A bit of ‘medieval’ fun

The idea of binding a book in real oak boards with a tawed leather back has been at the back of my mind for some time. Several months ago I chose the contents – a clean copy of Roderick Cave’s important study of The Private Press (Faber & Faber, 1971) in a shabby cloth case. I pulled the text and re-sewed the sections on three linen tapes and added two-colour sewn headbands; green and white, as found on fifteenth century books.

I already had two pieces of oak, about 4mm thick, with a smooth planed surface. I cut slots for the tapes, recessed both outside and inside, and I chamfered the inside edges and also parts of the outer edges, copying the boards of a book I have that was bound in 1554

Planed oak boards (salvaged from a mid-Victorian bookcase) shaped with a chisel
In the 16th century the outside corners were not chamfered as bosses would be attached. And small gouges were made on the top and bottom edges to take cords used to tie up the boards after covering.
The tapes are set into a recess to avoid lumps showing under the covering leather
Similar recess on the inside of the boards. The white cloth is cotton fabric which will be glued back on to the inside of the board after the tapes have been cut short and glued into the recesses. The greyish paper on the right is the pastedown sheet of the endpaper
This shows the bevel on the inside edges of the boards., made with a small hand plane.

Now, the choice is between a tight back as would have been the case throughout the medieval period, or a hollow back which enables the book to open more easily and also gives the opportunity for false bands so as to look properly medieval. Of course, I could have sewn the book on double raised cords in the first place, but that precludes any later choice.

So I chose a hollow back with false raised bands.

Double bands made from glued hemp cord on a hollow (one-on-two-off) over the lined and sanded back.

The leather back is a piece of alum-tawed goat that I have been intending to use for at least 15 years. It is absolutely appropriate for a medieval book and has a lovely soft ‘feel’ as well.

Hair side damped all over.
Skin side pasted twice, except for the turn-ins
Leather gently stretched over the back
Tied down around the bands. A row of tacks along the sides of the lay press make this much easier than wrapping cord all round the press.

When you take the cords off there is a nice mark of the cord – very authentic as you often find it on early bindings

Another choice now – shaped headcaps or not? Medieval books did not have shaped headcaps and there was no back-cornering to the boards. But I like a properly worked cap and for that you need to tie up the cap and that requires the angled cut at the tops of the boards. So that’s what I did,

I chose some very strong hand-made jute paper for the endpapers. It has a vellum-like tone.

The squares need to be equal widths all round

Finally, what about a title on the spine? Definitely in the top panel, and black, as if inked. I have a dozen sets of type and the most suitable (or least unsuitable) was 16-point Elizabethan. Done with a typeholder in three separate lines, starting with the middle one, positioned by eye using stamped strips of paper. The ink is from black carbon paper.

No further decoration, just some polish on the boards.

The ‘fun’ part is imagining the next 400 years, as the book will certainly last that long, barring physical accidents. The leather will darken gradually and will acquire the patina of fingers and bruises. The oak will also darken. But a discerning owner will be puzzled – thinking “the binder clearly had the middle ages in mind, so why a hollow back and why sew on tapes and then simulate cords and why…..?”

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