Clasps and Red Pigment: Bookbuilder Intern Studies a 16th Century Book

Books studied by Bookbuilders of Boston Spring 2013 Interns at the Burns Library. Compendium Manualis D. Navarri, with the blue text block, is on the left. Photograph by Gary Gilbert.

Books studied by Bookbuilders of Boston Spring 2013 Interns at the Burns Library. Compendium Manualis D. Navarri, with the blue text block, is on the left, BX2264.A52 1593 Jesuitica. Photograph by Gary Gilbert.

In my position as a Bookbuilders of Boston Intern, during the spring semester of 2013, I feel very lucky to have worked directly with the Burns Library staff learning more about the history of the book. One of my projects this semester involved meeting with Barbara Adams Hebard, the Conservator at the Burns Library.  Barbara assigned me a book to study for the semester.  I worked on a book titled  Compendium Manualis D. Navarri, a 16th century book on confession that is now part of the Burns Library’s Jesuitica Collection.  This project gave me a chance to research early books’ construction, clasps, dyes, and even to test a sample of the pigment on the cover of the book in the Boston College Cleanroom.

The first thing I learned was how to identify the parts of a book. Using the diagram that Burns Conservator Barbara Adams Hebard gave me, I found that my book possesses most of the common characteristics of a 16th century hand-bound book. Although it is not considered an incunable, being published after 1550, it is bound in the style characteristic of an incunable. It is a small book measuring 12 centimeters high, not an unusual size at the time, but one that is determined by the printer. The cover material is leather, most likely a young pigskin. The leather is attached over wooden boards and lined with a plain white pastedown. The first flyleaf is the title page which includes illustration. This first page has a loss at the top of the page; perhaps a new owner removed a previous owner’s name or address. Barbara speculated that perhaps it was stolen at some point many years ago.

In this image of Compendium Manualis D. Navarri, you can see that the leather over the spine conceals three raised bands. Photograph by Gary Gilbert.

In this image of Compendium Manualis D. Navarri you can see that the leather over the spine conceals three raised bands. Photograph by Gary Gilbert.

The edges of the text block are painted a solid blue. The end of the text block has a few blank pages with the same double line border as the text, perhaps a place for a student to take notes. The blind stamp designs that decorate the upper and lower boards of the book include faces – perhaps of Saints – and other arabesque designs. The stamped designs are referred to as blind because they are impressions in the leather that are not gilded. The leather over the spine conceals three raised bands. The spine of a book at this time would not have had a title. The leather cover appears to have brown pigment residue but Barbara explained that over time a book cover’s color can change due to light, heat or constant handling.

Dr. Gregory McMahon, a physicist in the Cleanroom, helped us analyze our microscopic pigment samples, utilizing a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). The results showed us what elements were present in the sample which would then tell us what type of pigment was used. After testing a sample of the pigment the original color was confirmed as a red pigment of mixed elements but primarily composed of mercuric sulfide also known as vermillion. The other compounds found in my mixed vermillion sample were most likely from the tanning process which could have changed the color over time.

This book’s clasps seem to come from the area now known as Germany.  Photograph by Gary Gilbert.

This book’s clasps seem to come from the area now known as Germany. Photograph by Gary Gilbert.

One of the special features of this rare book is the decorated brass fasteners or clasps that are attached to the fore edge of the boards. There are two clasps and they are still intact and fully functional. This book’s clasps seem to come from the area now known as Germany. In the essay, “Clasps, Schliessen, Clausuren. A guide to the Manufacture and the literature of clasps” by J. Franklin Mowery, images of typical 16th century German clasps match up with my book’s clasps almost perfectly. A book clasp like the one found on my book has three separate parts. The catch is attached on the upper board while the strap plate on a leather strip forms the movable section of the clasp. This main piece of the clasp is called the hasp which can be very decorative. The scalloped edges of this book’s hasp greatly resemble those of a typical 16th century German hasp design.

This book exemplifies the quality and style of bookbinding around the 16th century. Books used to be very expensive at that time because of the valuable materials they used and the time-consuming techniques they entailed. Commercial publishers must now generate reasonably-priced books at a much faster pace, so they are compelled to use inexpensive materials and modern technology in the production. Current books unfortunately do not last as long for that reason, meanwhile my book was crafted from the best materials by trained binders and is still around many hundreds of years later.

Jen O'Brien

  • Jennifer O’Brien, Bookbuilders of Boston Burns Library Spring 2013 Intern & A & S, Class of 2013

 

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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