Bindings come in all shapes and sizes from the heavy, dull, squat and brown to the glitzy, colourful, on-laid and gold-tooled* but whatever the aesthetics, they have one primary function: to take the bullet. To deflect the slings and arrows of daily use. If the text is the star attraction – the VIP – then the book’s binding is very much its bodyguard, defending “the talent” from harm at great personal risk. In consequence precious few early bindings survive in-tact; most of them, becoming tired and damaged over the years, have been replaced, often numerous times. Even many of those well-made survivors, the grizzled tough nuts who withstood the test of time, went on to suffer the ignominy of an 18th or 19th century re-bind at the hands of collectors (or even, shhh! … librarians) wishing to clothe their treasured incunabula in a contemporary style. Of the 770 incunables we have catalogued for GIP so far, less than 10% survives in 15th or 16th century bindings** so it’s particularly exciting to find a surprising four examples in this current batch.
First up a blind-tooled calf over oak boards, protecting Nicolaus de Lyra’s Moralia super totam Bibliam (Cologne: Johan Koelhoff, the Elder, 1478). The covers have been decorated in blind with fillets to form four concentric rectangles within which a diamond pattern has been tooled. Additional decoration is provided by an angel stamp, one depicting a lion rampant and a third circular stamp resembling a portcullis.
The five large brass bosses on the cover betray the age of the binding: bound at a time when few books competed for shelf space, so permitting flat storage, the bosses protecting the leather from being scratched. Likewise the wooden boards and fore-edge clasp are relics of a time when books (commonly of the manuscript variety!) were produced on springy and quick-to-cockle vellum rather than paper. As time went by and printed books became more common, binders tended to prefer cheaper pasteboard to wood whilst bosses and clasps (difficult to attach to pasteboard and largely unnecessary for paper books stored vertically) also generally fell by the wayside. Basil Oldham, who we’ve discussed in a previous blog, tentatively suggested that this binding and a second 15th/16th century binding from this batch (Augustinus, Aurelius: Explanatio psalmorum (Basel: Johann Amerbach [and Johann Petri de Langendorff, not after 8 Sept.] 1489)), may have been produced in the Netherlands. What do you think? Lots of work has been done on binding research since Oldham’s attribution in 1938, so if you are able to confirm or challenge this attribution please let us know.
Next we move on to Thomas Aquinas’s De veritate, not only printed in Germany (Cologne: Johann Koelhoff, the Elder, 1475) and with an early German monastic provenance (Amberg, Bavaria, Franciscans, S. Bernardinus Senensis) but likely bound there too (quarter blind-stamped pigskin over wooden boards). The pigskin is decorated in blind with fillets, rosette stamps, other floral stamps and a diamond shaped fleur-de-lys stamp. The fact that the central leaves of each quire have been guarded with thin vellum strips hints at an early binding structure, from a time when binders were more used to attaching vellum quires to supports and perhaps feared that un-guarded paper was less able to withstand the pull of the thread. The binding, while a rare survivor, hasn’t done so unscathed – part of the front board has broken off at some point and is now lost.
The final early binding in this batch, of blind-tooled calf over wooden boards, covers one of our two copies of an early edition of Tortellius’s Orthographia (Venice: Nicolaus Jenson, 1471) ***. Small nail holes through the leather and into the boards point to the removal at some point of a diamond shaped metal centrepiece and corner bosses, presumably to allow the volume to be shelved upright without damaging its neighbours. Additional evidence of its early horizontally-shelved life is the shelfmark “io8” inked onto the top edge of the book block. However, perhaps the most useful scrap of evidence – one that helps us date the binding to the 15th century – is the manuscript ownership inscription of Anton von Annenberg (1420-1480/84), a Tyrolean noble with an important library. The Annenberg inscription, on the vellum front flyleaf, has partially set off (while still damp) onto the bare wood of the front board. It is quite possible that this binding is one of those (roter Ledereinband mit Beschlägen und Schließen – i.e. red leather cover with fittings and closings) described by F. Fürbeth as having been made for Annenberg by the bindery of the Schnals Carthusian Charterhouse, many of which apparently still survive. Have you seen a book bound by this bindery? Please get in touch if you have any information which might help us place and describe this binding.
*remember that incunabula and indeed most books printed before the 19th century were sold unbound; owners would have their books bound locally according to their tastes and what they could afford.
**it’s worth noting that this figure may actually under-represent true survival rates for early bindings in our collections. Until now we’ve concentrated on cataloguing smaller format incunabula, leaving aside many of the larger folios. All four early bindings in this batch are large folio volumes. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that early bindings may survive better in bigger books since such cumbersome tomes – difficult to pull off the shelf and manhandle – were perhaps less frequently leafed through over the centuries.
***the other copy of which (Sp Coll Hunterian Bg.1.9) is also notable for a fantastic humanist historiated initial.
The latest ten records to be fully indexed on the project website are:
- Thomas Aquinas: De veritate Cologne: Johann Koelhoff, the Elder, 1475
- Berchorius, Petrus: Liber Bibliae moralis Ulm: Johann Zainer, 9 Apr. 1474
- Papis: Vocabularium Milan: Dominicus de Vespolate, 12 Dec. 1476
- Campanus, Johannes Antonius: Opera Rome: Eucharius Silber, for Michael Fernus, 31 Oct. 1495
- Herodotus: Historiae Venice: Jacobus Rubeus, [before Dec.] 1474
- Nicolaus de Lyra: Moralia super totam Bibliam Cologne: Johann Koelhoff, the Elder, 1478
- Augustinus, Aurelius: Explanatio psalmorum Basel: Johann Amerbach [and Johann Petri de Langendorff, not after 8 Sept.], 1489
- Tortellius, Johannes: Orthographia Venice: Nicolaus Jenson, 1471 [2 copies]
- Homilarius doctorum de tempore et de sanctis a Paulo Diacono collectus Speyer: Peter Drach, 7 Sept. 1482
Categories: Special Collections