Medieval Writing
Bookbindings (2)
bookbinding with metalwork This 15th century binding is reinforced with hefty, but decorative, metal plates attached to the bindings with nails, the large heads of which support the book when it is laid out flat. The metal clasp is also visible. The metalwork, while decorative, is also serving a practical function.
A 15th century bookbinding in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
The late medieval binding at right has leather covers cold stamped with geometrical designs. The central sections shows a scene of the martyrdom of St Sebastian. It's a bit hard to make out, but the saint is in the middle with his hands tied over his head while two archers stand on either side filling him full of arrows. There would seem to be some conceptual relationship between the development of this form of binding design and block printing of illustrated books.
stamped leather binding
Late medieval stamped leather binding.
Sometimes books were additionally equipped with soft wrappers which were attached to the binding. The book could be wrapped up when not in use. When open, the wrappers hung down around the book like a curtain. Such arrangements are sometimes shown in artistic depictions and may have been used to protect the bindings of books in regular use, like books of hours.
books of hours
These 15th century ladies kneeling at their prayer desks have books with long wrappers dangling over the edges of the desks (British Library, MS Roy. 2 A xviii). No, it isn't a very good reproduction.
Simple soft covers made of parchment or leather, without the solid board lining, were also used at times for practical non-prestigious works like cartularies, account books or books for student use.
Hereford Cathedral Library Some books were actually fitted with chains, so that they were permanently fastened to their shelves. While such libraries do survive, for example at Hereford Cathedral, there is something peculiar about this as a concept. Works of liturgy which were used in the church could hardly be dealt with in this way. It must be assumed that the books so treated were those residing in the library for study purposes. As the practice is recorded and survives for monastic or cathedral libraries, it hardly seems likely that this was literally to prevent pious men of learning from popping a large copy of the Epistles of St Cyprian under their cassocks and absconding.

The chained library of Hereford Cathedral, although I have discovered that this much photographed library actually dates from the 17th century, although many of the books are much older.

See the description in the Hereford Cathedral website.

Perhaps it was a largely symbolic reference to the value of these works as objects, or to visually strengthen the concept of the written words contained therein as communal property in a true Benedictine tradition, rather than the individual property of scholars who might wish to read them in private. As a reader of too much Terry Pratchett, I personally find the idea that it is to prevent the books themselves from becoming animated with the power of the words inside them and doing erratic things beguiling, but alas, unlikely.
book inscription
Inscription in a book (British Library, Royal 10 A xi). (From New Palaeographical Society 1908)
The above example indicates that the chaining of books could be a matter of some significance. The inscription indicates that the book belongs to Holy Trinity, Chichester and was donated by William, the third bishop of Chichester. It concludes with the instruction that the book is to be kept firmly chained down in the college.


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