Tag Archives: book binding

To My Dear and Loving Husband

IMG_3501 2The Art Workers’ Guild in London is a great institution, set up by followers of William Morris, and providing a forum for those who work in craft, art and architecture. Fortnightly lectures for Brothers and their guests on a variety of topics are held in the Lecture Room attached to a beautiful 18th century building. In this room a bust of William Morris, a previous Master, looks down on all proceedings. The Art Workers’ Guild held an auction in November 2017 to raise money for roofing over the atrium to create exhibition space. As Brothers of the Guild, we were asked to produce work that could be auctioned, and this is mine.

I chose to write out this poem by the American Anne Bradstreet because it is one of my favourites. And I decided to set it out just a little bit differently. I designed it as a landscape book IMG_3496and made it wide and narrow. I fed two colours of Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache into a quill as I wrote (more on this here). I really like doing this as I feel that it represents two separate people coming together in a relationship, sometimes one colour, sometimes the other, but mostly a variable mix of the two. The treated vellum was a dream to write on, and the lettering came out very finely, as can be seen by the title where I have left in the pencil guidelines. (Note the upper pencil line for the poet’s name. I was enjoying writing so much that I rather generously flourished the letter ‘g’ and then wasn’t sure that the tiny writing for Anne’s name would show up with the loop of the flourish, so had to drop it down a bit!)


IMG_3502I wanted to ensure that the balance between the title page and the poem worked well. It wasn’t quite as easy as normal to get the measurements right with this unusual shape of book.


IMG_3512I selected the colours red and blue gouache and found hand-made paper which matched exactly that of the paint, and, with a white title page and ‘endpaper’ to ensure that the colour behind the vellum was the best to show it off well, I prepared a ‘liner’ of the dark blue paper which had been made in India, and a cover of stiff red paper, a paper which had been made in Thailand. I made deckle edges on both.

IMG_3508I sewed everything together with a dark blue ribbon, wrote the title on a piece of vellum from the same skin and attached it to the front cover. Everything seemed to work well together and I hope that the successful bidder enjoys their book.

Girdle Books

Mediæval bookTaking a book with you to read on a journey was rarely an option in mediæval times. Vellum or parchment pages, oak boards and metal hasps and clasps all resulted in a heavy book, usually far too heavy to carry around easily – as with the book on the right. The eighth-century Codex Amiatinus, written in Northumberland and now in the Laurentian Library in Florence, takes two men to carry it – hardly a pocket book!




SmallHowever, there were smaller books. Some Books of Hours and Psalters were tiny enough to carry on a journey, or to look at without having to sit at a table, as this cutie on the right.




There were also special ‘carrying cases’ for smallish books, whereby the book was encased in a soft leather or cloth ‘chemise’ which ended in a knot. The knot was then tucked into a belt or a girdle, and these were called, surprisingly enough, girdle books!


Holy familyAt the St Annen Museum in Lübeck, Germany, there is a carving of the Holy Family and St Anne. Spot the girdle books.






girdle bookA black one is being carried in the hand, the the knot being clasped firmly:







girdle bookand the knot of a red leather covered one has been tucked firmly into a golden belt. Note the circular mounts on the covers; these were to stop the leather, or sometimes silk covered getting damaged or dirty when the book was placed on the top of a table or shelf.





girdle bookI was fortunate enough to photograph a girdle book of the Psalms belonging to a private collector. This is not mediæval but from the nineteenth century, it does, though give some idea of the variety of such books. This book comes from Ethiopia and is written on gazelle skin treated to produce vellum. Note the pin prick marks on the right hand side which indicate the line markings.

girdle bookThe script is the ancient language of Ge’ez, which remains now only as the language of the liturgy of a few select Ethiopian orthodoxies. The ink is a very dense black with a vibrant red contrast.




girdle book bindingThe book is bound as a coptic binding which is incredibly flexible, and the cords are thought to have been made from the wild banana plant (see also the St Cuthbert’s Gospel – the oldest European bound book).



coptic bindingThe covers are from cedar wood, and you can see that the covers, as in all coptic (and some other) bindings are drilled such that they can take the cords which are then tied off inside the back cover.





book 'pocket'The book slips inside an animal skin ‘pocket’, which is carefully constructed from stiff vellum-like skin, perhaps a less-scraped skin from the gazelle? The thongs to tie the case together are also animal skin.




book 'pocket'

The case was obviously made for the book because although it is not tight, it is a snug fit and ensures that the book doesn’t move around inside when being carried.






outer case for bookThen there is an outer slip cover which ensure that the whole of the book is protected in transit. This is made of the same type of skin.






book coverAnd lastly, the thongs from the pocket are laced through the top covering to ensure that the book cannot fall out, These thongs, then, can be tied on to a belt for easy carrying. In all the case measures 130 by 110 mm (5 by 4 inches).

