We recently wrote about the tedious and arduous process of hand-sewn book binding and the hard work of the young women involved. But what about the book covers themselves? We thought it might be interesting to take a look at women’s role in crafting book covers. Early book covers were individually crafted when a book was purchased. In the 1830s case-binding started replacing most hand-crafted covers, and engravers and die-makers created the brass plates used to emboss the cases. With these changes, book production slowly increased as prices decreased. Towards the end of the 19th century, mass-produced books with book covers crafted by well-respected designers became both popular and relatively affordable.
Tiverton Tales, by Alice Brown. Cover designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman.
The height of book cover design may have been the late 19th century as publishers responded to increasing criticism of the “ugly” and “cheap” books they were producing, and the middle class began to read en masse. Books were symbols of education, and people began to purchase them as (relatively) affordable art objects. This shift also corresponded with the end of the Civil War and the increase in widowed, impoverished women. In the face of a growing number of families headed by women after the devastation of the Civil War, social reformers responded with offering educational and professional opportunities for women. This confluence of a rise in demand for trained book designers and a willingness to hire women contributed to what many believe is the pinnacle of artistic book cover design. Alice Cordelia Morse (1863-1961), Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867-1944) and Sarah W. Whitman (1842-1904), are considered by some to be the best book cover designers of that era. The three worked to bring principles of good design to mass production. In many ways, these women were also instrumental in paving the way for women artists to gain professional status.
Whitman, born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to a wealthy, upper-class family, was one of the earliest and most influential book cover designers, creating her first design in 1884. She originally studied painting and then moved towards stained glass. Morse, born in Hammondsville, Ohio, was raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. She studied art and design, specializing in drawing, in Manhattan at the Woman’s Art School of the Cooper Union, one of the only art schools at that time that was open for women. Cooper Union often placed its female students with manufacturers to help gain them employment. Armstrong was born into a wealthy family in New York City, began designing holiday cards in her teens, and eventually moved to book cover design.
Morse, like Whitman before her, began her career working with stained glass artist John La Farge and then became an employee for Louis C. Tiffany and a designer of stained glass windows (One of the windows in Beecher Memorial Church in Brooklyn was designed by Morse). Morse left her stained glass work after two years and began designing book covers in the 1890s. Whitman was commissioned to work in the Central Congregational Church in Worcester, MA on stained glass and opened her own studio and factory where she employed several artisans. Eventually, she was employed by Houghton Mifflin to oversee all their book cover designs. Armstrong skipped the stained glass phase, though her sister and father did work with Tiffany, and moved straight to book design. She was the primary designer for Harper Brothers and Scribner’s Sons, where she often worked with Morse.
Perhaps because of the attention being paid to social reform at this time, Morse and Whitman also encouraged the development of the arts for other women. In 1893, Morse chaired the Subcommittee on Book Covers, Wood Engraving, and Illustration of the Board of Women Managers for the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition. She also exhibited her own book covers and
Knoxboy Travellers, by Thomas W. Knox. Cover design by Alice Morse.
was awarded both a diploma and a gold medal. This exhibition had a significant impact on bringing women artists to the public eye and increasing their success in commercial art endeavors. Similarly, Whitman inaugurated the Boston Water Color Club for women in addition to working tirelessly to establish the women’s college of Radcliffe.
Morse was also active in supporting other women artists and worked for the New York Society of Decorative Arts from 1893-1895, an organization dedicated to helping women artists find training and employment. She believed, it is said, that women were the best designers because of an intuitive sense of beauty. There was a also a sense that the women designers contributed a “moral” value to the books. The Arts and Crafts Movement of the era was built on the ideas of design, morality, utility and beauty. Whitman, Morse, and to a lesser extent Armstrong, were influenced by this aesthetic sense and the idea that the middle class should have access to good design. It is worth noting, however, that there was some criticism of this mix of social reform with craft. Ellen Gates Starr (1860-1894), who established a bookbindery in the 1890s, eventually closed down shop because she realized that her books would only ever be purchased by the rich.
