My next entry in the Principality A&S Championship is a small notebook in a simple limp binding. Read on to learn more!

Background

Limp bindings are among the earliest type of codex production. Early Roman notebooks called pugillares membranei were made by folding parchment. (See Roberts, Colin H and TC Skeat. The Birth of the Codex. London: British Academy, 1983, at pages 15-22.) The Nag Hammadi library, produced sometime in the late fourth century, is a collection of thirteen limp bound books on Gnostic Christian topics. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nag_Hammadi_library)

In the medieval period, while fine manuscripts were bound with hard wooden boards in their covers, less precious books might be described as libri sine asseribus or books without wooden boards or, in modern parlance, limp bound. These limp bound books represent a small percentage of surviving manuscripts. For example, the 1369 inventory of the Avignon Pontifical Library contained 40 such books, out of a total collection of almost 2060 books. Similarly, at its foundation in 1407, the Erfurt University held a collection of 181 books, of which 16 were described as limp bound. However, of the 113 books owned privately by the nuns of the Dominican Convent in Nuremberg, 50 of them were limp bound. (See Szirmai, Ján Alexander. The Archeology of Medieval Bookbinding. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999, at page 285.)

Camb. UL MS Pembroke 119 (12th Century) and two modern reproductions
https://icon.org.uk/events/workshop-12th-century-english-limp-tawed-skin-binding

In The Production of Books in England 1350–1500, Alexandra Gillespie describes limp bindings in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as an inexpensive, sometimes temporary option for binding books that were used for less illustrious books such as ledgers, law books, and similar. Of interesting note, two of the four Chaucer manuscripts surviving in their original medieval bindings are bound in parchment. limp bindings, both are copies of his scientific manuscript A Treatise on the Astrolabe. (See Gillespie, Alexandra, “Bookbinding” in Gillespie, Alexandra, and Daniel Wakelin, eds. The Production of Books in England, 1350-1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, at pages 183-184.)

For my project, I have elected to combine a number of documentable elements, rather than copy a specific extant piece. My goal is to produce a reasonably period 14th-century English notebook I can use to take notes at events in place of my cell phone. The reason I selected this simple style is that I lost track of when the project was due, so I ended up using materials I had begun to prepare for a more complicated gothic binding and selected a style of binding that would not require me to build or buy additional tools (like a book press).

img_20180523_200815
I did have to make an awl.

Materials

Leather Binding

Extant limp bound books use covers of tawed or tanned leather, parchment, or linen. Some examples are stiffened with papyrus, linen, or parchment, others are unstiffened. A common practice was to use pieces of parchment from older manuscripts to create the cover or other elements of the binding. (See Gillespie, at page 162.)

The outer binding of my book is unstiffened and made from commercially tanned goatskin with a contrasting lambskin tie. Modernly tanned leather differs from medieval leather in the chemicals and processes employed in its production. Medieval leather was prepared in a fairly odiferous process and then tanned using tannins from plant matter including oak galls, or elsewise with cedar oil or alum.

Modern leather is still prepared using a fairly stinky means (though it less frequently requires the tanner to hand-knead fecal matter into the skins) and is typically tanned with a chromium (III) solution. (See Burns, Claire. “The Tanning Industry of Medieval Britain.” Collegiate Journal of Anthropology. June 12, 2012. Accessed May 23, 2018. http://anthrojournal.com/issue/october-2011/article/the-tanning-industry-of-medieval-britain.) I do not have a record of what process was used to tan my goatskin, but I expect it was the modern process. I used this leather because it’s what I had on hand.

Linen Thread

Thread used to sew the quires together could be of hemp or linen and may have been waxed. (See Szirmai, at page 117.) Re-plied z-twist thread makes up the bulk of the examples studied by Szirmai. (See Szirmai, at page 116.) I have elected to use a waxed linen thread in the manufacture of my book.

Paper

Paper was introduced to the west via Italy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The first solid evidence we have for paper in England is the fourteenth-century import records of the Gorcers’ and Mercers’ Guild of London. These records indicate that it was imported from the Mediterranean via trade routes in Flanders by both Genoese and English Merchants. By the middle of the fourteenth century, religious institutions, governmental offices, and royal households were purchasing paper in large quantities, likely for administrative use. Similarly, paper was adopted for use by teachers and students of the Universities of England. (See da Rold, Orietta, “Materials” in Gilllespie et al. at pages 43-45.

