Smith, Margit. The Medieval Girdle Book. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2017.
384 pages, 7.375 x 10.5 inches, hardcover, dust jacket. ISBN: 1584563680 / 9781584563686. $95.00.
Reviewed by Nicholas Yeager
By shedding light on the
development and use of girdle books, Margit J. Smith focuses on their
construction and materials employed. She isolates the girdle book from
other structures and places it in the medieval world as a separate and
short-lived use. One wonders why personal, portable books didn’t last
and whether the advent of small, portable printed books had some
influence in the demise of wearable bibliographic accessories.
Margit J. Smith was an academic cataloging and preservation librarian at
the University of San Diego when she attended the Montefiasconi Library
Project in 2003 where she took a class on the girdle book, igniting a
fourteen year study of this structure.
The mechanical challenges
of how to make girdle books have been elusive to most binders as there
has been very little published. Pamela Spitzmueller gave a presentation discussing the girdle book at the Guild of Book Workers Standards
conference in 2000. Her handout describes briefly the two versions of a
girdle book binding that Ms. Smith calls primary and secondary covering
styles. All but 2 books are laced onto wooden boards, making the basic
structure of the girdle book the same as wooden board bindings of the
14th - 16th centuries. Forwarding a girdle book is no different than
contemporary bindings. Even the 2 paper board bindings are forwarded in
the same way.
The Medieval Girdle Book reviews the 26 bindings
by dividing them into 4 chapters according to each book’s contents:
Religious (19); legal (5); philosophical (2); and possible girdle books
(8). The thirty-three page introduction gives a thorough description of
the 2 types of coverings employed and where and when these bindings were
made. Table 1 shows books by location and whether manuscript (20) or
printed (6). Table 2 dates and places the the books and again indicates
manuscript or print while Table 3 covers the possible girdle books
examined. Tables 4 & 5 indicate books that have protective flaps in
addition to the extension to hang the book from a belt. An overall
survey describes each book in its historical context, the interior or
the book, the construction and exterior of the book.
photography is of a high quality and the overall information is well
done, whetting one’s curiosity about each book. The design, typography
and printing are well done, making for ease in reading. However there
are no indicators within the book to aid the reader in knowing what
section or chapter one is in. By sorting the books by subject, one has
reason to flip between sections to look at images for comparison. The
addition of headers would make for a better reading experience.
Lacing-on patterns, paste-downs and images of all sides of a book would
have been helpful to discern manufacturing clues.
Girdle Book is a well-written book, for the interested binder that will
further one’s understanding of the structural and covering solutions
employed in making girdle books. While the specifics of all aspects of
making a girdle book are hinted at, a conscientious practitioner can
infer enough to make one’s own girdle book. Reading this after having
read (or along side) of J.A. Szirmai’s The Archaeology of Medieval
Bookbinding (1999) gives the serious binding student a lot of
information to help navigate their education in the era of wooden-board
Nicholas Yeager is a rare books librarian/historian of the book, scribe and motorcyclist. He is also the creator of Zorbix.