Morse’s standing in the book design community grew through the turn of the 19th century, and she created an estimated 83 covers, often for expensive publications and for a variety of types of books from poetry to travel literature. She also contributed in-text illustrations and borders. Whitman was incredibly prolific, producing at least 200 book covers with a minimalist design that was quite unusual for its time. Whitman was a highly sought after, and expensive, designer. Armstrong is often compared to Whitman though Armstrong, with 250 book covers to her name, is remembered for how distinctive her book cover
Days Off, by Henry Van Dyke. Cover design by Margaret Armstrong.
designs were and her book cover sets where she would design several works by one author using related designs across the books. Some of Armstrong’s work is signed with a small MA on the cover.
Morse began her book designing years with a focus on classical ornament from Roman and Renaissance art but began to broaden out to encompass a variety of design styles from Celtic to Gothic, Rococo to Arts and Crafts. Her versatile designs tended to be highly stylized patterns of organic forms as she attempted to depict the book’s main ideas in her art. In contrast, Whitman’s illustrations emphasized the Arts and Crafts design aesthetic as well but she had an almost radical minimalism with an unusual emphasis on negative space that ended up influencing later artists to develop a more minimal and less decorative approach to book covers. Armstrong favored the Art Nouveau style with bold colors, stylized plants and often asymmetrical designs.
While less expensive than individually tooled books, the book design process was labor intensive. The artist would design two or three different sketches for each book, and the publisher would select the cover depending on issues of cost and availability of materials. The book cover designer would then prepare a finished colored drawing of the selected design. Books were bound using “case binding” where the books are manufactured separately from the text blocks. The covers require transferring the hand drawn designs to brass stamps, one for each color required in the design.
As printing technologies advanced at the turn of the century, the demand for the labor-intensive and expensively-designed cloth bound books and covers of individual designers declined with the rise of paper book jackets. The art of book design became more commercial and inexpensive, a boon for book buyers because of the decline in cost but a loss to those who admired the unique and beautiful designs.
Sarah Wyman Whitman died in 1904 before the shift away from artist designed book covers. With the loss of the book design business, Alice Cordelia Morse turned to teaching and became a public school teacher in Scranton PA, where she made a better living than she ever could as a designer. Margaret Neilson Armstrong turned to writing her own books on wild flowers to support herself and wrote several mystery novels in her seventies. Still, Morse, Whitman and Armstrong’s talent and activism stand out as an excellent example of the art of book design and also marks progress that women were making into the book arts and the commercial world.
Dr. Mary Vasudeva has a PhD in English and currently teaches writing and critical thinking at Diablo Valley College. She is also studying for her Masters in Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. Recent publications include a book review of Overcoming Information Poverty, by Anthony McKeown and selected writing sections for the textbook, Asking the Right Questions, in the forthcoming 12th edition.
Dubansky, M. (2009). Alice Cordelia Morse (1863-1961). The Met. Retrieved from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mors/hd_mors.htm.
Eckel, Molly, “”A Touch of Art”: Sarah Wyman Whitman and the Art of the Book in Boston” (2012). Honors Thesis Collection. Paper 67.
Frelinghuysen, A., Dunn, J., & Dubansky, M. (2008). The proper decoration of book covers: the life and work of Alice C. Morse. New York: Grolier Club.
Thomson, E. M. (1997). The origins of graphic design in America, 1870-1920. New Haven: Yale University Press.
University of Rochester. (2015). “Beauty for Commerce: Margaret Armstrong”. River Campus Libraries. Retrieved from http://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/3351.
It’s that time again! It’s Color Our Collections week, a project hosted by the New York Academy of Medicine, in which museums, libraries, and archives around the world create coloring pages inspired by items in their collections. Officially it runs February 6-10, 2017, but really, you can print our pages and share them whenever you want. We’ll be happy to see your creative work!
This year we’re sharing most of the pages we made last year, and adding in some new ones. Feel free to print them, share them with your kids and your friends, and color them in however you want – all we ask is that you share a picture with us on social media. Tag us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and share your pictures with the hashtag #ColorOurCollections!
Find our coloring pages here: bookbindersmuseum_coloringpages2017
On Sunday, January 22, please join us for an evening with authors Kim Stanley Robinson and Cecilia Holland reading and in conversation with Terry Bisson.
