31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts

Bindings – Day Fourteen of Medieval Manuscripts

Image of the Cover of the famous Carolingian Gospel Codex Aureus of Sankt Emmeram. Made in ca. 870 at the Palace of Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald. Emperor Charles the Bald donated it to Arnulf of Carinthia who donated it to the Sankt Emmeram Abbey. By English: Image was made by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München and the work itself was made by Carolingian craftsmen in ca. 870 AD. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Illuminations and illustrations are certainly beautiful and interesting, but we haven’t yet talked about the bindings in which medieval manuscripts were housed. You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but considering how expensive and time-consuming as medieval manuscripts were to produce, it stands to reason that they would have elaborate and sturdy covers both to fit the elegance and intricacy of the pages and to protect them from the ravages of time and use.

Front cover- embossed leather cover, with brass studs and corner pieces. Historia Scholastica (c.1451) BL Add MS 18972. Photo by Petrus Comestor [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Like the manuscripts themselves, covers could differ from each other greatly in the richness of their materials, design, and decoration according to the type of manuscript in question and the means of the patron. Relatively humble manuscripts might have a cloth cover or leather binding with wood, sometimes embellished with a tooled or embossed design. The fanciest books made for the wealthiest patrons, such as royals or noblemen, might well include gold, jewels, enamels, or even ivory. This last category – luxurious manuscripts created with precious materials for a royal or other elite patron – is sometimes called “treasure manuscripts” (de Hamel 51).

An elaborate manuscript cover with gold, jewels, and ivory – from Musée de Cluny, Cl. 1399. Guillaume Blanchard (Aoineko) via Wikimedia Commons.

Sadly, many medieval manuscripts lost their bindings long ago, whether through typical wear or intentional destruction. Those with precious materials in their covers were highly vulnerable to having their metal melted down or jewels taken out of their settings to be used in other works of art. Such “recycling” of precious metals and gemstone is unfortunately common throughout the history of art; even classical temples have been raided of their marble to furnish other building projects. It’s lucky that we still have quite a few surviving examples like the ones illustrated here.

Collection of medical recipes [written in the area of Worcestershire, first quarter of the 15th century]. Medieval English oak board book binding. Wellcome images WMS 5262. See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

You can read more about this topic in my series of articles about luxurious medieval art objects at The Collector“Medieval Artwork: Jewels of the Middle Ages” (May 29, 2022); “Wrought From Silver and Gold: Treasured Medieval Artwork” (May 30, 2022); “White Gold: Medieval Artworks in Luxurious Ivory” (August 9, 20220).

Source: de Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. London & New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 1994.

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