Calling in the Wilderness, pt 2

The second entry in this series has very little woodworking involved. It does rely heavily on the same design principles, adhesives, tooling, and decorative techniques as other things from Medieval and Renaissance Europe. The only tool I had to add for this one was a needle and thread.

Girdlebook, 15th Century, Holy Roman Empire

GB ImageAn example of a girdlebook, popular in Germany and the Low Countries in the 13th to 16th centuries. The cover is split leather dyed blue with decorative brasses, mounted to walnut plates binding 112 individual pages in seven octavos.

Girdlebooks are commonly considered to have contained Books of Hours among the clergy and aristocracy of late Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy” is one of the more famous non-liturgical manuscripts to be found in this form.


Extant Girdlebook traced back to the scribe Jens Nielsen. It contains legal manuscripts – the Law of Jutland. The book is in the collection of the Royal Library of Copenhagen, Denmark.

A girdlebook in the Royal Library of Denmark is a 1540 rebinding of a previously bound volume of the Law of Jutland, a legal guide used by traveling judges .
Such a book is bound with a leather cover that greatly extends beyond the


Detail from Bosche’s “Last Judgement” showing a pilgrim or monk with a girdle book.

bottom of the bound pages and wraps around the open leaves of the pages. The long tail terminates with a tightly bound, functional and decorative, knot. The knot serves as a stop so the tail of the book may be tucked under the belt and carried, with sufficient length to read the book without pulling it from under the belt.

Leather and cloth have been known to be used for cover materials in extant girdlebooks . Hardwood front and back covers provided rigidity to the cover material and protection to the bound pages. Thread binds the folio pages to each other and to lacings of chord or leather that keep the boards together. An adhesive, usually wheat paste for the pages to the boards and proteinaceous glues for the binding of leather covers to binding boards, completes the list of common materials found in all girdlebooks. Many also include decorative brasswork, gold, precious gems, or more modest tooling. Almost all are secured with a hasp-like closure.
This piece has boards of walnut, linen lacing thread, twisted hemp cords, dyed leather of a very light weight for the cover, and decorative brasses for the hasp and decoration. The glues used to bind the pages is a wheat paste while hide glue was used to secure the leather cover to the front and back boards.

Construction of a girdle book does not vary greatly in the initial steps from the binding of other books common in the Gothic Period . The process begins with the sewing of signatures into quires or octavos to exterior cords. These cords are then laced through covers, in this case, walnut. This example being blank, it is intended as a ledger, it forgoes organizing printed or manuscript pages in order. Instead, a nominal dimension of length and width was determined based on the original sheet size. Paper of a medium-heavy weight was chosen as a balance of materials investment and quality. Eight pages per stack was chosen for this book, for no reason than it met the traditional requirement of a multiple of four . Having taken a preference to Boethian Mathematics for design which is based on Greek Musical systems, a base of eight offers a bit of poetry to the finished product. The pages themselves were measured to approximate a proportion of 4:3 (Perfect Fourth). Each of the octavos were then placed in a book press to even out the open ends. This is required as when equal sized sheets of paper are folded around one another, those in the center of the stack will protrude from the outer sheets.
A well known article published in Tournaments Illuminated indicates that a drawknife was often used for the trimming of quires and octavos. A 16th century woodcut by John Amman showing a bookbinder at work instead John Ammon Bookbindershows a heavy wooden plane being used to evenly shear the pages of a book, while the stack of pages is held in a double-screw vise. A flat-handled knife with an angled paring edge is often cited as a middle ground between these other two period options. In a previous book binding attempt, I opted to use a plane to shear the sheaf of quires even. This method proved effective and efficient. I tried the drawknife in this endeavor, and was far less pleased with the results, despite the drawknife being razor sharp. Some pages folded and tore rather than shearing evenly. This resulted in a less attractive finished product than was anticipated. I also erred in shearing the pages by the octavo rather than all of them at once. After bending the binding in Gothic Style, the inner octavos of the book are retracted due to the rounding of the spine.
A double pair of cords were sewn to the seven octavos, binding them together for the boards. The boards themselves were sized slightly larger than the signature stack, and the excess trimmed to have a nominal proportion of 3:2 (Perfect Fifth). The cords are laced through six holes through the front and back boards. On the inside faces of the boards a stopped dado was chiseled between the holes for the two center cords. The outer cords only pass once through the board and are pegged into place with small dowels cut from a scrap of the walnut. The inner pairs of chords are run outside the boards, then continue into the stopped dadoes before being pegged back to the outward face through the deeper pair of holes. These holes were drilled with a 5mm brad point bit, rather than a spoon or auger bit which would have been used in the Middle Ages. Dowels were, as in the historical method, tapped through to fasten the cords through this second set of holes as they were for end cords. A small amount of casein glue was spread on the dowels to assist in holding the cords in place. Once all this was dry, the dowels were pared flush on each face of the boards and the entire book was placed in a book press to adhere front and rear leaves to the boards. These leaves were off-cuts of the same paper used in the remainder of the book, but cut to relatively narrow strips and bobbed at the board-side corners. Wheat paste was used for this, with bees-waxed paper slipped between layers to reduce adhesion to pages that should not be glued. The book was placed in a book press and nutted down to dry.
The following day, the book was removed from the press and the exterior board faces were smeared with a thin but consistent layer of hide glue. The leather cover of the binding was stretched over the glued surfaces. Once I was content with the placement of the cover on the binding boards, the entire book was placed back into the book press to dry. Having been cut to an oversized dimension before being glued, trimming the leather cover to be overhanging and still square to the board edges was a simple task accomplished with a straight edge and a sharp knife. Sufficient length of leather was maintained from the bottom edge of the book to allow for hanging from a belt.


