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Libraries & Culture 36.3 (2001) 475-477

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Book Review

The Archeology of Medieval Bookbinding

The Archeology of Medieval Bookbinding. By J. A. Szirmai. Aldershot, England, and Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing, 1999. xvi, 352 pp. $149.50. ISBN 0-85967-904-7.

This publication is a textbook on the structure of early codex bookbindings. John Szirmai has gathered, organized, and commented on the literature and field studies, and he has compiled, tabulated, and interpreted his own detailed census of confirmed period bindings. He has provided all this information in the context of a very readable and excellently illustrated narrative that leaves the student with a compelling interest in the meaning of early bookbindings and a poignant appreciation of the uncertainties of their survival.

The work investigates Western bookbinding structure spanning more than a thousand years, from late antiquity to the turn of the seventeenth century. This period encompasses the emergence and early dominance of the codex format book. The period is also one that confronts and resolves the technological challenges of binding all three of the basic codex sheet materials of papyrus, vellum, and paper.

The book is organized into two major divisions: "The Mediterranean Heritage" and "The Medieval Codex in the Western World." The first division provides chapters on the first single-quire Coptic codices, the first multi-quire Coptic codices, late Coptic codices, the Ethiopian codex, the Islamic codex, and the Byzantine codices. The second division provides chapters on Carolingian bindings, Romanesque bindings, Gothic bindings, and limp bindings.

One consequence of the organization of the book is to give emphasis to the earlier cultural and technical legacies of structures featuring unsupported sewing using thread alone. The contrast of these Mediterranean technologies with later European technologies of supported sewing augmented with thongs and cords is well balanced by Szirmai, who also provides notable commentary on the mysterious transitions and interactions between these two fundamental traditions.

Just such interactions between different traditions are at the core of John Szirmai's book. This is due in part to his presentation of the entire cultural expanse of early book construction, but it is also due to his concern with bookbinding as a continuous process. Szirmai estimates that no more than 1 to 5 percent of the early books surviving are in their initial bindings. Even books discovered archaeologically and preserved intact for more than a millennium have quickly fallen victim to cursory disassembly. So this work is also intended to sensitize institutions and a wider readership to the hidden content of historical evidence in bookbindings. Szirmai confronts this task not through argument or lecture so much as through numerous reminders of the delicacy and vulnerability of any discipline based on near forensic examination.

Every reader will experience Szirmai's determination to illustrate indifference to the physical delivery mode of books. In one example of a rebound ninth- century manuscript Szirmai cites the crucial significance of the lost evidence that could have described a transition from link-stitch to herringbone sewing on supports. "[It] escaped rebinding in the major refurbishing operation in 1457, but was later ruthlessly butchered and rebound in 1972; no original constituent was kept and no [End Page 475] record written" (97). Szirmai, realizing how much information is at risk, is either enchanted or made distraught by the condition of an early book.

To return to the theme of this work as a standard text, we need to look at its use of terms both verbal and visual. A disappointing aspect of the work was Szirmai's decision not to provide a glossary. While he cites a deference to a lack of consensus, a glossary of terms would have been helpful if only to ease the reading of his own narratives. Intermittently, Szimai does provide definitions, as with the ambiguous pair "spine" and "back." But here his negotiation of bodily anatomy imposed on geometric anatomy does not suggest a systematic approach to terms in general. The needed approach can be almost wordless in terms of the layered sets of structural features. Sewing should encompass macro types such as unsupported and supported sewing, which would then...


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