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Uncovering books

Uncovering books

A journey through bookbinding and the history of books in the Old Library


The process of bookbinding has been of vital importance to book owners and booksellers down through the centuries. It is a way to protect, customize and render aesthetic. There are several steps in the bookbinding process: the signatures of the book (large printed sheets folded into groups of pages) are stitched together, and a cover is then added. The cover can incorporate decorative features.

Bookbinding bears testimony to our past, a past that is familiar to us: we constantly see book spines on library bookshelves or in bookshops that hold ancient and rare books. Despite this, historians are more likely to study the contents of a document such as a manuscript, a printed book or paper archive rather than the object itself and, even though the study of objects is more and more common, there is still much to be learned. Objects, when examined closely, can reveal a lot of information, including information that sheds light on their contents. Bookbindings are a perfect example of this.

Examining bookbinding takes us on a journey: to follow the trail from the beginning of a book’s life to its final destination. It allows us to take a glimpse at decorative arts, to wander into the homes of book owners, to browse through the different libraries where the books are stocked, either lying flat, upright, with or without call numbers, classified, grouped together according to category depending on the owner’s personal criteria. The study of bookbinding allows for historic research to be carried out, going beyond a simple exploration of fabrication methods and decoration used: bookbinding is part of the book business and is testament to the social and cultural practices of the time.

This is why modestly crafted book covers are of particular interest to the historian: they reveal what these practices involved on a day-to-day basis. This exhibition will combine the study of bookbindings and that of ordinary objects and will focus on ordinary bookbindings.

The Old Library of the Centre Culturel Irlandais offers a special window on everyday bookbinding. These are not luxury bindings, but what we call plain bindings and decorated bindings. The main difference between luxury bindings and decorated or plain bindings lies mostly in their price and craftmanship. Luxury bindings are elaborately decorated, very finely crafted and more ostentatious than the others. Some are genuine treasures, adorned with ivory or gemstones. Those who commission these bindings are wealthy and want to highlight a book’s noteworthiness by having it finely decorated. Theses illustrations present a binding in a rather spectacular style, called “fanfare” style.

Brown morocco (goatskin) bookbinding in fanfare style. 17th century
Brown morocco (goatskin) bookbinding in fanfare style. 17th century

Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris. 8 BB 1017 INV 1179 RES. Breviarium Parisiense…, Parisiis : S. et G. Cramoisy, G et N. Clopejau, 1657
© N. Boutros

Gilded and chiselled spine. 17th century
Gilded and chiselled spine. 17th century

Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris. 8 BB 1017 INV 1179 RES. Breviarium Parisiense…, Parisiis : S. et G. Cramoisy, G et N. Clopejau, 1657
© N. Boutros

The Old Library of the CCI
The Old Library of the CCI

© Ros Kavanagh

Decorated bindings were made for the less wealthy lovers of well-bound books. As for plain bindings, they were done at the request of booksellers or of other clients who were less wealthy or less interested in books. All the books presented in this exhibition fall into these two categories.

Plain and decorated bindings feature strongly in the Old Library’s collection. This is due to the history of the collection, which consists mostly of books originating from Parisian religious institutions that were closed down during the French Revolution. The library of the Irish seminary – then called the “Irish College” – was also dissolved at that time. It was re-established at the beginning of the Napoleonic Empire with the reopening of the Irish College. It recovered books from these former institutions that had, by then, little or no means to administrate their own libraries. This explains both the sobriety of the bindings we will see and the traces of various origins that they bear.

We will see that along with shedding light on the history of the Old Library collections of the Centre Culturel Irlandais, on the history of bookbinding, books or even libraries, these bindings invite the book lover to browse, to reflect, to admire...

A bookbinder’s workshop in the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert
A bookbinder’s workshop in the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert
Glossary of the main terms used in the exhibition
Glossary of the main terms used in the exhibition

© Mathieu Bidaux and Cécile Capot

Parchment Holland binding
Parchment Holland binding

The turn-ins, the “long” or flat spine (on which the sewing of the signatures does not show) and the barely visible strapping on the covers are characteristic of Holland bindings, which are fitted on the book and maintained to the book thanks to the strapping. The laces that kept this particular book closed and protected it from dust are lost (the holes can be seen). The decoration was added after the cover was made.

