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Libraries & Spaces
"Monastic Bindings" of Three Centuries
"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
Items in the Exhibition:
The binding, certainly not the first one on the book, probably dates from the early 18th century; the boards are made using a heavy, but still flexible, binder's board under the leather covers, which carry minimal stamping. Gift of George Schwarz, 1843.
Tractatus de ymitatione cristi Cum tractatulo de meditatione cordis. Almost certainly a contemporary binding, with the small Paschal lamb stamp at the center of each cover. The darkening of the leather is the result of long, heavy use. Gift of Rev. C. Gillespie, 1891.
Six volumes. Cheap work on mediocre skins in an undistinguished style. without any idiosyncratic stamps. The rubrication of the fourth and fifth volumes is much more accomplished, and the rubricator has added his date of 1503 on the title of the fifth volume. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Four volumes. Bound uniformly in a "half leather" style, the ornamentation provided by vertical rolls of small floral devices. In the Georgetown library prior to 1836.
Catalogus sanctorum et gestorum eor_ex diversi voluminibus collectus . . .
Another early binding executed on a very poorly prepared skin, though in this case the damaged areas are confined largely to the top of the spine and the lower cover. A missing center boss on the upper cover shows the original color. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Novum instrument_omne, diligenter ab Erasmo Roterodamo recognitum & emendatum . . . una c_Annotationibus, quæ lectorem doceant, quid qua ratione mutatum sit. . . .
First edition of the Erasmus New Testament, in an almost certainly contemporary binding. The style of the binding is quite old-fashioned, and it also displays the remains of a (later) supplied painted title label at the head of the spine. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Novum testamentum omne, multo quam antehac diligentius ab Erasmo Roterodamo recognit_. . . . Addita sunt in singulas Apostolorum epistolas Argumenta per Erasmum Rot.
Second edition of the Erasmus New Testament, this copy bound with the separately issued Annotationes. Bound in a "half" style showing the heavy wooden boards, a not uncommon proceeding resorted to by owners with financial constraints. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
A binding of immense strength and solidity, but virtually without decorative interest. The brass corners and guards have served their purpose well. One clasp missing.
Nearly contemporary half binding, the upper cover with the author's name at top and date 1522 at bottom; clasps missing. Gift of Mrs. Katherine A. Bowie, 1995.
This copy annotated throughout by the 16th century humanist Simon Grynaeus. Both covers decorated with a roll incorporating an unidentified standing figure and a drum. Clasps still present. U. of Detroit purchase, 1985.
THΣ KAINΣ ΔIAΘHKHΣ AΠANTA. Novi Testamenti omnia.
A thoroughly typical small binding, save for the feature of having the initials "B M" on the upper cover, and three separate "S" initials on the lower cover. J. G. Shea purchase, 1892.
Apophthegmatum opus cum primis frugiferum . . . . Basel: In officina Frobeniana, 1532 [bound with] Maximus, of Tyre, 2nd cent. Sermones e graeca in latinam linguam versi Cosmo Paccio interprete. Basel [Froben, 1519] [and] Erasmus, Desiderius, d. 1536. Ecclesiastae sive de ratione concionandi libri quatuor . . . .
The first title bears the small ownership stamp of the Ochsenhausen library. Design of the lower cover of this rather later binding varies somewhat from that of the upper. Clasps missing. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Three volumes bound in two. Both covers retain their original paper labels, and both show the results of using very poor leather for binding of this decorative complexity, as the design work is virtually indecipherable despite the volumes' generally good condition. With the ownership stamp of the Ochsenhausen library. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Arba'ah ve-‘esrim . . . .
Both covers employ a roll very similar to that on the 1555 New Testament (q. v.), and the presence of a full leaf-sized bookplate (for Paulus Bleindinst) dated 1560 argues a binding date rather later than earlier. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Clearly an early binding, both covers decorated with rolls of Biblical figures, spaces left (but not used) on the upper cover for inserting an owner's initials and/or the date of acquisition. But there were never any clasps, and the substance of both covers is binder's board rather than the usual wooden boards. In the Georgetown library prior to 1836.
De animarum purgatorio igne epitome . . . . Ingolstadt: Ex officina typographica Alexandri Weissenborn, 1543 [bound with the same author's] De canonicæ scriptur_& Catholicæ ecclesiæ autoritate.[Ingolstadt: A. Weissenborn, 1543] [and] Philippica sexta. Ingolstadt: A. Weissenborn, 1544 [and] Philippica quinta.
Both covers display the same unusual outer roll, its figures depicted in pairs. Upper cover with initials "L P" and the date 1544. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Each cover has a central panel showing Abraham's aborted sacrifice of his son; the upper cover also bears the initials "H R S." Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Novi Testamenti æditio postrema, per Des. Erasmum Roterodamum, cum scripturæ concordantijs. . . . Frankfurt: Apud Iodocum Cranæum, 1555.
