straight reversed caps of a Dutch vellum laced-case (but is it?); or the creamy white back of an 18th century Italian parchment binding (or is it?). I find the mystery impossible to resist, so inevitably – completely distracted from my original task – I take the book down and look closely at the text, provenance and structure to see if there are any clues to the binding’s origin!
The fruit of one such recent unplanned diversion was this little gem, a fairly unprepossessing grubby-looking parchment case tacketed onto the sewn bookblock of a copy of Alphonso de Espina’s Fortalitium fidei contra Judeos, printed in Lyon France in 1511. The bookblock is formed by printed gatherings sewn onto three double cord supports with the slips left as they were when they came off the sewing frame (looped at the back joint and cut at the front rather than being laced or pegged into boards as was customary). More cord has then been used to loop round the terminal supports, tacketing the ill-fitting parchment cover onto the block. So what’s going on? Is this just a very cheap binding? Is it a temporary binding? Why has the book been left in this condition?
Well, (I think) this is an example of what Pickwoad calls an ‘unfinished’ binding. Those unfamiliar with early modern book culture are often surprised to learn that – unlike now, when you can walk into a High Street book shop (or more likely order online!) and pick up a finished book, ready to read – in the past books were commonly sold in an unfinished state. Customers often bought their books ‘in sheets’ (i.e. large paper sheets with the text printed on both sides, still to be folded into gatherings, arranged in sequence, sewn together and covered). As a result, multiple copies of what is ostensibly the same printed book come down to us looking very different depending on the choices made by the owner and binder. Yet, it would be untrue to suggest that this was always the case. Evidence points to a range of different buying options available to the early-modern customer, with price point adjusted accordingly. At one end of the spectrum, a book might be sold unbound, in sheets, and at the other end, for a considerably larger outlay, it might be sold bound and finished. Between the poles were a range of options including stab-stitched copies in temporary covers and, (possibly?) ‘unfinished’ bindings like this one, where the bookblock has been sewn but a permanent cover has not been attached. So, this raises more questions: why buy a book in this condition? Or why sell a book in this condition? And why leave it like this once you’ve bought it?
Pickwoad has posited a couple of possible reasons to explain why a book might be sold/bought this way, both focussing on the economics of distribution: firstly, to save on transport costs and secondly to escape duty on the importation of bound books. Transporting goods through Europe was not easy in an age before railways, motorways and airports. Books were either transported on the back of a cart, or where possible, by water, packed in barrels or crates on barges and boats. Transport costs were usually levied according to the weight of the object carried, so the lighter the better. The absence of boards may imply the book was to be sold (or had been bought by someone living) some distance from its place of production, Lyon. Secondly the issue of tax: some places (for example England after 1534 – see: An Act for Printers, and Binders of Books, 1534, 25 Hen VIII c.15) imposed duty on the importation of bound books. Would a sewn bookblock, unfinished due to the lack of boards, escape this duty, perhaps?
Well there’s no indication that the book was imported to Britain at an early date but a study of the inscription at the head of the titlepage indicates that by 1624 it was owned by the Jesuits at Neuss near Dusseldorf**. If the book was transported to Germany soon after printing (a big if, I know!) Pickwoad’s thesis about transport costs may come into play. In his fascinating paper on the Frankfurt fair*** John L. Flood breaks down some of the transport costs involved in moving books around in the sixteenth century. The river Rhine was the primary route to move material northward from central Europe and this would have been the likely route for books being transported from Lyon. Flood notes that tolls were exacted at 31 separate points on it between Basle and Cologne. Indeed, tolls and levies were imposed at every territorial border (numerous in the days of the Holy Roman Empire) with the sum charged often arbitrary. So perhaps sewing the book and tacketing on a protective cover was the most sensible and economical choice for this journey? More compact and protected than if it were ‘in sheets’ but light enough to keep the costs down. Who knows but it’s an appealing thought.
So why was the book never ‘finished’? Why weren’t permanent boards eventually attached? Well that’s very difficult to say. Perhaps the tacketed cover was simply seen as sufficient protection. The text itself, a fairly obnoxious collection of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sermons and writings compiled by Spanish Franciscan Alphonso de Espina, was incredibly popular during the late 15th century and early 16th century (nine printings from 1471-1525). However, perhaps it became less relevant with the onset of 16th-century Christian infighting, resulting in the book being left on the shelf. Certainly historian Geraldine McKendrick has commented that the Jesuits were considerably less confrontational than the Franciscans, preferring a ‘gradualist’ approach to conversion****, so perhaps Alphonso de Espina’s ‘fire and brimstone’ languished unread. Who knows…
We do know that by the 19th century the book was in the library of renowned biblical scholar Constatin von Tischendorf (1815-1874) the man credited with ‘re-discovering’ the famed 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus. After his death, his library was purchased for the Free Church College (subsequently Trinity College) Glasgow, before the whole collection was transferred to the University of Glasgow Library in 1974. I’m quite sure that whoever tacketed the scruffy temporary parchment case onto the textblock back in the 1500s would be utterly amazed to learn that, all of 500 years later, it would still be attached and sitting on my desk on the top floor of a multi-storey university library in Scotland!
*The word vellum is often used interchangeably with parchment much to Nicholas Pickwoad’s irritation. However, strictly speaking, vellum is a type of parchment, made from calfskin. Here at Special Collections we tend to use the term vellum instead of parchment (sorry Nicholas!)
** Thanks to Jack Baldwin, Honorary Research Fellow on the Glasgow Incunabula Project, Renae Satterley (@resatterley), Senior Librarian at the Middle Temple Library and Ed van der Vlist (@EdvanderVlist) curator of medieval manuscripts at the Royal Library, The Hague, for helping me identify the inscription!
*** in Myers, Harris and Mandlebrote Fairs, Markets and the itinerant booktrade
Categories: Special Collections