FAUCHET Claude, Les Antiquitéz et histoires gauloises et françoises..., Genève : Paul Marceau pour la Société Caldorienne, 1611
© Damien Boisson-Berçu

Some characteristic features of bookbinding

There are many different elements to bookbinding. When combined, these elements offer plenty of possibilities to the buyer, depending on how much money they are prepared to spend to embellish and personalise a binding.

First and foremost, bindings are meant to protect books, thanks to different elements, including:

  • the leather (the skin)
  • the boards (the covers of the book), of varying thickness and stiffness, depending on whether they are made of wood or cardboard
  • the endpapers, one or several sheets inserted before and after the text block
  • the clasps, designed to hold the book closed in order to protect it from dust

Each of these elements becomes a space that can be decorated.

There are different types of skin. In the Old Library of the Centre Culturel Irlandais, we find mostly parchment, tanned sheepskin and veal. The type of skin can be identified from its grain and from the way it has altered.

Parchment is made out of skin that has been unhaired, then dried under tension. Parchment bindings are very common and have been used since the early Middle Ages. During the 17th century, a specific type of parchment binding spread through Europe: the “Holland binding”, developed by the Elzevirs, a family of Dutch publishers. With this method, the book is simply fitted into the binding, which can be recognised by its flat spine. These bindings are cheap and often commissioned by booksellers or humble buyers. The lack of decorative features means that they are difficult to date.

Both sheepskin and veal are tanned. Tanning can be obtained with natural or chemical materials to produce a firm and unalterable skin.

Moreover, some features reveal that bindings are sometimes crafted economically with bits of printed paper or manuscripts, which are recycled to create part of the binding. These waste sheets are of particular interest: they show how the binding market and industry worked, but they may also contain the only remaining fragments of works that have otherwise been completely lost.

Tanned sheepskin binding
Tanned sheepskin binding

Tanned sheepskin can be of varying smoothness, but it has almost no grain and is very porous. When damaged, it has a downy aspect. This is brown sheepskin.

PLUTARQUE, Les Oeuvres morales de Plutarque…, Paris : Toussaincts Du Bray, 1606
© Damien Boisson-Berçu

Veal binding
Veal binding

Unlike tanned sheepskin, veal is very smooth and its pores are tight. This covering is blond veal.

GONZAGA Francesco, De origine seraphicae religionis franciscanae..., Venetiis : Dominici Imberti, 1603
© Damien Boisson-Berçu

A recycled paper element
A recycled paper element

The page of a handwritten document has been used to make this endpaper. It is an excerpt from a Bible concordance — an index of Biblical words and the texts in which they can be found — and was probably written during the second half of the 13th century as part of the pecia, a system developed for university students so that they could have access to the books they needed through the supervised copying of original works.

PAGNINO Sante, Santis Pagnini Lucensis Isagogae ad sacras literas liber unicus…, Coloniae : Joannes Kempensis, 1542
© Damien Boisson-Berçu

How to date a French binding by looking at its decorative features

The Old Library offers a favourable vantage point for the observation of decorated and plain French bindings dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries. It reveals how these bindings — which display various degrees of craftsmanship and decoration — evolved.

The part of the book which is covered by the skin (the covering) can lend itself to decoration. The skin is embellished with tools such as gilding irons. This process is called tooling: blind tooling when the heated tool (such as a stamp) is only used to leave an impression on the skin, and gold tooling when the shape is also gilded. The cover is decorated using various irons and tools, and as time passes, more elements, such as the edges and endpapers, begin to be embellished too.

The decorations of plain bindings follow those of decorated bindings, but with a few years or even decades gap. In the 16th and 18th centuries, the decorative features on the bindings are rarely linked to the contents of the books within.