Both covers employ the same outer roll featuring Christ, King David, and other (?) prophets. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Upper cover dated 1556. The portion of the design which usually shows an owner's initials has been deliberately obscured in this case, and at a very early date. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
A rather over-cleaned binding with the remains of one of the leather ties supplied in lieu of clasps. Initials of the owner "L P" and date 1562 on upper board.
A quite ordinary binding in itself, but stamped with the name of its first owner, the library of the Minorite Convent of Saint Salvator in Ratisbon, where the book most likely was bound. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Four volumes. Upper covers with center panel of Charles V, lower covers with panel of Elector Augustus of Saxony (without initials or date of cutting). Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Upper cover features a Justitia panel; the lower cover, instead of the usual Lucretia panel, shows one depicting Fortuna. "Bibliotheca Heberiana" stamp on front free endpaper.
Among the most interesting of the Georgetown bindings. The upper cover, initialled "S H S T" and dated 1574 has a highly detailed Justitia panel itself dated 1573; the lower cover has an equally highly detailed Lucretia panel with the designer's, or stamp cutter's, initials "H B" incorporated in the design.
Upper cover with a variant of the well-known "Jesuit" device, the lower with a similar stamp depicting Mary, Queen of Heaven. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
A very typical binding for the period, the decorations betraying the religious affiliation of the binder: the upper panel depicts the late Emperor Charles V, the one on the lower cover the arms of the Holy Roman Empire. The outer roll is quite similar to the one in the same location on the binding of the 1538 Hippocrates (q.v.).
Upper cover with a panel showing Charles V, framed by initials "I M O" and date 1579; lower cover with a panel showing the Elector Augustus of Saxony, the panel itself dated 1579 and with the initials "S R" incorporated in the design. One-page early musical manuscript on a blank leaf at end. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Enchiridion processus iudiciarii, tam secundum Jus commune, quàm Jus Saxonicum conscripti. . . . [Frankfurt a. M.: C. Egenolff] 1579 [bound with] Rotschitz, Georg von, fl. 1529. Processus iuris Deutsch / uñ Ordenung der Gerichtsleuffte / in bürgerlichen und peinlichen sachen . . . [Budissin: M. Wolrab] 1573.
Half pigskin over lightweight stained vellum boards, upper cover dated 1581. Part of the boards lacking, revealing their interior composition of thin wood slats and printer's waste. Donated in memory of Konrad Bekker, 1986.
Upper cover with initials "A F" and date 1581 framing a Justitia panel; as usual, a similar Lucretia panel on the lower cover. Title leaf wanting.
Adsertio sacrosancti testamenti Iesu Christi contra blasphemam Calvinistarum exegesin sine authoris nomine editam. . . . [Erfurt: E. Mechler] 1582 [bound with 12 other works, nine of them being academic disputations, all printed in Germany, 1578-1582]
Both covers employ the same roll of Biblical scenes, the upper cover initialled "I I S" and dated 1582. Both decorated clasps still present. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
A strictly contemporary binding, the upper cover dated 1584. Both covers use the familiar stamps of faith, charity, and fortitude in the inmost border. Gift of Mrs. G. William Schlindwein, 20th century.
Upper and lower covers with the frequently encountered pair of panel portraits of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, the upper cover with initials "N F" and date 1595.
Calvinus Iudaizans, Hoc est: Iudaicæ glossæ et corruptelæ . . . . Wittenberg: Excudebat Vidua Matthæi Welaci, 1595 [bound with] Pareus, David, 1548-1622. Libri duo. Neustadt: M. Harnisch, 1595 [and] Huber, Samuel. Contra Jacobum Kimedoncium. Wittenberg: M. Welack, 1593 [and] Menz, Balthasar, 1500-1585. Elenchus errorum Antonii Sadeelis. Wittenberg: M. Welack, 1613 [i.e., 1593]
Upper cover with initials "I V V O" and date 1597 surrounding a panel with the arms of the Holy Roman Empire; lower cover with a panel with the arms of the Duke Elector of Saxony. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Upper board with a Justitia panel, lower board with, as usual, a Lucretia panel, this one dated 1562. The age of the stamp helps to explain the indistinctness of the blocking.
The lower board shows a third version of the roll also seen on the 1538 Hippocrates and the 1576 Nizolius. The upper board bears the early arms of the Bishop of Ratisbon, in whose library the book once rested. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Presentation copy from the author, inscribed on the title page to the Pole Joannis Potulicki, dated Augsburg, 1611. Both covers enhanced with central medallion stamps of the crucifixion and of Mary, Queen of Heaven; clasps missing. Gift of Mrs. Katherine A. Bowie, 1995.
Upper cover with the gilt arms of Frideric Forner, suffragan bishop of Bamberg. By the terms of Forner's will, the volume came in 1631 to the Jesuit college in Bamberg. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Litterae Societatis Iesu e regno sinarum annorum MDCX. & XI. . . . Augsburg: Christophorum Mangium, 1615 [bound with the same author's] Rei Christianae apud Iaponios commentarius ex litteris annuis Societatis Iesu annorum 1609. 1610. 1611. 1612. collectus. . . . Augsburg: Christophorum Mangium, 1615.