15th Century girdle book in the Dusseldorf Stiftung museum kunst palast. Note the repousse brasswork decorating the cover

Brass hardware was chosen to decorate the front cover of the book and hasp. Many of the extant girdlebooks show a variety of highly decorative styles and materials . The exceptional level of decoration on most extant book covers from the Gothic Style, I believe, more indicates the interest in museums presenting the most glamorous pieces rather that what was most common among even already expensive products. An early 16th century folio page from Die Hausbucher der Nurnberger Zwolfbruderstiftungen shows a bookbinder at work. Of the four books shown in the illuminated page, all show some


Amb. 279.2° Folio 21 verso (Landauer I)

decoration that would be considered very modest when compared to the most ornate extant examples. One book in particular shows L-shaped brackets on the corners.

In reviewing similar, though far more ornate examples, corner pieces are not flush-mounted as they wrap around the outside edges of the boards. This not only provides decoration but protects the corners of the boards from damage along the most fragile edges.
Rather than casting custom pieces, I elected to modify off-the-shelf commercial hardware to suit my needs. A set of brass corners and a decorative hasp intended as box hardware were purchased and heavily modified. The corners were cut to better fit the depth and shape of the book, especially the bound edge where the wrap around facet of brass needed to be removed to fit on the book cover correctly. A 1:2:1 composition of ogee arches were cut and filed by hand to conform to a popular High Medieval decorative theme that matched with the L-shaped silhouette found in the very simple decoration on Landawer’s book cover. 75-Amb-2-279-21-v.tifThe tongue of the hasp was also modified to be 1:2:1 composite cyma curves, terminating with a stylized spear point akin to a fleur-de-lis. The decorative brasses and hasp were then punched and clenched to the front cover using brass brads. The tongue for the hasp was sewn to the selvage of the back cover, allowing a full layering wrap of leather on the open edge of the book. This tongue and hasp allow the book to be closed and hung without the likelihood of opening to the elements while the book is worn.
The final element of this girdlebook was to tie the tail with a turks’ head knot. This knot is what allows the tail of the book to be carried under the belt and still be read, or hang closed. This is not an easy knot to master. A thong was cut of the same thin leather that the rest of the cover is made of to tie the knot. The very thin, flat leather does not make for particularly good skein material, but it does suffice to cinch the end of the tail into a belt.

I would like to try several things with a future version of this girdle book. Casting my own brasswork would be an exciting experiment, as would adding precious stones. Were that I had a book that I wished to actually bind, rather than making a blank ledger or note book I would welcome the opportunity to bind an illuminated manuscript.
The Turks’ Head Knot came out poorly. This may be as much my lack of familiarity with this knot as it was a problem of selecting a flat rather than round cording material to tie the knot.
Illumination and calligraphy are not skills I have sufficiently developed to date. I am considering transcribing Boethius’ Arithmatica into this particular girdlebook even though it would break the traditional order of manufacture for a bound manuscript.

References and resources:

-Erik Petersen (ed.), Living Words & Luminous Pictures. Medieval book culture in Denmark. Catalogue, Copenhagen: The Royal Library 1999, pp. 42-45
-Margit Smith, Jim Bloxam, The Medieval Girdle Book Project, International Journal of the Book 2005/2006
-Szirmai, JA, “The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding”, Ashgate Publishing (1999 and 2000)
-Hulan, Nancy; Binding a Late Gothing Book, Tournament Illuminated, Spring 2007

This entry was posted in Calling in the Wilderness, Design and Proportion, Medieval Tools, Projects, Reproduction. Bookmark the permalink.

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