Kim Stanley Robinson has published nineteen novels and numerous short stories but is best known for his Mars trilogy. His work has been translated into 24 languages. Many of his novels and stories have ecological, cultural and political themes running through them and feature scientists as heroes. Robinson has won numerous awards, including the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the Nebula Award for Best Novel and the World Fantasy Award. Robinson’s work has been labeled by The Atlantic as “the gold-standard of realistic, and highly literary, science-fiction writing.” According to an article in the New Yorker, Robinson is “generally acknowledged as one of the greatest living science-fiction writers.”
Cecelia Holland is a grande dame of historical fiction who began writing at age twelve. Her first published work, The Firedrake, arrived in 1966, and since then she has written extensively in historical fiction, modern and speculative fiction, short stories, children’s fiction, and speculative and factual nonfiction. One critic wrote, “What sets Cecelia’s work apart in the genre is not just her productivity but also her versatility; she has the unique ability to make most any historical period her own.”
Doors and cash bar open at 5:30 – Program begins at 6:30.
$10 donation at the door (no one is turned away for lack of funds). As always Borderlands Books will be on hand with copies of the authors’ work.
We hope to see you here.
This past autumn I had the opportunity to take Bookbinding Level II through the Canadian Bookbinding and Book Arts Guild (CCBAG). During level two one of the things we learned was how to do sewn endbands. Previously in level one we had done endbands made from cord and cloth wrapped around it. These are known as “stuck on endbands” and they have been used as far back as the 1800s. I recently bought some prior to level two; they come in useful for a quick work!
Image credit: Arielle’s Bindery
Above is a picture of what they can look like. As you can see, all a binder would need to do is snip the endband to the correct size and stick it on with a bit of glue to the spine of the book at the head and tail.
Just to note, I’ve used the term endband to imply both bands at either head or tail of the book. Specifically, the band at the head is called a headband and the band at the tail is called an endband, however many people use either term to refer generically to both head and tail and often don’t specify. During class we called them endbands and so in this post I will refer to them as endbands.
Endbands are decorative and structural in function. The endbands can add strength and support to a binding. Sewn endbands consist of a core with either silk or linen thread wrapped around it. A core for an endband can be made from: cord, rolled paper, rolled leather, or a combination of leather and vellum. The core is generally thin, though you can create more elaborate endbands from double cores. In level two I learned how to do a two-color endband and a foundation endband. You can see these below. The two-color endband is number seven and the foundation endband (also called conservation endband) is number one.
Image credit: http://www.artesdellibro.com
Endbands can get even more creative and artistic than the variety shown here. Here are some found on the web:
Image credit: lilbookbinder.wordpress.com
Another style of endband is the Coptic endband. This endband has the weave going continuously from board across textblock and back to other board.
Image credit: henryhebert.net
Learning the endbands wasn’t as difficult as I imagined it might be, though it did take practice! We worked with silk thread and went around cord. The thread was probably the hardest to manage, being silk. Keeping the tension tight for the length of the endband was also something that required practice. In order to learn Dan (our teacher) had us practice on old telephone books. This allowed us to work with a larger cord and a larger textblock. Below is an photo of the two-color endband that we learned.
Image credit: Arielle’s Bindery
The endbands get sewn into the textblock and when working on a telephone book that proved to be tricky. Often times pliers were needed to help the needle along through the thickness of the book, when it came time to sew our actual textblocks it was much easier. As a result, the back of the phone book looks a bit messy from lots of practice attempts. Looking online though one can see many examples of sewn endbands that look very neat and uniform on the spine! Below is an image of the formation endband.
Image credit: Arielle’s Bindery
I find sewing endbands to be rather relaxing, other binders find it tedious. It certainly adds to the appeal of a book, I think. It’s certainly something that requires a bit of practice to get them really looking nice, and with so many styles to learn there is a lot to practice!