Gilding irons with different patterns
Gilding irons with different patterns

© Suzelfe

In the 16th century, the covers of bound books can be adorned with a border frame of fillets (short lines, which can be gilded or not) and sometimes a medallion centred on the cover and formed of intricate geometric patterns, volutes, foliage. In the last third of the 16th century, foliage wreaths begin to emerge, as well as bindings adorned with the arms of their owners. These bindings herald the decorative features of the following century.

When dating a binding, it is also very important to look at its spine. Throughout the 16th century, the titles of books are gradually added on the spines. The book’s title was not always written on the binding before that. From the 1530s onwards, it is sometimes directly engraved on the leather, in the second compartment (or panel) of the spine.

In the 17th century, the covers are usually soberly decorated, as evidenced by the bindings in the Old Library’s collection. Many of these bindings have very sparsely decorated covers, which bear only border frames of fillets or the arms of the book’s former owners.

The covers can even be completely bare. The many parchment bindings in the library collection today bear witness to this aesthetic simplicity.

Examples of binding tools of the 16th century, Raymond Bordeaux, 1858
Examples of binding tools of the 16th century, Raymond Bordeaux, 1858
Oh, beautiful medallion: a 16th-century binding
Oh, beautiful medallion: a 16th-century binding

The covers are adorned with a gilded fillet as well as three other blind-tooled fillets and a central medallion on an “azured” background (a background composed of closely spaced gilded lines). The title is engraved directly on the leather of the spine, where we can also see the azured tools, gilded fillets and the initials (“DG”) of one of the book’s former owners.

REISNER Adam, Jerusalem..., Francofurti ad Moenum : [Georgium Corvinum, Sigismundum Feirabent et Vuigandi Galli], 1563
© Damien Boisson-Berçu

The backs (spines) of books, however, are more ornate. They are embellished with various toolings. The title is engraved in the second compartment of the spine, and additional titles or the number of the volume are gradually added in the third compartment.

The end of the century marks a new transitional moment: the spine in grotesque style, with its very intricate volutes, or decorated with flowers, birds and pomegranates, are just two examples of this shift.

Examples of binding tools of the 17th century, Raymond Bordeaux, 1858
Examples of binding tools of the 17th century, Raymond Bordeaux, 1858
A spine in grotesque style: a 17th-century binding
A spine in grotesque style: a 17th-century binding

This binding has a spine in grotesque style, that is to say that it is decorated with closely interlaced volutes. This pattern is characteristic of the end of the 17th century. The covers are completely unadorned, another characteristic of the plain bindings of this century.

CASAUBON Isaac, Isaaci Casauboni epistolae editio secunda…, Magdeburgi et Helmstadi : Christiani Gerlachi et Simonis Beckensteini Brunovigae : Andreas Dunckerus, 1656
© Damien Boisson-Berçu

From the 18th century onwards, in addition to floral features, the title begins to be engraved on a ‘title piece’ (a piece of skin applied to the covering) and is no longer directly engraved on the leather of the spine.

Motif known as fleur au naturel
Motif known as fleur au naturel

© Julien Mouffron-Gardner

A pastoral spine: an 18th-century binding
A pastoral spine: an 18th-century binding

The spine bears a title piece. It is decorated with floral motifs and the arms of the house of Mailly, whose history is the subject of the book inside. The covers are adorned with a central gilded plating (traces of gilding) bearing the arms of Claude-Joseph Le Jay (17th-18th centuries, baron and governor of Aix-en-Artois). The Couvent des Minimes covered the plating with its own coat of arms.

SIMPLICIEN Paul Lucas, Extrait de la généalogie de la Maison de Mailly suivi de l’histoire de la branche des comtes de Mailly..., [Paris] : Ballard, 1757
© Damien Boisson-Berçu

Ownership marks: a journey through a book’s history

The binding of a book can be a useful tool to learn more about its former owners and to discover more about its former life. Owners very frequently inscribe their ownership on the book, as the books of the Old Library show. There are different ways to display ownership of a book: owners can inscribe their initials, their names or their arms on the cover or the spine of their book, or place an ex-libris on the endpapers — a mark of origin which took the form of an annotation or a label. They can also include an ex-dono or an ex-legato, which do not highlight who the owner of the book is, but serve as a reminder of the person who gave or bequeathed it.

