Extreme Materialist Readings of Medieval Books
Obermann Seminar, June, 2008
“It cannot be persuasively argued that early Christianity “invented” the codex, nor that Christians were the first to use it for something more than notes. The evidence shows only that Christians adopted the codex in preference to the roll as a medium for literature sooner and more decisively than their contemporaries and so promoted its popularity. That they did so says something important about the uses and functions of early Christian writings.” Harry Y. Gamble
Material Quality of Medieval Book Bindings
Our own perception of the physical qualities of the medieval book is obscured by our immersion in a flood of manufactured goods and a wasteland of their disposal. But it is a fact that scribes and book makers of the Middle Ages conveyed to us a conceptual and material witness of Antiquity and of their own times using a refined communication device. If our own digital culture is to be conveyed forward we will also need such a legible, efficient, dependable and self-authenticating device. For reliable transmission of knowledge across time and cultures, which technology, that of the medieval book or that of computer media, is more advanced?
I will be describing the material qualities and actions of medieval book binding and will discuss a particular type of medieval book binding with wooden boards in the covers. There are other kinds of covers of medieval book bindings, but wooden boards were typical and they are predominant among books that survive intact from that era. Wood was well adapted to cover books as they became larger, thicker, heavier and squarer.
The classical anatomy of wooden board book binding is somewhat confined to the Middle Ages. Earlier book covers of late Antiquity are associated with cartonnage, or pasted sheets, of papyrus while book covers by the end of the wooden board era, beginning in the West in mid sixteenth century, are associated with pasteboard made from laminations of paper.
The wooden boards of medieval book bindings were skillfully hewn from the quarter cuts of fine beech and oak timber or possibly nut tree wood. These wooden boards were covered with materials of exquisite quality including fine textiles, and supple and snowy colored tawed skins. We can add to this the elaborate embroidery of endbands, engraved metal work, ornamental markers and index buttons and, perhaps, a velvet or damask chemise. And everyone remarks on the leather chemise over-covering of the girdle book. Exceptional book bindings were mounted with rare stones and ivory miniatures. All these embellishments were built on the wooden board binding.
A particular sewing method is also associated with the wooden board book cover of the Middle Ages. Here another divide occurred at the beginning of the ninth century between earlier text sewing using thread alone and a new practice of sewing quires onto supporting components. While unsupported, thread only, sewing persisted in Byzantium, in the Eastern Church and in the Islamic world, the Western European medieval binding adopted the method of sewing onto supports of stout flax cords or thick skin thongs and lacing these supports through pathways into strong wooden cover boards.
All this extra construction was needed. Medieval books were larger, thicker and heavier than the portable, traveling papyrus codices of late Antiquity. They frequently gathered numerous works by a single author or extensive collections of commentary, scripture or exposition and they were secured in churches and monastic libraries as service or reference volumes where they had a fixed location on lecterns, in chests or cabinets. Many were liturgical objects.
So to answer the question, “What are medieval book bindings?”, we can say that they are reliquaries or microcosms of the past. Crafts of needle work and weaving, metal work, skin curing and wood working are exemplified by the medieval bookbinding. While most medieval books survive only in later rebindings, the few still in their original bindings illustrate the expanse and technique of the expert crafts of the Western Middle Ages.
But how do medieval book bindings work? The motion derived from leverage of the board transmitted to the text produces a gymnastic action. Variation of sewing supports, stitch patterns, lacing paths and adhered panel linings and other structural features determine the durability, efficiency and haptic influence of this transmission of board leverage.
While control of transmission of board leverage is managed with different success across the span of wooden board work, one culmination of improved control is a shoulder-seated board. The ideal of the shoulder-seated board inducing a “drawn on” shape to the text back deserves recognition on its own. A principle, following from the sewing patterns and the accumulated thread swelling, encompasses three interlocking vectors. As swelling increases the round of the back deepens, the angle of the shoulder to the page plane increases, while the height of the shoulder from the seat to the endpaper fold diminishes. As swelling decreases the convex shape of the back flattens, the angle of the shoulder to the page plane diminishes, but the length of the shoulder from seat to endpaper fold increases. The demonstration of these interlocking vectors is a continuous gradation of parabolas that accommodates each distinctive sewing of each book.
The medieval wooden board binding also has relatively heavy sewing supports and strong covering skins that cause the board to move off the shoulder on opening. This action must be accommodated and controlled through effective adhesion of panel linings. These back linings were put down on the inside of the board, and are primary actors in the opening motion. Their materials, fit and adhesion need close attention. The lining tongues begin transmission in the first few degrees of opening and continue to open the book fully without swinging the board beyond ninety degrees. The following action is mostly distributed to the arching of the text back and to drape among the leaves.