Guest blogger Arielle VanderSchans is a linguist and librarian living in Canada. She currently studies bookbinding through the Canadian Bookbinding and Book Arts Guild. You can follow her as she learns the trade here: https://ariellesbindery.com
Having a hard time finding a gift for the book lover in your life? Why not do some of your holiday shopping in our bookstore? After all, we’re offering 10% off all bookstore purchases on the two remaining pre-Christmas Saturdays! Here are some recommendations from ABM staff members.
Madeleine says: My daughter is planning on traveling this spring, and asked for a nice journal for Christmas. Clearly she came to the right parent: In the ABM bookstore we have a number of lined blank books with facsimile covers of early, famous bindings, and others that mimic the style of bindings from a variety of times and places. But which to choose? I looked through them all — 19th century and 15th century, Middle Eastern, French and British. Finally I went with my gut.
I am partial to the Middle Eastern designs, and settled, after an extensive and deeply conflicted survey of the ABM’s bookstore stock, on Paperblanks’ Safavid Ultra, a nice-sized journal with a wrap-around magnetic cover and really gorgeous detail. With what I have learned about embossing and gilding books since coming to the ABM, I am astonished by the skill, patience, and steady hands it would have taken to create such an object. Add in the lacquer-work which gives the cover its jewel-like color, and it’s rather heart-stopping.
When you’re sending a beloved child off to have adventures, it’s nice to give them a talisman of sorts. May she rejoice in its beauty, and fill it full.
Lest you think that this journal owes all its charm to modern mechanical techniques, here’s a Savafid-era book cover, which would have been created entirely by hand. The sheer volume of detail is amazing.
Madeleine says: “It was a pleasure to burn.”
Not only is that a brilliant opening line, but to anyone who loves books, it is a genuinely chilling one. The bookstore at the American Bookbinders Museum has a lot of fascinating non-fiction works about the technique and history of binding and related trades, and about books themselves. Fahrenheit 451, a work of fiction, is one that talks about what books are for: mementos of people gone before, vehicles for carrying wisdom from one time to the next, from one place to another. In Ray Bradbury’s bleak future, books are burned when they are discovered, lest the information, the stories, the heart they contain, awaken a populace with a short attention span and a willingness to be controlled. It’s a beautifully written book, curiously timeless and yet timely. If you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it in years, may I recommend Fahrenheit 451?
Elspeth says: I loved my history of the book classes in grad school, and still can’t get enough of the topic. I’m currently reading one of the books from our store called The Book: A Global History. While I loved history of the book classes, they were almost invariably Western-focused, and this book is truly global. It’s a dense and fascinating read that explains everything from the development of written language to the impact of the digital book. A fantastic choice for the cultural history nerd in your circle.
Stephanie says: One of our fabulous volunteers, Velia Villa, made Johannes Gutenberg magnets! Makes a great stocking stuffer.
Are you a librarian, archivist, museum specialist, or other kind of information professional? On Tuesday, November 29, from 6-8pm, The American Bookbinders Museum is having a reception just for you in order to share our exhibit on the Florence Flood of 1966, entitled BOOKS AND MUD: THE DROWNED LIBRARIES OF FLORENCE.
Come join us – check out the new exhibit and schmooze with your colleagues!
A brief introduction to leather
I recently took part in a course through the Canadian Bookbinding and Book Arts Guild (CBBAG). This course is one of the many they offer, and is a prelude to their level three bookbinding course, in which students learn to bind in leather. Our instructor was Dan Mezza, a well known and highly sought-after bookbinder in the London, Ontario area. Taking lessons with Dan is always a pleasure as he truly knows the topic! Dan was a paper maker before he became a bookbinder.
Our introduction to leather was a three-day long course spanning a weekend. In this course we learned a bit about the history of leather, the types of leather used in bookbinding and how to properly pare leather and apply it to the board. We made a plaquette in the end for demonstration purposes.
Before we got started, we discussed what leather was, and the process used to make the leather we use for binding books. I’ll share a little of that here.
Leather is skin, common to all animals. Dan even showed us a book from fish skin and kangaroo skin. Leather is created by removing the hair, hair root and epidermis (surface layer of hard dead cells). These three layers are removed in tanning and the following are kept for leather: grain (outer layer from surface to hair root), corium (large fibre bundles interwoven at a higher angle towards the surface), and the junction of the grain and corium (this is different for each animal and the size of hair in an animal determines the strength of the leather).
