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Bookbindng-BH-art - 4/25/11


"Bookbinding: a brief history" by Lady Isabell Winter.


NOTE: See also the files: bookbinding-msg, Battl-o-t-Bks-art, ES-Bookbindng-art, early-books-msg, p-printing-msg, Monastic-Lib-art, paper-msg, gold-leaf-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



NOTE: You can find more work by this author on her website at: http://www.isabell.paradise.gen.nz/


Bookbinding: a brief history

by Lady Isabell Winter

Please note that this is a guideline to bookbinding history, different areas were usually

well ahead or behind in what was happening in other areas.  Different regions had

different fashions etc.  

It is good to know that the progression of binding fashions like ornamental fashion can

generally be thought of as a wave-like process, rippling across Europe.  Ideas would start

in one place and spread outwards.  English decorative styles were particularly influenced

by binding practices o the other side of the English Channel, in France and the Low

countries, but they in turn were often influenced by trends set further south.  Arabesque

centerpiece blocks, for example, started life as a design idea in the medieval Islamic

world, and entered the European ornamental vocabulary via the Italian trading ports

around the end of the fifteenth century.  By the end of the sixteenth century, centerpieces

were being used right across Europe, from Spain to Russia, taking in England and

Denmark as well as Germany and Bohemia (Pearson, 2004).

Szirmai 1999 states: Although leaves or fragments of leaves of the earliest codices can be

traced back to the second century AD, the first surviving binding structures seem to date

only from the third/fourth century AD.  The best known examples are the Gnostic

manuscripts found in 1945, buried in a jar near the Egyptian Village of Nag Hammadi,

close to the ancient monastery of Chenoboskion, and comprising 13 papyrus codices still

in their original leather binding.  

Unfortunately while the codices themselves were studied the bindings were only briefly

noted and  when latter looked at to get more information the bindings themselves had

been destroyed.

3rd – 5th centuries

Both single and multi quire Coptic codices found

Often wrapped in a full goat or lamb leather cover, with leather cord added to

wrap around the book

Quires often sewn with thread of 1mm

Papyrus far more common than parchment

6th – 9th centuries

Western bookblocks were of papyrus or vellum/parchment.

Decorated end leaves were occasionally used.

The thong core of headbands was laced to the boards.  The headbands were a

continuation of the sewing.

Wood or papyrus boards were chisel trimmed flush to the text.  Boards and text

were attached by the sewing threads.

Coptic bindings were closed with straps attached to the foredge and wound

around the book.  A bone catch was attached to the end of the strap and slipped

through on the foredge.

9th – 14th centuries

Double sewing supports were commonly used with a flat spine and were laced-in,

flush to the text wooden boards.  For example The book of Armagh (9th century)

utilized double cord herringbone sewing with kettle stitches at the head and tail.

Board attachment generally consisted of a raised throng through a tunnel to the

surface of the board.  A hole allowed the thong to go through to the inside where

it was pegged with a wooden peg.

By the 10th century bind tooling with individual tools was in use.

12th century

The first European paper mills were established in Spain in the 12th century; the

first stamper for macerating pulp, allowing for shorter fiber and smoother finish

was in Valencia.  

Paper was being used for textblocks.  

The 12th century is the earliest period for which there are several hundred

bindings in existence making it possible to generalize with some confidence.

Herringbone sewing on double alum-tawed thongs or cords was common.

Alum-tawed raised supports were often split and laced over the board edge.  

Earlier examples used fewer sewing supports than later samples.  

The spine was still flat.

Un-colored headbands were now sewn independently of the sections and were

tied down at the centre of each section.  These frequent tie-downs became


Chisel trimming of the textblock and boards was done simultaneously.  The

textblock was flush with the boards and was chamfered at head and tail to allow

recessing of the headbands.

Wooden boards were still in use.

Cover decorating techniques included blind tooling, inking in, painting, and

piercing. Board clasps were plaited thong with loops and bond pegs.

13th – 14th centuries

The Fabrino paper mill was established in Italy by 1276.  By the 14th century

there were many mills in France: at Troyes, Avignon, Saint-Cloud, Corbeil,

Essones; the first mill in Germany was established at Nuremberg in 1390.

Paper was beginning to be commonly used for textblocks; for stationery binding

(blank books), school copy books, and account books although parchment was

still in use.  The non-adhesive long-stitch link-stitch sewing's of the 14th and 15th

centuries had flat, stiff spines utilizing the exposed sewing as the decorative


One or two needle chain stitch sewing was in use.  In some cases sewing threads

formed the attachment to the boards.