This is a book which really can be carried, especially with its handy case – so much better than a Kindle!


Golden Books – the Lindau Gospels and others

Lindau Gospels front coverIt is rare to get a ninth century book where the original jewelled cover is still attached to the book. The Lindau Gospels is one such. It was bought by John Pierpoint Morgan and was his first major manuscript purchase. The cover is simply amazing. The centre piece is Christ on the cross in gold, standing proud from the surface. Mourning figures, some with wings, are also in relief in the four surrounding panels. It is thought that below the arms of the cross are the Virgin Mary, John, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the wife of Cleopas (Cleopas was one of the disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. His wife was Mary, and, in John’s Gospel, she was named as one of the women standing with Mary at the cross). The sun and moon are represented above the cross. (A design point: having a centred design makes the whole thing too far down the cover – how I want to just push it all up a bit!)

Rear_cover_of_Lindau_GospelsThe jewels are just stunning – pearls in abundance, amethysts, jade, beryls, and what could be moonstones amongst others. The back cover is not quite so lavish, but wonderful in its own way. Silver and gold have been worked into interlace, similar to that in the Lindisfarne Gospels, and although the jewels are fewer in number, the enamel work in very fine indeed. The additions of two vertical strips at either side edge indicate the the back cover was not made for this book. It is thought likely that the book was produced at the Royal Abbey of St Denis just outside Paris.

There is a discussion of the book cover in detail here.

462px-codex_aureus_sankt_emmeramThe Codex Aureus of St Emmeram (Golden Book) is also a ninth century book. The date for this book is quite precise – 870, and it was produced for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles II (the Bald), at his Palace School, probably again at St Denis. There must have been some exceptionally skilled craftspeople around at that time! It is a large book at 420×300 mm. Again there is a central cross shape, but this time the figure is Christ in Majesty holding a book where the text is clear and reads: ‘I am the way, and the truth…’. Around the central figure are the four evangelists’ symbols, and there are images of Christ’s miracles in the four L-shaped panels. It is thought that the monks Liuthard and Beringer wrote the book and to see some inside pages of their work click here.

Dodex Aureus of FreckenhorstThis is what some jewelled book covers are like now. This is the Codex Aureus of Freckenhorst, which is an 11th century gospel book. Although a few mother-of-pearl remains, with some pieces of jade, turquoise and amethyst, most of the stones have been prized out with a knife, which does leave us a peek at the wooden board forming the structure of the cover below. The central ivory is particularly exquisite. Christ is in a mandorla (this is the shape of two circles overlapping and so is where the circle of heaven overlaps with the circle of earth – which is where Christ is situated), holding a book, which again emphasises the importance of the Word at this time.

Stockholm Codex AureusA note at the beginning of the Gospel of St Matthew in the Stockholm Codex Aureus tells us that the book was stolen by the Vikings, no doubt for its precious cover, but was bought back ‘with much gold’ and presented to the church. It is quite likely that when it was realised that this was a book not a box, the cover was ripped off and the Vikings were then quite happy to sell the inside of the book on.

Note at Stockholm Cod AurYou can just about make out the note written above the magnificent ‘Christi Autem’ and then continued at the bottom of the page. It explains that Earl Alfred, from Surrey, and his wife Werburg bought the book from the ‘heathen invading army’. The inside lives up to its name of Codex Aureus. A mid-eighth century book, it was probably produced in Canterbury. Pages of dyed purple vellum with gold, silver and white pigments are followed by undyed skin with black, red and gold. Wulfhelm the goldsmith is named, so too are Ceolhard , Niclas and Ealhhun, who were probably the scribes and illuminators.