A cross section of cowhide to give you a better idea of the layers (Image credits: vanderburghhumidors.com)
There are two different processes we discussed for how leather is treated: tanning and tawing. There is also the process of turning skin into vellum/parchment.
It is important to note that tawing is not tanning and the hides are treated differently. For tawing, the hides are treated with aluminum salts plus egg yolk, flour, and other ingredients. This technique was used in Egypt before it became widespread in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages. It has good handling properties, and is generally left white. This is where the term “White Library” is from, as before the 1500s everything was bound in tawed leather. “Brown Library” came after when tanned leather began to replace tawed. If the tawed leather gets wet it turns into rawhide, so as long as they don’t get wet, the bindings in tawed leather can last hundreds of years.
Example of alum tawed (image credit: https://guildofbookworkers.org)
The tanning process is rather different; Dan argues that the best leathers are from the early 1800s, as anything after the Industrial Revolution begins to face deteriorating problems. Before the 19th century most leather was tanned with oak or other vegetable tannin. From the 1850s to the 1920s cheaper catechol (no longer vegetable oil, but chemicals) tanned leathers began to be produced which resulted in the problem of red rot.
Traditional tanning follows these steps: limed and dehaired, delimed, drenched in bran and citric acid, placed in a vat with tannin in it while progressively upping the strength of the tannin, dried, split and then finished. Modern methods of tanning are less time consuming. They involve stronger liquor (chemical in the vat), mechanical action to speed tanning, pH control, and a precise control of acids and salts.
Tanning is subdivided into vegetable tanned (used in historical and traditional work) and chemical tanned (often called chrome tanned and used in clothing), and then combination tanned (provides the flexibility of vegetable tanning and the longevity of chemical). The objective of tanning is to render the hides and skins resistant to decomposition or bacterial decay and to provide it with tensile strength, flexibility and abrasion resistance.
As for vellum and parchment, it is a semantic nightmare. The meaning of the word can vary with country origin, language, period in which the term was used, the animal it comes from, the usage to which it is being put, or a combination of any of those! In the European continent, the term parchment, according to Dan, is used as a generic term for any skin processed in a manner for binding. Whereas the term vellum, which comes from old French, may indicate thin material finished on both sides and used for writing.
In England specifically though, vellum refers to skin that is finished on one side only and used for binding, and parchment is finished on both sides and used for writing.
Both vellum and parchment are made by stretching skin and scraping it over and over again. Vellum is very stable: it’s almost a neutral pH level. Often times the term “limp vellum bindings” is heard and this refers to an old form of binding used to make the cheap “paperbacks” of medieval times – it’s very durable though!
It does caulk easily with water, so relative humidity effects it a lot.
Example of limp vellum bindings (image credit: andrewhuot.com)
This was just the beginning of information we received at the workshop. We also covered what makes leather quality good, how to tell goat skin from pig or calf, and what type of leather is good for bookbinding. It was a very informative workshop and provided a good introduction to leather and to leather-working as we also covered paring knives and how to pare the leather.
Guest blogger Arielle VanderSchans is a linguist and librarian living in Canada. She currently studies bookbinding through the Canadian Bookbinding and Book Arts Guild. You can follow her as she learns the trade here: https://ariellesbindery.com
At the turn of 1636, Sir John Lambe was presented with a series of complaints by a group of journeyman printers. Lambe was serving as a member of the Court of High Commission, an ecclesiastical court set up by Queen Elizabeth in 1559, whose duties included some degree of oversight of the early modern book trade. It was in this capacity that Lambe found himself weighing in on a list of what the bibliographer W. W. Greg pithily summarised as ‘Apprentices Out of Order’.
Fifty years ago last night, the Arno River in Florence burst its banks and flooded the city, reaching depths of 18-22 feet. Water raged through the streets at some 30-40 miles per hour, tumbling cars and even newsstands as easily as if they were children’s toys. Shops on the famous bridges of the Arno looked as though they had been hit by bombs. Basement furnaces leaked and exploded, and the pressure of the water blew out the sewers. When the waters receded after a few days, the city was covered in a thick, foul slime of mud, sewage, oil, and waterlogged detritus.