Marks of ownership can be combined and are made to be seen: depending on where they are placed, on how big and how readable they are, they can be very discreet, or ostentatious. They reflect different intentions: the owner may want to signal that they own a book they are particularly attached to, or mark its entry into their library, or showcase this library to highlight their social status... These marks can also be used by an author to sign their own work, or, in the case of a collective library, they underline the collective ownership of a community over books.

Binding with the arms of Denis II Godefroy (1615-1681), historian, archivist, counsellor of Louis XIV and former owner of the book
Binding with the arms of Denis II Godefroy (1615-1681), historian, archivist, counsellor of Louis XIV and former owner of the book

© Julien Mouffron-Gardner

An ex-dono with engravings
An ex-dono with engravings

An ex-dono on the right page specifies that this book was ‘given to Father de Goussencourt, Celestine, by Mr de Berthelot’. The engravings glued on the book represent Goussencourt’s parents. The portrait of his mother is followed by a handwritten text drawing up the family tree. The family is linked to the Chastillon house, whose history is the subject of the book. Goussencourt then gave the book to another convent, and the volume later reached this library.

DU CHESNE André, Histoire de la maison de Chastillon sur Marne, contenant les actions plus mémorables des comtes de Blois et de Chartres…, Paris : Sebastien Cramoisy, 1621
© Damien Boisson-Berçu

Those who want to travel through the history of a document can look for even more fleeting traces of previous owners, who then become more difficult to identify. The new owner of the book can even wish to erase traces of previous ownerships. This is the case with books which bear the trace of an older binding, or which present marks that are covered, scratched or removed. The books in the Old Library abound in such clues: a convent may take advantage of an empty space in a medallion and put its own mark in it; a librarian in a congregation may cross out the name of a previous owner to inscribe his ex-dono before donating the book to his institution; a library can use many different ex-libris through time.

It is very common for a book to change hands repeatedly: marks can add up; new owners inscribe themselves into a lineage of owners and readers. Reading practices also differed: people often read with a quill in hand and annotated books (see the online exhibition on this theme). The inside of the covers and the endpapers offer the best writing spaces. The notes left in these spaces testify to the way the contents of a book were appropriated. They also show how it was used as a space to write on: we may find notes that have nothing to do with the text.

The ex-libris “MA” crowned by an omega was used by the Couvent des Récollettes de Sainte-Claire. It was added in the 17th century, at the centre of the medallion of this 16th-century binding.

© Julien Mouffron-Gardner

A book bound multiple times
A book bound multiple times

This binding is from the Renaissance period, when Ottoman art was a great inspiration for Western binding. The covers bear traces of another binding which covered it during the 18th century, and whose spine is still visible today. This shows that through time the various owners of the book valued it differently: it was first protected in a decorated binding, then covered with a more ordinary one.

PAGNINO Sancte, Thesaurus linguae sanctae..., Lugduni : Sebastianus Gryphius, 1529
© Damien Boisson-Berçu


A much-used book

The endpapers at the back of the book have been used as writing paper. We can see traces of ink and a great number of notes. The title page of the book bears the marks of at least four different owners. The inside of the book is widely annotated, which suggests a very close reading and analysis of the text.

ARISTOTE, Aristotelis ad Nichomacum filium de Moribus quae Ethica nominantur libri decem..., Parisiis : Dionysii a Prato, 1569

© Damien Boisson-Berçu

Explore an Ancien Régime library collection through its bindings

How were books classified and shelved between the 16th and the 18th centuries? Studying bookbinding allows us to browse through a library collection that no longer exists.

First, let us look at titles. Their position indicates the way books were stored. In the Middle Ages, books are kept flat. The nails and cornerpieces, which were used until around 1530, testify to this. Their role is to preserve the binding from friction. Between the second half of the 15th century and the 16th century, books are kept upright, their fore edges (the outer edge opposite a book’s spine) facing the reader. This is why, on plain bindings, the title was written on the fore edge. In the 16th century, the title moved to the spine of the book. In the next century, this practice spreads widely and a second title or number of volume gradually joins the first title on the spine. Vertical storage is still in use today, but the spine of the book is now facing the reader.

