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