Beautiful Historic Wooden Book Covers in Burns Library

In the course of my job at John J. Burns Library, I often find amazing archival materials by chance while working on conservation projects. The jeweled binding of a Bulgarian manuscript held at Burns Library is one such serendipitous find.

During the fall of 2019, Amy Brown, Head Library, Special Collections Technical Services, worked closely with John McLaughlin and Robert Ribokas, Boston College ITS senior application developers, to build a new conservation database to track conservation treatments. While Burns Library had to close its doors due to COVID-19 from April through May 2020, I worked at home to import old conservation records into the new conservation database, including reports by my predecessor, Book Conservator Mark Esser (1). As I reviewed his reports, I noted that Mark had made a custom box for a book he described as “bound in wooden covers. Covers decorated with carving. Faceted red gems.” My interest was piqued and when I returned to the library, I retrieved the boxed book from the stacks to see this unusual binding for myself.

Book opened to display carved wooden cover
The cover of Burns Library’s copy of Istorii︠a︡ slavi︠a︡nobŭlgarska : Zografska chernova, DR74 .P33 1998 GENERAL

Catalogers note this book is “bound in wooden boards inlaid with red gems, with title incised on its covers” in its catalog record. Upon further investigation, I found the cover was specifically French Walnut wood, has sixteen faceted, deep red-colored garnets, and a chip carved cross, title (Istorii︠a︡ slavi︠a︡nobŭlgarska), and the author’s name. As it turns out, the cover of the book, succinctly descibed by Mark Esser, deserves a more detailed description. These materials relate directly to the text itself- the early history of Bulgaria.

This history, Istorii︠a︡ slavi︠a︡nobŭlgarska (translated as Slavonic-Bulgarian History) was written in 1762 by Bulgarian scholar and clergyman Saint Paisius of Hilendar (1722-1773). The original manuscript has been housed in the Bulgarian Zograf Monastery at Mount Athos, Greece, with a brief return to Bulgarian from 1984-1998, when the Sofia University Publishing House produced a limited facsimile edition of the manuscript. (2)

Our copy, from the facsimile edition, has a unique custom-made cover. It was produced by Denislav Nenov Denev, woodcarver, as a nod to Bulgaria’s woodcarving tradition and its abundant natural resources, including gemstones, such as garnets. (3)

Red garnets on a wooden book cover
Detail of the garnets on the cover of Istorii︠a︡ slavi︠a︡nobŭlgarska, DR74 .P33 1998 GENERAL

Istoriya Slavyanobolgarskaya‘s binding, harks back to early bookbinding structure. Wooden covers were made for manuscript texts on vellum or early printed text on handmade paper, from the “incunable era”, that is, European publications produced within the first 50 years of movable type printing, 1450 – 1500. Burns Library holds a number of books with wooden covers. One such example is Incomoencia ilibro [sic] delle omelie de Sancto Gregorio Papa di diuerse liectioni delsancto Euangelio (translated as 40 Homilies on the Gospels), written by Pope Gregory I (ca. 540-604). It is partly covered in patterned leather. The wooden boards still retain the metal clasps and catches that originally held leather closure straps, now missing. (4)

Front cover of a book, one half covered with black leather, one half has exposed wood
The cover of Incomoencia ilibro [sic] delle omelie de Sancto Gregorio Papa di diuerse liectioni delsancto Euangelio has wooden boards, only partly covered by a patterned leather design.

In addition to books with exposed wooden boards, Burns Library owns numbers of books bound with pigskin covering wooden boards. These bindings would have taken longer to make; the wooden boards had to be shaped, and pigskin was harder to handle than other leathers. However, the extra work yielded a cover that protected the pages for centuries. One of these, Philippi Ecclesiae Eystettensis XXXIX. Episcopi: de eiusdem ecclesiae diuis tutelaribus. S. Richardo, S. Willibaldo, S. Wunibaldo, S. Walpurga, is bound in decorated pigskin over beveled wooden boards, has its original clasps and catches, and is stamped in gold on the center of both boards with the coat of arms of Friedrich Förner (1568-1630). This book was published by Elisabeth Angermaier, the widow of printer Wolfgang Edera woman-run printing houses (one of the few businesses that a woman could legally own in early modern Europe). (5)

Book with white leather covers with a decorated pattern
Philippi Ecclesiae Eystettensis XXXIX. Episcopi…. bound with pigskin-covered wooded boards. Photo courtesy of Gary Gilbert, Director, Photography, Boston College Office of Marketing Communication.

From the brief conservation description, “bound in wooden covers”, I was lead to a splendid jeweled binding and revisited other fascinating bindings in Burns Library’s collections. The phrase, “you can’t judge a book by its cover”, takes on new meaning when you can learn a lot from the study of bindings in and of themselves and lure one into seeking new knowledge that otherwise might not have been sought out. To seek out bindings for yourself, make an appointment to visit our reading room.

Notes and Sources Consulted

  1. Mark Esser served as Book Conservator at the Burns Library from 1994 to 2008. More information about Mark’s tenure at Boston College can be found in the Burns Library on-line exhibit, “Commitment to Craftsmanship: Conservation Bookbindings by Mark Esser”
  2. “Istoriya Slavyanobolgarskaya”. Wikipedia.https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Istoriya_Slavyanobolgarskaya. Accessed September 30, 2020.
  3. Information provided by Iglika Trifonova, PR Manager, Sofia University Publications, in consultation with Mr. Dimitar Tomov, the former director of St. Kliment Ohridski University Press (Sofia University Publishing House). Emails, July 29, 2020 and August 28, 2020. St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, founded in 1986, in Sofia, Bulgaria, donated this book and more than 2,100 other volumes to the Burns Library.
  4. Bibliography of the “Fine Specimens of the Bibliopegistic Art” Exhibit, item 17, John J Burns Library, September 4, 2012-January 16, 2013: exhibit curators: David Richtmyer, Rare Book Cataloger and Barbara Adams Hebard, Conservator.
  5. Bibliography of the “Fine Specimens of the Bibliopegistic Art” Exhibit, item 19, John J Burns Library, September 4, 2012-January 16, 2013: exhibit curators: David Richtmyer, Rare Book Cataloger and Barbara Adams Hebard, Conservator.
–Barbara Adams Hebard, Conservator, John J. Burns Library

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

Located in the original Bapst Library building on Boston College's Chestnut Hill campus, the John J. Burns Library offers students, scholars, and the general public opportunities to engage with rare books, special collections, and archives.
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