In transmission of the leverage of closing the laced sewing supports, laced endband cores and covering skin are main actors. Here the last few degrees of motion are critical. At the end of the closing motion great compressive force can be applied via the outer bevel of the board. This sudden, clamping action drives the inner bevel against the shoulder and drives the board against the text, expelling air from the leaves, locking up the shape of the back and transforming the whole book into a solid geometry. At that moment, with the covers held closed, the clasps are tripped into place.
The elegant parabola of the shape of the book back induced by the closing leverage of the wooden boards is among the most wonderful achievements of the art of the book. The complement is a graceful arching of the book on opening. Miraculously such a dynamic mobility conveys directly from the handling of a book by the medieval reader to a similar handling today by a modern scholar. The manipulation and mystery of both scenes is conveyed by the same medieval book binding.
How have a few medieval book bindings miraculously survived? This is a mixed story. The medieval book is an exemplar of a timeless composite of materials. While all the components are bio-degradable, in the absence of dampness or outright abuse, the entire book is admirably stable. Alkaline state is characteristic of both tawed skin and parchment, but surviving medieval books have not survived by chemical buffering alone.
Each surviving medieval bookbinding also represents a rather improbable sequence of protective decisions taken across dozens of generations. This repeated commitment could have been broken by a single lapse, but that string of deliberate or inadvertent preservation actions is the real reason that medieval book bindings have lasted so long.
Many medieval books have been destroyed completely. Targeting and purging of libraries occurs into the present while the overall devastation of natural disaster is a constant. Another layer of loss is rebinding and the revamping of medieval book bindings to reflect decorative styles of a later period.
Another subtle yet invasive threat to all types of material culture that evokes a performance model of medieval book binding has just recently emerged. This is the imaging of artifacts and their presentation as on-line surrogates. Many justifications and many attractions encourage such digitization and only isolated anxiety is expressed over the continuing role of originals in the context of their screen delivery. Likewise, little anxiety is expressed as physical book collections as a whole recede in status both for leisure and research reading. Only passing nostalgia for the book is typically considered, without serious thought given to any attributes of the codex that cannot be supplanted by screen reading.
What are material attributes exemplified by the medieval book still relevant today? Navigation: This is the attribute of haptic communication in which the manipulation of the mechanical format conveys additional meaning without distracting comprehension of content. Primate dexterity and a deeply embedded capacity for hands to prompt the mind are fully optimized by the codex mechanism. Legibility: There is nothing more illegible than a black screen. Network loading and interruption, application, device and platform incompatibilities, battery drain and power requirements impair screen display. Browser default line length and justification distortions reach extremes of illegibility. The physical page is immediately presented and interfaced by the reader alone. Persistence: The physical book is passively persistent and provides both storage and display functions in a single manifestation. Screen resources decouple storage and display compounding costs and delivery complexity. Screen persistence is not assured due to content decay and mutability, provider interventions or demise and multiple media, software and hardware obsolescence. Fail-safe, un-encoded eye readability is an attribute of the material codex. Authentication: The physical book is self-authenticating with a capacity to sustain continued forensic and bibliographic investigation. Print content and its material presence is inherently immutable. Constraint: The constraints of the physical book are attributes. Constraints of design, letterform convention, parchment or papermaking, and binding assures efficient delivery to readers. Assured re-reading across time and cultures provides research validity and advance. Overtness: with a content of the physical book you can confirm what is there and you can confirm what is not there. Such findings are repeatable and stable as multiple works are compared. There is also an overt physical existence of the conceptual work that provides continuing confirmation of its own existence and its own disposition among other shelved books. Space: Physical books require physical space. Such a prerequisite is not that different from prerequisites of screen reading for electricity, device display and connectivity. Deny prerequisites and the medium is silenced. How can space be a positive attribute? At one extreme the book is worn as a devotional amulet in a space next to the body and on another occasion it is situated in a niche space within the shelves of a library. Both such situated spaces add meaning to the conceptual work.
False choices of either/or obscure the promise of an integrated merge of interdependent attributes of screen and codex reading and research. What can a surviving medieval book possibly convey to us in today’s world of reading from the screen? Perhaps the medieval book is even more important in the age of Google and physical books are more important in an era of reading from the screen.
The medieval book exemplifies the reliable transmission of knowledge across time and cultures. Popular commentary warns that we may be entering a “digital dark ages” where computer media fails to convey forward massive amounts of new knowledge. If medieval craftspeople could achieve the production of the medieval book, can we accomplish as much for reliable transmission using our own technologies? Can on-line resources be conveyed to distant future readers? At present, the preservation of digital resources and their conflicted authentication remains a major challenge.
Here then is a lesson we can take from medieval culture. They lived in a time when society was largely illiterate and most transactions and communications were oral or spoken. To convey knowledge forward and assure its future readability over the long term they used a medium that was eye readable, interfaced by the reader alone, and physically accessed by direct manipulation. This paradox of conveyance of conceptual works by physical objects was, somehow, better understood then than it is now. Can we learn from this medieval insight how we can convey our own cosmographies from a digital culture?