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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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
Research Fellow at the Centre Culturel Irlandais