Purchased and entered in the catalog of the Jesuit college in Ingolstadt in the year of publication. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Hierologia, sive de sacro sermone, continens summam atque compendium positivæ theologiæ . . . Lyons: Sumptibus Horatij Cardon, 1617 [bound with] Leonardus, de Utino, 15th cent. Tractatus mirabilis de sanguine Christi . . . Venice: Ex typographia Ambrosij Dei, 1617.
Purchased by Father Johannes Ecchard in 1627 for, and entered the following year in the catalog of, the monastery of Neustadt am Main.
Upper board with a Crucifixion panel, lower board with a different stamp, but now so worn as to be unidentifiable.
Upper board dated 1617. The design of both boards makes use of the common Fides - Spes - Caritas [faith, hope, charity] stamps.
Both boards with outer rolls featuring the virtues faith, hope, charity, and fortitude. Upper cover with a crucifixion panel labelled in German; lower cover with a triumph of Christ over death panel labelled in Latin. Both clasps still present. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Analogia veteris ac novi testamenti . . . . Mainz: Ex officina Ioannis Albini, 1620 [bound with the same author's] De republica ecclesiastica libri quatuor. Mainz: J. Albini, 1619.
Cataloged at the Jesuit college in Bamberg in 1621. Both covers with outer roll of four virtues (faith, hope, charity, and fortitude). Lower cover with gilt stamp of Mary, Queen of Heaven, upper cover with gilt "Jesuit" stamp. These are the same as the stamps on the 1575 Fickler (q.v.), but in a quite different decorative design. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Dictionarium harmonicum Biblicum . . . . Nuremberg [A. P. Theodoric] 1598 [bound with the same author's] Index dictionarii harmonici. Nuremberg [A. P. Theodoric] 1598.
A binding with very unusual stamps, the upper cover with a panel showing the baptism of Christ, framed by the initials "I I H S" and the date 1626, the lower cover with a panel showing the anointing of Samuel. U. of Detroit purchase, 1985.
Upper cover with owner's initials ("G N S G"), arms, and date 1628 all in gilt; lower cover with stamp of St. George and the dragon in gilt. Both clasps still present, but the cleanliness of the corners betrays the relatively recent removal of metal cornerpieces. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Entered in the catalog of the Jesuit college at Olomuc on 25 January, 1634, and very likely bound near there. Clasps missing.
A typical Austrian design of the time, by great good fortune retaining both original clasps. With the gilt super-ex-libris of "Godefridus Dei gratia abbas Gottwicensis" on each cover. J. G. Shea purchase, 1892.
Ten tomes bound in two physical volumes, their survival even in damaged condition a testament to the strength of pigskin bindings generally, the more remarkable as these are not built on solid wood boards.. Initials "P O C" and dates (1657) on upper covers only.
First volume (of two) of the Old Testament. An unusually diminutive volume to be bound in this manner.
Novum testamentum Domini nostri Iesu Christi. Vulgate editionis . . . .
New Testament obviously published as part of the same set as the preceding volume, this one incorporating also the Prayer of Manasses and the third and fourth books of Esdras from the Apocrypha
Three volumes bound in one. Central heating and the course of time have distorted the shape of the binding–which has not been at all hard-used–so that the clasps, though still present, no longer function.
A typical 18th century design, both covers centered with the IHS mark often associated with the Society of Jesus, the upper cover bearing the further stamped name of the Jesuit college in Bamberg, which may in fact be where the binding was done. Clasps missing, as usual. In the Georgetown library prior to 1836.
"I H S" monogram centered on upper cover, a similar initialism for Mary on the lower cover. In the Georgetown library prior to 1836.
A binding undoubtedly executed for the choir of an active monastery. The typically decorative 18th century covers are enhanced by heavy brass corners of the Evangelists, center bosses of Christ, and clasps of grotesques, all on a heroic scale. U. of Detroit purchase, 1985.
Inscribed by its purchaser on the front pastedown "for the use of the fathers" in the community of the Canonicis Gradicensis in 1748. Quite possibly bound in the community, as the lower board bears a gilt stamp with the initials C G. Upper board has the arms, also in gilt, of an as yet unidentified bishop. Title (with wrong author's name) in gilt on the spine.
A very late example of the pigskin binding process, in a very simple style and from a design standpoint of virtually no interest. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.
Disputationes historicæ ad vitas pontificum Romanorum . . . . Ferrara: Impensis Jo: Manfrè, 1755 [bound with the same author's] Disputationes historicæ ad vitas pontificum Romanorum. Venice: Balleoni, 1768.
Another anemic production from the last years of this style of binding, vivified by colorful staining of the leaf edges. The 1768 title, apparently an exact reprint of the 1755 edition bound first, is the most recent publication at Georgetown in this binding style. Rev. Thomas C. Levins bequest, 1844.