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Medieval manuscript construction

This post is a short library of my favourite online resources regarding how medieval manuscripts were created, and related traditional bookbinding videos. One of the unexpected consequences of my return to Phillipo Vadi's De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi while working on the second edition of Veni Vadi Vici was that I got completely hooked on the physical craft of bookbinding and manuscript creation. I've been producing my own bound notebooks for friends and family for the last eight months or so, which came about because I thought it would be very cool to have a copy of De Arte Gladiatoria with the exact same collation (the organisation of the pages in quires (also called gatherings). As readers of this post  will know, the manuscript is made up of five quires, a10 b4 c-d10 e8. Which means that the first quire is five sheets folded over, the second is two, the third and fourth are also of five folded sheets each, and the last is of four. The idea of producing a copy of the ms with the same collation lead me to look into high-end printing options, which sparked the idea for producing fencing manuscripts in affordable high-quality reproductions, which lead to getting both Il Fior di Battaglia and De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi back in print after many centuries, and the birth of Spada Press!


It's funny how all sorts of sidetracks can become pretty important thoroughfares.

But these reproductions, lovely as they are, are not hand written on vellum or bound using traditional methods. The Getty Museum (owner of Il Fior di Battaglia) describe how these books used to be made on this page. It includes everything from how vellum is made from skins, to how the scribe makes their own ink, to how the books are bound. You can see the summary video here:

Isn't it beautiful?

The Fitzwilliam museum goes one further, and provides a very detailed series of pages describing how one of their manuscripts was rebound, having been tortured by a ghastly 18th century binder. (It's really amazing how craftsmen up until fairly recently felt perfectly entitled to trim the edges of manuscripts to neaten them up! Christopher de Hamel's wonderful book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts goes into some details about this; even the legendary Book of Kells was ‘tidied up' in this horrific way. A bit like tidying up a haircut by cutting off someone's ears, if you ask me.) The Fitzwilliam website takes us through the decision-making process of approaching the conservation, through undoing the previous binding, through all the stages of bringing the book back to life. For those of a sensitive disposition, this page highlighting the damage that was done by the previous binder, including trimming the pages cutting through the illustrations, and applying red dye to the edges which seeped into the pages, and other horrors, should be avoided.

If in the process of reading this you have discovered your inner bookbinding geek, then you may find these videos enjoyable:

For an overview of the bookbinding process:

And my favourite how-to video series on Youtube is the Bookbinder's Chronicle. The videos are all silent, and slow, and patient, and beautiful, which is just the way bookbinding ought to be done, I think. You can see one that includes some medieval-style binding here:

Yes, procrastinating again. But I'm actually on the road at the moment, consulting with an academic colleague regarding De Arte Gladitoria, and put this post together in a quiet moment last week. If you've read this far, you're probably interested in bookbinding yourself, so do share your own favourite resources in the comments!

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

5 Responses

  1. Thank you for this fascinating post. I haven’t looked into manuscript illumination or bookbinding before and thoroughly enjoyed the resources you linked to.

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