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The Howard W. Gunlocke (C '34) Rare Book and Special Collections Room is named after its benefactor, of Jamestown, New York, who generously established the room at the founding of Lauinger Library in 1970, to provide a reading area for those using the holdings in Special Collections, and a permanent exhibition venue for changing selections from Special Collections and other sources.

Georgetown University Special Collections - Exhibitions

"Monastic Bindings" of Three Centuries

Howard W. Gunlocke (C '34) Rare Book and Special Collections Room

January · April 2005

Home · Titles in the Exhibition


"Monastic bindings" share with a somewhat better-known whitish commodity, "divinity fudge," naming that expresses a partial, rather than a whole, truth. The best known of these alum-tawed leather bindings are those, many with pictorial panels, produced in Germany between the middle of the sixteenth century and the middle of the seventeenth century. They possess, for the casual observer, an apparent unity of appearance and structure which obstructs our view of a larger, and perhaps more interesting bookbinding phenomenon.

"Monastic Bindings of Three Centuries" presents a total of 56 bindings (plus a dozen added volumes, bringing the total count to 68) ranging in date of publication from 1479 to 1768 and in date of binding from somewhere in the last two decades of the fifteenth century to no earlier than the date of the most recent title. Many of these books entered the modern book-collecting market following the suppression of the Society of Jesus and the dissolution of numerous Continental cloistered religious houses in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The fact that many of them shared a "monastic" provenance, combined with that whitish color, led to the adoption of the term "monastic." But while there is nothing inherently "monastic" about these books, it is also likely that some percentage of these bindings were indeed produced by the binderies in religious houses.

Tawing, as opposed to tanning, means treating the leather (generally but not always, in the case of bookbindings, pigskin) with alum (and perhaps salts of iron or chromium, says one source). This "mineral tanning" produces a leather that is whitish in color, flexible, of great strength, and more resistant than tanned leather to atmospheric pollution. The relatively ready availability of pigskin - pork was probably one of the staple meats of Germany in the sixteenth century as it is now - and the scarcity of other, "higher" uses for that form of leather made it a natural for application in the burgeoning market for bookbindings. The binding on the 1487 Imitatio Christi, however, certainly nearly contemporary to the date of publication of the text, is probably tawed goatskin rather than pigskin, as the skin itself lacks the characteristic distribution of small surface holes found in most pigskin bindings (e.g., in the same exhibit case, the 1498 Biblia latina).

One characteristic of these bindings that aids us materially in understanding their evolution over time is the propensity of their makers to date them. Of the 56 primary titles in the exhibit 17 are in dated bindings, and these cover more than a hundred years' time, from 1522 to 1657. As one might expect, both early and late dated examples are less common than those from the boom time for these bindings: nine of the 17 are dated between 1574 and 1597.

The decorative schemes of the earlier bindings in the exhibit generally make use of a restricted range of motifs. Backgrounds are commonly formed of foliate pointed near-ovals, giving them almost an ogival character. Borders are most commonly composed of multiple rules, and circular stamps of various types are applied around, or over, both background and borders. This general style gives us no clues as to place of manufacture, nor are there places in the design where they might be signed. But they do give us a means of sorting out texts bound long after their date of publication.

The best-known of the "monastic bindings" are those whose sides are adorned by central pictorial, or at least figural or armorial, panels. E. P. Goldschmidt (Gothic & Renaissance Bookbindings, 1967) maintains that bindings in this style became a commonplace in Saxony in the late sixteenth century. Although we cannot trace any of the bindings in the exhibit directly to known Saxon craftsmen, the bindings' distribution by date and their very diversity argue strongly for the validity of Goldschmidt's theory. The exhibit contains 13 "panel" bindings which display 15 different subjects in more than 20 different panels. Dated panels come from the years 1562 (on a text published in 1599), 1573, and 1574; the dates of the texts of the books in panel bindings range from 1546 to 1626; the six books which are themselves (rather than their panels) dated on their bindings come from the years 1574, 1579, 1581, 1595, 1597, and 1626.

Another obvious reason for the "monastic bindings" term is the content the bindings have preserved. A casual survey of the 56 primary titles in the exhibit shows that it includes 10 Bibles or portions of Scripture and 28 other works which fall into the category of theology or religion broadly considered. That leaves 18, and among these we observe quite a different spread: in the fields of science and medicine, five titles; in literature and linguistics, four; in philosophy, three; in emblem books, three; in law, two - and then there's a solitary illustrated Latin edition of Reynard the Fox. While one cannot say whether the books chosen for the exhibit are "typical" of all other books in similar bindings in terms of subject range, this selection does help to show why the term in question gained currency.

One final note: "monastic bindings" are not now common in the trade, nor have they been for some time. Only about half a dozen of the books in the exhibit have come to Georgetown since the library began actively collecting rare books in 1970, and almost all of those went into previous private or institutional collections before 1950. In all, 32 of the 56 primary titles certainly came to Georgetown in the nineteenth century, and it is likely others did as well: four were here before 1836; 24 came in the library of Georgetown's first librarian, Rev. Thomas C. Levins, in 1844, and four others can be shown to have arrived before 1900.

George M. Barringer
Associate University Librarian for Special Collections
March 2005

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