Medieval paper was made from linen rags that were cleaned, soaked, and left to fester for a week, and beaten. This soak -> fester -> beat process was repeated a number of times until the mixture dissolved into pulp. The pulp was then filtered, pressed between sheets of felt, and sized with animal glue. (See “Peper” in Materials and Techniques of Manuscript Production, http://web.ceu.hu/medstud/manual/MMM/paper.html.)

The paper used in my book is made from tree cellulose, rather than linen rags. The quires were already prepared for a different project when I remembered I needed to get this one done.

Historical Construction

1. Preparation of the Quires
When preparing a paper textblock, sheets of paper were folded using a bone folder and gathered into quires. Quires were then pricked with an awl to prepare a whole for the sewing needle to pass through. This may have been done with a template or jig of some kind to ensure that holes were uniform across each quire. (Parks, Katherine D. “Cracking the Code: Exploring Medieval Bookbinding Technology Through Experimental Replication.” Bachelor’s Honor Thesis. Wesleyan University, 2015, https://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2460&context=etd_hon_theses.)

2. Preparation of the Cover
I was not able to find specific information on this step of the process. I assume that the leather would have been cut in as economically a method as possible.

3. Sewing the Whole Thing Together
The limp bindings studied by Szirmai use one of three stitching methods, independent long stitch, link stitch, and all-along on exterior supports. A sewing frame may not have been necessary for limp bindings, as the quires were not sewn first to supports that needed to be kept taut during the sewing process. The following table from Szirmai, page 17, shows the various types of link stitch employed in bookbinding from the earliest period.

4. Finishing
The final step involved decoration and cleaning up the textblock. Some examples of limp bindings have a contrasting edging of leather or fabric. And at least one example has a blind-tooled cover. (See Szirmai, at page 295.) The textblock may have been trimmed to create a uniform look.

My Construction

1. Preparation of the Quires
The quires I’m using were pre-folded and punched for a Carolingian style binding I had planned to do. They are prepped for four sewing stations (holes where the thread can come up through the quires), the first two at 15 mm and the other two roughly 65 mm from the head and tail. This is similar to sewing stations employed in existing limp bindings. (See Szirmai, at page 294.)

Happy little quires

2. Preparation of the Cover

I measured out the size I needed for my cover, including a triangular flap cut the leather slightly too large for the text block so I could clean it up once everything was put together. (For a discussion of front edge flaps and ties, see Szirmai, at page 294.) I created a template from the holes punched in my quires to pre-stab my sewing stations in the leather. My hope was that doing this would help ensure the visible sewing was straight and tidy.

The punched cover

3. Sewing
I sewed my quires to the cover using Type A stitches pictured above. Initially, I planned a much more complex style of stitch, but after I started, I realized that I didn’t actually know what I was doing and maybe starting with a basic stitch and working up was better than starting with a complex stitch and messing up. I worked my stitches in three-ply, waxed linen thread.

The first round of stitches. The paperclips serve as stitch holders to keep the thread from slipping back through the leather before the first chains can be formed. I’m not talking about how long it took me to figure out how to make that work. If this is how they did this in period, I imagine they would have used spare needles.
Puckering. Poop. I’m pretty sure this is because I wasn’t super careful with my measurements between sewing stations and I overestimated the width of the quires and consequently spaced the holes out too much.

4. Finishing
Finishing my book involved cleaning up the leather cover so it fits closer to the text block and cleaning up the text block so it looked less modern. Once the cover and text block were cleaned up, I threaded the ties into the front flap so the book could be tied closed.

Conclusion

For such a last minute project, I am sort of pleased with the outcome. This was my first foray into Western bookbinding and I enjoyed it. I like the colors of the leather, and think the notebook will work well for my purpose. I think I understand the mistakes I made (namely spreading the holes in the cover out too far and not being careful about measurements). I think the final product is relatively period, though certainly not high status. The leather and paper I used are not produced in the medieval style, but I believe they are reasonable facsimiles.

If I had been cooler, I would have saved an old pergamenata scroll with some errors to use for my book cover. I may do that in the future.

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My finished notebook. A solid B-/C+.

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