Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Medieval Limp Bindings

I work as a lecturer in Graphic Design and as such I have an interest in different methods of publication and book binding.  During research, I came across some beautiful examples of medieval limp binding, a method of binding a manuscript to a limp cover of vellum  or similar material in order to provide a lightweight cover.

It's pretty hard to know how often this binding was used for definite as the style is generally seen as being cheaper and more ephemeral than other "proper" bindings.  We do know that limp binding was used in the 14th & 15th centuries and that it became a quite popular style in the 16th century, with some library collections having over 50% of their works bound in this fashion thanks to the efforts of scholar-publishers.  By the 17th century, however, the style was in decline.  I've yet to find a reason as to why, but one can speculate that changing print processes were likely having an effect on book production and binding methods.

Still, it's a nice little style of book to make and one of the easier binding techniques for documents, perfect for your average SCA/re-enactor/LARPer types.  I've made a couple in the past but have never been hugely pleased with the results due to the paper stock and the leather being a wee bit too limp, so looking at these older manuscripts is giving me a shove to make nicer feeling books with better stock and better leather.

One of the examples that stood out for me was a limp binding with a linen cloth cover, held by the National Library of Sweden.

It's a document from 1451-1452, which is simply referred to as the Vadstena Observance.  Vadstena was a monastery so it's fairly safe to say that this is a religious document.  It has three seals -- but unfortunately the information at source is pretty lacking (source is here).  The inside is pretty stunning though, given that it's a limp bound manuscript, bound only in linen:

It's a simple way of binding things.  I can't help but feel that these books are meant for use; a copy meant for wear, rather than a library reference, which would be the grander version of the manuscript that you'd want to keep nice.  Some of the records from 14th and 15th century convent libraries certainly agree as most of these books were in the hands of the nuns, with only 9% of the books in the library being limp bound.  That doesn't mean these books weren't of value though.  They still contained information and have even been documented as being taken as part of the spoils of war, such as this one:

It's not much to look at, until you look at the reinforced leather spine:

...and of course, the manuscript itself:

It's also in the National Library of Sweden, listed as being from 1398.  They believe it was part of the spoils of the sacking of Prague in 1648.  I just wish I knew what it said...

In doing the research for this entry, I also found a really cool little website by a lady who is putting the limp binding technique into practice based on actual historic pieces.  She's a few interesting comments on putting the theory into practice.  I also came across http://www.textmanuscripts.com, which is a site that sells manuscripts privately.  My favourite of their current stock is a processional with musical notation from Northern Italy, made between 1450-1500.  The exterior is just plain vellum with no design, saving for some gilt lettering down the spine that reads "Uffiziolo Francescano, sec. XV."  The interior, however, is gorgeous:

This processional contains multiple forms of burial services for friars, the laity and also for children.  Because everything is in the masculine form, it's believed it was created as a book for use by Franciscan friars.  It is a working book, not a reference book.

Either way, it took someone of talent to put something like this together.

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