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Chapter 8 - Hugging a Manuscript

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2021

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Summary

We will linger for a while longer in the world of the bookbinding. Wooden boards and leather covers are not the only components of a medieval binding. Sometimes readers asked the bookbinder to add additional elements, some of which were made of metal. Two of these are highlighted in this chapter: clasps and tiny feet. Why were these curious-looking pieces of metal added? And what do they tell us about the manner in which the manuscript was used?

Arm and Hand

While medieval manuscripts were made for reading, the makers of these books also carefully planned how to close them and put them away. In order to preserve the organic parchment pages, it was necessary to keep the volume tightly closed when it was not in use. Not only did this keep moisture out, but parchment also has a natural tendency to buckle, especially when handled at room temperature (see the image on the cover of this book). In fact, parchment pages curl up with so much force that they would push the wooden boards open were it not for this smart device designed to keep the lid on: the clasp (Figure 44).

The clasp is like an arm that extends from one cover to the other. Indeed, I find it hard not to think of clasps as hugging arms that embrace the leaves, safeguarding them from the harsh realities of medieval book use. Clasps protected the pages by generating the pressure needed to keep them fully flat. At the end of the arm a tiny “hand” locks into an extension—we could call it a “handle bar”—as clearly visible in Figure 44. At the same time, it ensured that the book was a firm object that could withstand daily use and abuse, such as being knocked off a desk or shelf in a medieval library.

Generally, two clasps were able to contain the force issued by the buckling parchment of a book. However, it was important to get it right as a bookbinder. When the distance between the one end of the arm (say, the “armpit”) and the handle bar was too much, there was insufficient pressure. By contrast, if the distance was too short, the book did not close.

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Books Before Print , pp. 81 - 86
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2018

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