Our exhibit, BOOKS AND MUD: THE DROWNED LIBRARIES OF FLORENCE looks at the damage and recovery effort in a single library in Florence, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, in which nearly 100,000 precious early modern volumes were left waterlogged and mud-caked. It has been up for two weeks, and many of the visitors who have come to see it have some memory to share of the 1966 flood. Some remember hearing about it and wishing they had gone to help, while others tell us a bit about being on the scene.
The technical achievement of the restoration workers is, of course, vitally important and interesting to study. The methods the skilled men and women who saved the books developed informs much of the way water-damaged books are managed even today.
That said, the part of the story that seems to lie at the heart of everyone’s memory of the Florence flood of 1966 is the part where thousands of young people came from all over Italy, Europe, and many parts of the world to volunteer their time and labor as angeli del tango: mud angels. They formed lines to the basements of museums, libraries, and palaces, passing books, artwork, and other treasures one at a time to the fresh air and the hands of the professional restorers. They took shovels and buckets and dug mud out of stores, homes, and streets.
The raw film footage and photographs of these mud angels, most of whom remain unidentified in these visual records, is moving and heartwarming. It is beautiful to see the way they move through the streets, filthy and tired, doing what they can to restore the everyday life and priceless treasures of Florence. In the well-worn phrase, it gives one faith in humanity.
As I write this, Italy is once again dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters. In the past few months, nearly 250 medium-strength or greater earthquakes have rocked the country. Nearly 300 people died as a result of the August 24 earthquake around the town of Amatrice. The town of Arquata del Tronto has been more or less destroyed. Those wishing to aid the relief efforts can donate here. The Italian Cultural Institute here in San Francisco is also offering the chance to donate via an artist’s exhibit and auction. The auction will take place at the Institute on December 8, 2016, from 6-9pm.
We have also kept track of floods in 2016 as part of the exhibit, or at least, as many floods as we’ve been able to track down. We have a world map on display with color-coded pins indicating flood frequency and severity, and it is updated daily.
Recent major flooding in the United States has of course caught our attention. West Virginia, Louisiana, and the Carolinas have been particularly affected recently, and all have put out appeals for help in rebuilding the public library collections and those of the public schools. Baton Rouge school librarian Trey Veazey’s blog post on the subject spread around social media, but aid is needed all over the affected areas. Most have lost most or all of their collections, and rebuilding is expensive and necessary. Veazey writes:
We are relocating. We’ve been ushered over to a building that was built in 1937. That means my new school is the same age as And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street. It also means that, in my first year as a librarian, I have a library without any books.
Access to books is the key to educational success. Our library doesn’t have books. Our classrooms don’t have books. Many of the homes of our students don’t have books. Like the tears that rolled down our faces both in silent & violent measures, they became a part of the flood before being swept away as we looked toward rebuilding & recovery.
Most of us can’t go dig these places out of the mud and sweep away the flood waters, but other ways you can help may be found here:
Rebuilding School & Classroom Libraries in Louisiana
Flood-damaged West Virginia Libraries seeking help to rebuild
West Virginia Libraries Pick Up the Pieces
Book collection underway for libraries destroyed by Hurricane Matthew flooding
Floods in 2016
Christ’s curse upon the crook
Who takes away this book.*
Until relatively recently in human history, books and documents were valued both for their contents and for the prodigious effort involved in their creation. Book production in a pre-computer age required a high level of literacy, as well as many hours of monotonous labor, whether that of a stoneworker, metal engraver, scribe or printer’s devil.
It was the custom in some cultures to protect precious works by whatever means available: many medieval libraries chained books their shelves to prevent theft,** private collectors might keep their most valued books in locked chests. Especially rare, illustrated tomes might be bound with their own locking clasps to prevent sticky fingers from helping themselves to a page or two.
An additional layer of protection was afforded by the book curse. There are examples of book curses appended to written records from ancient times. They flourished in medieval Europe where scribes, typically monks, were eager to protect the product of their labor. And they can still be found today!