Sewing support thongs commonly ran over the top of the board (rather than

through a tunnel) laced by means of holes in a straight line from the thong.  In

some cases, grooves were carved in the boards to accommodate the thongs.

Leather braid headbands appear.

Wooden boards were still trimmed flush to the textblock.

Clasps were often two straps with the clasp attached to the foredge.

Panel stamps were introduced in the Netherlands and were in use in England by


13th century Islamic binding incorporated gold.

The earliest known English textile binding is an embroidered canvas cover

showing the Annunciation and crucifixion, on the fourteenth-century Felbrigge

Psalter now in the British Library.

15th century

The many changes in the 15th and 16th centuries were largely related to the onset

of the commercial pressures which continued through to the present day.  Most

changes have involved speeding up of techniques and introduction of cheaper


Binders were still usually working on one book at a time, completing the whole

thing in one sequence.  

Paper had largely supplanted parchment for text leaves.  

Pagination was in use; numbering pages began in about 1470.

All-along sewing sometimes incorporated vellum stays on the insides of the folds

of the sections.  

Recessed cord sewing was beginning to be used.

Rounded spines with the consequent seating of the shaped boards into the

shoulder became the norm.

Headband tie downs had become less frequent, not necessarily in every section.

Pasteboard boards (paper sheets pasted together) largely replaced wooden boards.  

Lacing- in holes were usually on the diagonal, adjusting tensioning to the use of


Board squares were introduced replacing boards cut flush to the textblock.  

Chamfering of the textblock became uncommon.  Boards were trimmed

separately from the textblock using the plough.

High quality full-thickness leather and vellum were in use, with consideration

given to the matching of materials to the weight and size of the textblock and to

the use to which the book would be put.  

The adhered spine covering was often of Morocco leather.

By the 15th century the position of claps frequently indicated the country of

origin: English and French claps were on the upper board and catch on the lower,

in Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany clasps were generally on the lower board

and catch on the upper.

Gold tooling was imported from the east and was in use in Italy about 1470.  Hot

tools were used for gilding.  The roll (fillet) was introduced to replace individual

tools for straight lines or lines of ornament.

Edge gilding was introduced.

There was logic to the progressions seen at this time; the use of paste-boards led

to diagonal hole placement for tight lacing, paper textblocks led to the recessing

of sewing cords, to rounding, and smooth spines.  All of this allowed for attached


The use of clasps declined.  They didn't attach firmly to paste boards and were

less necessary than they were for vellum textblocks, which required confinement.

Early 16th century

By the beginning of the 16th century the heavy, wooden-boarded folios were being

supplanted by leather bound octavos with gold tooled decoration.  The earlier

books were intended to be stored flat or chained to lecterns whereas the smaller,

more compact 'humanist' 16th century bindings were intended to be portable and


From the 16th century on, commercial pressure required speeding up of technique,

smaller sizes of books in larger editions, pre-made or precut components,

introduction of inexpensive covering materials.  

Pagination was generally used.

Single sewing supports largely replaced double supports.

Headbands which were frequently colored silk were no longer laced into the

boards and were tied down less frequently.  

By the end of the 16th century glued on headbands were introduced.

Gold tooling was predominant.

Deerskin and other leathers fall out of normal use after the fifteenth century.

Goatskin first used in English bookbinding in the 1540's

Embroidered bindings can be found throughout the sixteenth century, often

depicting religious imagery or plants, landscapes or other possibilities.

Bindings made before 1530 in England are likely to have wooden boards;

between 1530 and 1570 boards or pasteboards (2-4mm) may be found, but more

often wood.  After 1570 wood is unusual and after 1600 is rarely found.  This

practice was imported from the Middle east where pasteboard had been used for

bindings for several centuries.


Bookbinding 1: A home study course in basic hand bookbinding, 2001.  S Smith.  The

Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild as part of its Home Study Programme.  

ISBN 0-9695091-7-0

A guide to the Census of Western Medieval Bookbinding Structures to 1500 in British

Libraries. 1998.  British Census Project.

English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800.  2004.  D Pearson. Oak Knoll Press. ISBN 0-


Bookbindings. 1950. J P Harthan.  Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding. 1999.  J A Szirmai. Ashgate, England.  

ISBN 978-0-85967-904-6


Copyright 2009 by Vanessa Robb, 78 Connaught Street, Blockhouse Bay, Auckland 0600, New Zealand. <kaosv2 at yahoo.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org