The title is therefore an important element in the dating of bindings. Its evolution reveals how the way to present books has evolved, and therefore how their contents are evaluated and how the knowledge they contain is presented.

Moreover, although the way books are kept is a practical question, the organisation of a library also reveals how its owner sees the world, how they organise and display knowledge. Many books bear signs that show where they were kept in the libraries through which they went, like their shelfmark, a code that determines on which shelf a document can be found.

Parts of an almost 500-year-old binding
Parts of an almost 500-year-old binding

This binding, which is very damaged, still presents various features, some of which are very rare: the remains of clasps, nails and blind-tooled decorations, as well as wooden covers.

ZWINGLI Ulrich, Opus articulorum sive conclusionum..., Tiguri : Christophorus Froschoverus, 1535
© Damien Boisson-Berçu

Parts of an almost 500-year-old binding
Parts of an almost 500-year-old binding

The name of the author and the first words of the title of this book published in 1535 are written on its fore edge. The spine is made out of waste sheets from medieval manuscripts, which were coloured to match the leather. 

ZWINGLI Ulrich, Opus articulorum sive conclusionum..., Tiguri : Christophorus Froschoverus, 1535
© Damien Boisson-Berçu

The Old Library collections prove that shelfmarks can differ from one institution to the next: they can be numbers or alphanumeric codes; they can be combined with a geographic location or with elements of classification (such as the subject). The managing of libraries was not as standardised as it is today, and there were countless solutions to organise one’s library.

Catalogues are also mentioned in books. These mentions are meant to help find a book on the shelves, or to keep a record of when the book entered the catalogue. By studying the bindings, we see that certain books have been registered in several catalogues, which means that the library they belonged to changed its organisation, or that these books have belonged to several libraries.

Where was this book stored more than 300 years ago?
Where was this book stored more than 300 years ago?

The shelfmark ‘mus-A. Tab-19a. N°34’ in the centre of the page, shows where the book was kept in the library of the Jacobins in the rue Saint-Honoré, where it previously belonged: cabinet A, shelf 19a, book n°34. Thanks to this shelfmark, we can imagine how the space of this library was organised.

HERMANT Godefroy, La Vie de S. Athanase, patriarche d’Alexandrie, divisée en douze livres..., Paris : Pierre Aubouyn, 1671
© Damien Boisson-Berçu

An example of how knowledge was organised in the 17th century
An example of how knowledge was organised in the 17th century

In the library of the Couvent des Blancs-Manteaux, to which this book belonged, the shelfmark ‘hist. Rom. N°. III. ss. B. PA. 4’ contains an element that aims at organising knowledge. It tells us that the subject of the book is Roman history.

© CCI

An evolving library between the 17th and 18th centuries
An evolving library between the 17th and 18th centuries

The library of the Priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs registered this book three times in its catalogue, or in three different catalogues: once on October 28th, 1686 (‘Ex libris S. Martinia Campis cat. inscriptus 1686 die 28.8 bris’), another time in 1695 (‘catalog inscript 1695’) and finally in 1761 (‘anno 1761’ written over the previous date).

VOSSIUS Gerard Jean, Gerardi Joannis Vossii historiae de contreversiis quos Pelagius eiusque reliquiae moverunt libri septem..., Amstelodami : Ludovicum et Danielem Elzevirios, 1655
© Damien Boisson-Berçu

Discover the process of restoration

The study of these bindings can take us well into the present. When we look at these objects, we find very recent traces of the way they were used. These traces take us on a journey into the more recent history of the Old Library.

First and foremost among these traces are those left by Maurice Caillet (1910-2008), a renowned curator and librarian who took an interest in the Old Library in a personal capacity during the 1970s and worked there voluntarily until the 1990s. His study of bindings proved extremely important to our own research: on the covers of a good number of books, he used a pen to write the identity of the persons who commissioned the bindings, as well as the sources he had used to come to his conclusions. His input on the study of bookbindings is of great significance, as he was able to identify arms that had not yet been noticed by specialists. In 1982, he published an article entitled “The English bindings of the 16th and 17th centuries in the library of the Irish College in Paris”.

