J. A. Szirmai: The archaeology of Medieval Bookbindings

Szirmai, Archaelogoy of Medieval BookbindingA while ago, Dymphie of papierenavonturen posted a picture of her bookbinding literature shelf. I commented on her copy of Szirmai’s famous book, and it turned out she had a spare copy. The binding was slightly damaged (this is why she got herself another copy), and she offered to sell it to me at a competitive price. And since then I am the happy owner of Szirmai’s Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding, and for all those of you who cannot rightfully claim that, here is my review.

The book has 300 pages bound in hard covers, published by Ashgate Publishing Limited (1999, reprinted 2000,2003,2007). It has numerous photos and drawings, and includes bibliographical references and an index.

The contents are presented in two parts. The first is called the Mediterranean heritage, and includes the description of different Coptic, Ethopian, Islamic, and Byzantine codices.The second part is called The medieval codex in the Western world, and includes chapters about Carolingian bindings, Romanesque bindings, Gothic bindings, and Limp bindings.

In each chapter Szirmai describes which examples he has seen, of how many he knows, and where  they can be found, and then describes the books he has seen in detail. He is  interested in the binding style, materials used for cover construction, paper and sewing thread, as well as possible decorations (including endbands) – all the physical aspects of these books.

A typical paragraph reads like this (excerpt from the last chapter on limp bindings):

Nearly all parchment coverings (plain, but occasionally showing signs of being reused) are attached by lacing in the support slips, in their full width, as shown in Figure 10.26(e); yet in three cases the support slips are cut in two and each part is laced through the covering, forming a V-shape. These three bindings also have primary embroidered endbands on narrow thongs, which are laced in at the spine edge corners of the covers. Virtually all brown leather sewing supports are now broken, whereas most of the white leather ones are still intact. Front-edge flaps are present on 10 bindings, mostly of square and occasionally triangular shape. Eight coverings are cut flush with the head and tail of the bookblock, 14 extent past the head and tail, but have their front edge turned in, five have a bent type of front edge and seven have all their edges turned in. The spines of the bindings which have the edges turned on all around (among these are the three bindings with laced-in endbands) are slightly rounded (none if these is provided with metal fastenings).

As you can see already in this short paragraph, it is by no means an instructional book. But of course his thoroughSzirmai, Archaelogoy of Medieval Bookbinding description gives you precious information about how to make such a book. This is, I guess, what made this book so popular.

If you want an opinion from me: I love this book! I first heard about it in the context of Coptic bindings, and, although I wondered about the title, thought that this was all that could be found in there. But it is so full of information, densely written. – Amazing! I heard people saying he was writing in an “academical style”, and they made it sound like this was a bad thing. Well, being academically trained myself, I have the impression that finally someone presents the information in a clear and compact way.

He is not interested in how something could be done, but in how it was done. This leads sometimes to paragraphs that seem lengthy. When, for example, Szirmai has already noted that a specific style was done with in two different ways, and he discusses in great detail whether or not a specific book was bound in one way or another.

Would I buy it again? – Definitely! Even at the steep price that is usually asked for it. If you can afford it, and feel up to his maybe unfamiliar way of writing you should definitely get it. All others should try to take a look at the book through their library and/or interlibrary loan system. This is a book that you definitely should have seen.

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