Twenty-First Century Book
When the scanning was completed, I resewed the quires, using the sewing holes from the stationers binding, onto heavy leather supports, knowing this would be a first step in rebinding. The curator was using the text in the classroom in this fashion, bound without covers. He remarked on how wonderfully it opened and implied he wouldn’t mind if it stayed like that, but I thought it would be a good idea to place it in some sort of cover. Around this time the conference From Medieval Britain to Dartmouth: Situating the English Brut Tradition took place (21 May 2011) and I was invited to present a short outline of the conservation work I had done thus far. At the end of my talk, there was a thought-provoking discussion on what should happen with the binding. Some scholars thought to bind it as it would have been originally, in wooden boards, others leaned toward the facsimile stationers binding, but as we talked a consensus slowly developed that something altogether different would be best. The Brut had been bound in the fifteenth or sixteenth century for a merchant in such a fashion that made sense to him. Now in the twenty-first century, the book’s use is quite different. It was agreed that some sort of amalgamation would be appropriate for the binding, something that would suit our needs today.
Left with the task of creating a new binding option, I knew I wanted to maintain the sewing and leather supports that I had already completed, since they were functioning well. I had just taken a workshop taught by Maria Fredricks, head conservator at the Morgan Library, on historical paper bindings, where I rediscovered the beautiful handmade paper of Tim Barrett at The Center for the Book: Paper Research and Production Facility (University of Iowa). I thought that this material would make a perfect pasteboard for the cover boards, protective but not heavy or stiff—a middle ground between wood boards and flexible leather.
Using multiple layers of the handmade paper, I created the boards with small openings along the spine edge where the leather supports would slip in: the curator would be able show the sewing structure to classes by pulling the cover away from the supports. In order to keep the boards in place and provide a covering, I created a chemise of alum-tawed goatskin, a material in favor in the fifteenth century (Bearman 163). This covering offers a protective casing to the boards—essentially, a medieval dust jacket. The chemise provides a cohesive finish to the book and provides support for the spine (which I chose not to line). The resulting binding has a flavor of what it may have looked like in its original binding (before the surviving stationers binding), is flexible and stable for reading purposes, and can easily be used for teaching and illustrating the physical structure of the book. In the end this amalgamation has met all goals of the Brut’s current use while maintaining the effervescence of its past life.
Deborah’s solution aligns perfectly with other modern covers. After surveying various digital archives,3 I found the Ellesmere Chaucer the most striking for comparison, as this book is most often prized for its detailed internal decorations. Plain alum-tawed covers are also common medieval covers, illustrated here with a fifteenth-century example. Finally, the limp vellum structure is widely regarded as not only one of the most durable medieval forms but one of the most desirable for modern conservation (Clarkson).4 The Brut’s new binding is thus perfectly “timed” for a book that embodies a long history: the composite form references a venerable medieval structure (limp vellum), resonates with early modern utilitarian priorities, and reflects modern aesthetic values.
3. British Library Database of Bookbindings; Digital Scriptorium; The Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection; Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts; and “Manuscripts and Rare Books” at the Walters Art Museum.
4. See also the review of Clarkson’s Limp Vellum Binding by Andrew Honey.