We all know about the curses of Ancient Egypt. Most good mummy movies (and all of the bad ones) feature dire epigraphs warning against the desecration of temple and tomb. The same principle was applied to valuable documents. A Babylonian king placed a curse on a set of clay tablets back in the 7th century B.C.:
Whosover shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe hisname on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land.***
The above is taken from the definitive work on book curses: Anathema – Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses (Allanheld & Schram, 1983), by Marc Drogin. Drogin finds additional examples from classical Greece, written on parchment. But he devotes the bulk of his study to medieval book curses.
On this subject, Drogin goes to some length to explain how books were made in the era of monastic scribes, illuminated manuscripts, and parchment. With all the resources required to create a single volume, it is no wonder the scribes and their masters were inclined to take drastic measures to protect them. Book curses appeared frequently, generally on the first or last page of a volume as part of the colophon.
Being of a religious bent, these men (and some women) tended to call down the wrath of God on miscreants.
This book is one,
And God’s curse is another;
They that take the one
God give them the other.+
Excommunication from the (Catholic) Church, with the implication of eternal damnation, was an especially popular threat. However, the good brothers were not beyond calling for more earthly torments for those who might undermine their work:
To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ‘bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.++
Whether in good Church Latin or in the vernacular of the land, medieval scribes did not hesitate to execrate!
Once Gutenberg’s printing press and its descendants got rolling, books and copies of books became more readily available. Still, the work of setting up type, incising illustrations into metal plates, and manually “pulling” sheet after sheet of paper off a wooden press was no mean feat. Book collectors still sought to protect their acquisitions; by no coincidence, about this time hand-written book curses evolved into printed bookplates.
Bookplates, typically pasted into the front cover of a volume and always incorporating the name of the owner, have remained popular to this day due to their limitless design possibilities. A bookplate may be a simple black and white rectangle proclaiming
Ex-libris John Smith.
Or it may be a more original and ornate design incorporating heraldry, block prints, whimsy, and printed or hand-tinted color.
The central purpose of the bookplate remains the same as that of the book curse: protect the book from theft or unauthorized borrowing! To this end, many folks have designed their bookplates to include a warning to malefactors – with words, images, or both. The warning may be subtle, or more direct:+++
A Word about Cursed Books
Note that the second book plate above subtly references the Necronomican, H.P. Lovecraft’s “dreaded volume.” The Necronomicon is a cursed book in the sense that anyone who messes with it is pretty much guaranteed to get into trouble. While a book curse offers protection against theft, a cursed book brings calamity to anyone who dares open it.
While we cannot attest to any real cursed books, they abound in literature. Harry Potter and his friends encounter one in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – a diary containing the malevolent spirit of a young you-know-who. An unsuspecting Harry is warned by the worldly wise Ron of the possibilities inherent in a strange book:
“Dangerous?” said Harry, laughing. “Come off it, how could it be dangerous?”
“You’d be surprised,” said Ron, who was looking apprehensively at the book. “Some of the books the Ministry’s confiscated – Dad’s told me – there was one that burned your eyes out. And everyone who read Sonnets of a Sorcerer spoke in limericks for the rest of their lives. And some old witch in Bath had a book that you could never stop reading! You just had to wander around with your nose in it, trying to do everything one-handed.”
When it comes to book curses or cursed books, the lesson is “Borrower Beware!”
* Quoted in Drogin, p. 71.
** Image courtesy of “Reading in Restraint: The Last Chained Libraries” by Allison Meier, May 8, 2014, on Atlas Oscura, http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/chained-libraries-of-the-world, accessed October 5, 2016
*** Quoted in Drogin, p. 53.
+ Quoted in Drogin, p. 72.
++ Quoted in Drogin, p. 78.
+++ Images courtesy of Blog:” Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie,” http://bookplatejunkie.blogspot.com/2012/09/threats-and-warnings-on-bookplates-part.html, accessed October 2, 2016
ABM Guest Blogger Eleanor Boba is a public historian who blogs about historic places off the beaten path and other curious matters. She lives in Seattle.
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