A curator in his study
A curator in his study

‘The iron monograms IHS and MA are, according to Franklin (Alfred). – The former libraries of Paris, t.3, p. 441, the ownership marks of the Récollettes de Sainte-Claire de Paris.’: this note by Maurice Caillet gives an insight into the scientific role of a curator and the method he used here. See also the printed ex-libris and the waste sheet from a manuscript.

JANSEN Cornelius, Commentarii in ecclesiasticum..., Lovanii : Petrum Zangrium Tiletanum, 1569
© Damien Boisson-Berçu

The English bindings of the 16th and 17th centuries in the library of the Irish College in Paris, Maurice Caillet
The English bindings of the 16th and 17th centuries in the library of the Irish College in Paris, Maurice Caillet

We based our research on the French bindings of the Old Library on this study. Our aim was to complement Maurice Caillet’s work and to further the knowledge of the bindings held today in the Centre Culturel Irlandais.

© Damien Boisson-Berçu

Three steps in the restoration process
Three steps in the restoration process

These three books were restored thanks to light-coloured Japon paper. During the restoration, the Centre Culturel Irlandais chose to preserve the aesthetic aspect of the Old Library, as its structure is typical of 18th-century libraries. The Japon paper was therefore coloured to match the tone of the leather, but no attempt was made to conceal the interventions. Three steps in the restoration process can be seen in different places on each of these books.

© Damien Boisson-Berçu

The library of the Centre Culturel Irlandais undertook significant protective work on the historical collections. These maintenance and conservation programs allowed for the dusting and restoration of the bindings, which are always the first victims of destructive agents and of book handling. Thanks to this, the library was able to open its collection to researchers and to showcase and enhance its books. Damage due to the books’ long lives have been stabilised, and the risks linked to their handling have been reduced. The bindings benefitted immensely from this program.

The aim of the restoration was not to alter the books by giving them new bindings, but to keep as many elements of the bindings as possible to preserve the numerous traces of the past. The preferred approach was an archaeological approach: all the interventions carried out are reversible and still allow us to see the traces of the books’ former lives. These three books illustrate the different steps of this project. Both Maurice Caillet’s research and this restoration project testify to a new use of the collection’s bindings in the 20th century.

Bindings, like the books they contain, have changed status dramatically: they were ordinary, everyday objects, and have become historical objects of study, as this exhibition shows. The new traces left by contemporary engagement with the bindings will perhaps be studied in the future by historians, as we ourselves have done here.

Conclusion

The bindings of books found in the Old Library collection are less of interest for their artistic value than for the commercial part they played in the book industry. This does not take away from their interest; on the contrary, it highlights how books were used, how they circulated, who owned them. The collection also demonstrates how a public or private library functions: cataloguing, shelving, how book content is assessed, how the world and knowledge are referenced, how the latter is made accessible to the user and how bookbinding can be used to orient the reader.

The study of bookbindings complements the study of the contents of the books, and sheds light on the related historical period: the owner hallmarks a book or all the books on their shelves, the reader writes down their notes on the glued endpaper, another reader decides that this book belongs to a particular field of study or chooses a more straightforward abridged title, and yet another reader buys a book that has travelled through the hands of several owners and through places that historical research then allows us to identify.

Bookbindings are about more than the history of a mere object: they shed light on their owners and reveal what the relationship to bindings and books was at different times in history. We are the latest example: historical bookbindings are now considered heritage, preserved in libraries. It is now forbidden to write on them, or to strip the books of their bindings to give them a more contemporary look. But, as we have seen, bookbindings have a long history, and their journey may not stop here.

Scientific direction: Cécile Capot
PhD in History
Student Librarian
Research Fellow at the Centre Culturel Irlandais

The restoration project: a new event in the lives of bookbindings
The restoration project: a new event in the lives of bookbindings

© Barbara Laborde

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