St Cuthbert’s Gospel – a rare jewel

St Cuthbert's Gospel 1St Cuthbert’s Gospels is one of the most covetable books I have ever had the privilege to see close up. Being within a foot or so of a seventh-century book that was found in the coffin of the important Northumbrian saint, St Cuthbert, was an amazing experience. When the coffin in the shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral was opened in 1104, the book was found placed there with other objects such as St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross and precious textiles. It fits in the hand, as you can see on the right, and could so easily have slipped into my pocket if no-one had been watching!



St Cuthbert Gospel, coverWhat is quite remarkable about the book is that it is still in its original binding, and as such is the oldest European bound book. Deep red leather covers wooden boards. On the front cover a scroll pattern and straight lines (which make a neat frame) have been outlined, possibly with cord or even carved wood which was then glued on to the cover. This meant that, when the red leather was pasted on, these areas became raised from the surface. In the surrounding border and in the upper and lower blocks, an interlace pattern has been indented and also coloured; the yellow pigment is more obvious than the blue in this photograph.


Coptic bindingThe gospel is a coptic binding, which means that, rather than the sections of folded pages (gatherings) being sewn on to wide tapes and these then attached to the covers, the gatherings are sewn with thick thread in a sort of chain stitch (see right) and these hold the sections of the book together and are then attached to the wooden boards (as you can see on the right). This is how codices (books as we know them) were first made and they rarely have covered spines. The wooden boards of this book (right) – made when I was at college – would then have been covered by red leather and tooled to get the effect of the St Cuthbert Gospel.

Coptic book openThe binding is particularly flexible, as you can see again here with that college-made book. When I was being filmed writing the first page of this book at the British Library I was able to speak to the conservation book binder, and he said that the spine is still completely flexible, and it would be possible to turn the book round completely on itself so that back and front cover could touch – of course he hadn’t done this!

St Cuthbert Gospel, f. 1Inside the book the text is written in the lettering style of Uncial. There are very few ascenders and descenders and the letters are essentially majuscule. The Gospel of St John starts with a long versal I in red (versals are letters where the thicker strokes are constructed out of two or more pen strokes, rather then simply changing the nib to the thickest angle and making one stroke); this letter is followed by a smaller letter N. The red ink has smudged slightly over the years. The rest of the text is in a dark brown ink. As with most scribes when writing an important manuscript, the first few words are rather tightly written, but by line four things are more relaxed, although it is only in the second paragraph that the scribe really gets into his stride. Notice, too, that the first two words (In principio – In the beginning…) are written with more pen nib angle changes than for the remaining Angled Pen Uncial script. This page, too, because it is the first page, is more discoloured and worn than the rest of the book.

St Cuthbert's Gospel 2And the remarkable aspect of this book is how even and pleasing on the page the text is. There is considerable consistency to the lettering, and it is quite easy to read with very few contractions, unlike some manuscripts written centuries later. Look out for Lazarus at the end of the second line on the right, for example (obviously this page is about the raising of Lazarus). It is written per cola et commata, that is the length of the line is determined by the sense of the text, and a subsequent clause starts on the next line. You may also be able to see the fuzzy ink indicating an erasing at the start of line 8. The scribe has scratched out whatever it was written in error and the vellum skin is rougher at this point. Look out, too, for where the ink is running out and so the scribe fills his quill for the next letter. In the second to last line the letters TT in quattuor have had additions to the start of the serifs on the crossbar (look closely, and see that the crossbars are fainter at the beginnings and ends, and so the scribe has added tiny strokes with a full quill of ink to emphasise them).

Look also at the free Calligraphy Clips page on this website for how to write this style of lettering (it’s the latest set I’ve put up so you’ll need to scroll to the bottom).

photoWhen the St Cuthbert Gospel was saved for the nation, the British Library made a film to celebrate this, and I was lucky enough to be asked to show how the first page was done. I tried to be as ‘period’ as I could. I knew that a plastic ruler wouldn’t quite cut the mustard, so I found a piece of wood to draw the lines (rather large, but it was real wood), and fished out an old bradawl from the tool box to score the lines. There is no sound on this clip, but it does show how the page would have been set out, and how the letters were written.

The book is now at the British Library, and they were thrilled to own it now, as is evident on this BBC World News item with Dr Claire Breay (a couple of seconds in on this clip). It is usually on display in the British Library, and for many years it was shown closed – very frustrating to we scribes! Conservation experts have indicated that it can now be displayed open so everyone can have a chance of studying the wonderful script for themselves.