From the Library: Book Binding Curiosities

The next time you open a book to read a text, spare a moment to look at the binding; it reveals a lot about the culture that produced the book in your hand. Here is an interesting case in point.

The title of this book is Florilegium Novum. It’s content was created by the engraver Johann Theodor de Bry and was published in Oppenheim in 1612. It is an early example of what is known as a florilegium, a collection of floral images with little or no text.

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The Florilegium Novum is bound in what is called a limp vellum style, an affordable option that used flexible vellum instead of leather and stiff boards. This was likely a temporary binding made to keep the pages clean until the owner got the money together to pay for something stronger, so scrap material was often used. In this example, the piece of scrap material happens to be a 2-page spread from what is probably a 14th century manuscript. The covers of this book were supposed to have been part of a Missal, a large book used by Catholic priests to assist them in saying mass.

Many manuscript image4fragments have survived by being incorporated into bookbindings, and scraps of missals are quite common. This piece is interesting because it is so large and had never been bound into a book for a priest to use. Why had it never been bound? Was it one of many vellum sheets that never made it into book form? Had they all been sitting in a binders shop for several hundred years? Did the book’s owner choose it as a religious statement? We don’t have the answers to these questions, but this binding does give us some insight into early modern craft practices and mentalities. Would I use 200 year old materials in my book conservation lab? Not likely. I would assume they had been weakened by time or were important artifacts in their own right that should be preserved without alteration. The bookbinder who created this binding had a very different relationship with the past; perhaps the past (for him) wasn’t really separate from the present. He may have been ignorant of history, may not have known how old this vellum was, or that it had been destined to be part of a missal. He did not view this manuscript as an artifact; it was a sturdy piece of valuable material that could still do practical work. This was a world without waste and a world without museums; a world very different from ours.

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