Girdle books are an interesting type of late medieval binding. The cover of the book includes a long tail at the bottom of the book, which allows the book to be tucked into a belt (girdle) for easy transportation of the book. The tail can be left loose, gathered into a knot, sewed onto a ring, or finished in other ways to allow the book to be transported easily (Szirmai, p 237). While only 26 extant examples remain (not including 8 possible examples that are in very poor condition or have undergone extensive restoration (Smith, p. 297)), there are around 900 images of girdle books in artwork created between 1400 and 1600 from a diverse range of European countries (Kernytska p. 2). The oldest remaining extant example is Isidorus Hispalensis: Soliloquium; Lateinische Lebensregeln (Röhsska Museum of Göteborg, RKM 519- 1915) from the early fourteenth century (Smith, p. 11, and p. 275 to 281). While the origin of this book is a bit of a mystery, it is possible this book was written and bound in England (Smith, p. 277).
Of the 26 extant girdle books, 19 contain religious texts, five contain legal texts, and two contain philosophical texts (Smith, passim). While extant books come from a wide variety of locations, a majority seem to originate in Germany (Smith, passim). In art, girdle books are often found on the belt or in the hands of religious figures, though as noted above, these books were not exclusively the purview of religion. The image of a girdle book often indicates the subject was holy and learned (Smith, p. 25), though later period art also showed the book in the hands of devils and demons, which Smith attributed to an anti-Catholic sentiment (Smith, p. 26). Considering the number of extant images that portray girdle books, it can be inferred that such books were common enough that viewers would easily understand what a girdle book was.
Girdle books are bound like any other medieval books, only with an extra length of leather at their tail to make them easy to carry in the hand or tucked into a belt. J.A. Szirmai calls the general binding technique used in this period “Gothic Binding” (Szirmai, p.173), though some of the earlier extant books were bound in a style Szirmai calls “Romanesque” (Szirmai, p. 140). I chose to bind my book as a Gothic Binding, so I will not be going into the differences between the two styles.
My item is not a direct recreation of a particular extant item. Instead, it is a book bound based on traditional Gothic Binding techniques that is then covered with a long, leather tail, based on information gathered from Szirmai, Smith, and Hanmer. My item is made with machine manufactured paper, linen thread conditioned with beeswax, linen cord, ¼ inch quarter sawn oak boards, wheat paste, wooden toothpicks, 14 gauge brass wire, a small brass nail, and veg-tanned leather. More about these materials and the tools I used can be found in the Materials and Tools sections of my documentation.
The reason I wanted to do this project is twofold. First, I wanted to push my boundaries in my bookbinding. I had a goal of using solid, shaped wood boards and threading the support cords into the text block, which is a first for me. I also wanted to use a period adhesive, in this case, wheat paste, in all aspects of binding. Secondly, I find the utilitarian beauty of girdle books to be fascinating. To us, they are works of handbound art, the product of hundreds of hours of work. However, to the owners of these books, they were everyday objects, used while traveling, a way to bring knowledge on the road. I want to have the opportunity to explore that dichotomy of art and utility by making my own little traveling book.
Please see complete documentation here:
This is so very cool! Beautifully crafted, and I really appreciate seeing all the details in your video and documentation. I knew girdle books existed, but I loved learning more about the context and process — thank you!
Beautiful work, and beautifully presented! I enjoyed reading your historic background and the description of your process; the photos helped me to understand what you did (as I am not myself a bookbinder). Thank you for sharing!
Bookbinding really is an “unsung” art in period, and yes so very important. Thank you for the thorough pictures, also. It looks simple on the exterior but it takes a great deal of work to pull it all together.
Thanks for sharing!
-Magistrissa Anna Dokeianina Syrakousina, OL. Trimaris.
So much detail of the process! Thanks for showing all the photos and detailed description of the steps involved in putting this together. This was fascinating to read through. And beautiful work, too!