Takamiya MS 7: In Cantica Canticorum: with other works

Takamiya MS 7, Marcus Aurelius Cassiodorus, In cantica canticorum and other works. England, c. 1250.

Medieval bindings took a variety of forms and styles. Some books remained in loose quires without any sort of binding, while others were bound in pliable parchment covers. They could receive elaborate bindings with wooden boards that later were decorated with tooled designs or sometimes even precious metals and gems. Takamiya MS 7, a thirteenth-century copy of a commentary by Cassiodorus, has a type of decorated binding. Its wooden boards are covered with a doeskin that was dyed bright pink, and its color remains remarkably vivid more than seven centuries later.

Beinecke MS 84: De consolatione philosophiae

Beinecke MS 84. Boethius, De consolatione philosophiae. England, between 1400 and 1500.

If a manuscript was to be bound with wooden boards, its assembled quires were first sewn onto cords that had been attached to the binding. The ends of the cords were then directed into channels in the boards and kept in place with wooden pegs. A variety of woods were used: in northern Europe, for example, oak boards were most common, and beech was used most frequently in the south. Bindings were often massive, which allowed books to be stored on shelves or in chests and armoires, though other kinds of binding were designed to make books portable. Beinecke MS 84, for instance, is a “girdle book,” the boards of which were covered in leather cut to the exact size of the volume but left with a soft leather tail that, when tied in a knot, could be slipped under a reader’s belt from which the volume dangled. While girdle-book bindings were popular, hardly any—perhaps as few as twenty-three — survive, possibly the result of wear and tear on the leather tail.

Beinecke MS 923: Folding calendar

Beinecke MS 923. Folding calendar. France, c. 1290-1300.

Another portable binding, known as a vade mecum (go with me), is seen on Beinecke MS 923. Much like a girdle book, a vade mecum’s text was oriented to permit its being read while hanging from a belt. As this planetary calendar demonstrates, vade mecum texts typically were of a practical nature, such as almanacs and medical references.