Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 February 2021
Bindings are a key feature of the manuscript. Without a bookbinding, the quires remained individual entities. Curiously, this was sometimes the very rationale for not binding a book: some users preferred to keep their quires separate, for example, teachers who needed to bring only part of the book to class. Another important function of the binding was to protect pages from moisture and dust, the dirt of hands and desks, and even the teeth of hungry insects and rodents. From their very early days, books were, therefore, usually given some kind of cover. Medieval bindings generally consist of two components: boards made of wood (but in the late Middle Ages also from compressed paper), as well as a material with which to cover the boards. While the most common covering material was leather, there is great variation in the kinds that were used, as well as how they were decorated. Different readers and reading communities had their own preferences in this regard. Consequently, bindings invite us to “read” the outside of the book for cultural and historical clues.
Most medieval bindings are covered with animal skin: it was usually a pig, cow, or sheep that—involuntarily—ended up guarding the manuscript. Leather proved an ideal material for bookbindings. It is flexible enough to cover the stiff boards, but also durable. This means it does an excellent job of protecting the precious cargo it carries, while at the same time adding to the desired appearance of the book. It also repels moisture quite well. This benefit may seem odd from a modern perspective, but it is actually an important consideration: while medieval monks were unlikely to read books in the bathtub (as my spouse tends to do), they did consult them in the cloister, which was a damp environment filled with hallways in the open air. The purple manuscript in Figure 122 at p. 239 demonstrates what could happen to a book in such surroundings. An added bonus of leather was that it accommodated blind-tooled or stamped decoration, which was applied in mesmerizing shapes and patterns. It is hard to capture in photography, but the decoration is still visible in this binding made in 1525– 1535 by the Ghent artisan Joris de Gavere (Figure 41).