Jacek Tomaszewski

GIRDLE BOOKS AND LEATHER OVERCOVERS IN POLAND. RELICS AND ICONOGRAPHIC SOURCES*

*The present paper is part of the doctoral thesis Oprawa książkowa w Polsce 1450–1600. Studium tegumentologiczno-ikonograficzne [Bookbinding in Poland 1450–1600: Bibliographical- iconographical study] prepared in the Institute of Art, Polish Academy of Sciences, and updated with the author’s new findings.

I. The Book and its binding in iconography 

Historical bookbinding is a research subject that traverses different areas of academic interest: history of art, history of artisanal handicraft and bibliology, the study of historical book collections, the books’ provenance and the question of bibliophilism. However, the scientific apparatus appropriate for bookbinding studies, which focuses mainly on the relics themselves and on archival sources, sometimes turns out to be insufficient for a comprehensive solution to the problems related to historical bookbinding and the protection of historical books in a broad sense. Nowadays iconography has become a useful source of information not only for those who study historical books but also for specialists in neighbouring fields. For bibliology it is essential to state what is the role of iconography is as compared to other sources used by researchers who study the material aspect of historical books or more general phenomena connected with their history and function. Iconography becomes particularly helpful whenever sources that are required to solve a problem are scarce or non-existent. Therefore, the research on the history of book types and functions, including book bindings, has almost always profited from a range of iconographical examples. Such sources are of prime utility when it comes to reconstructing the sequential stages of making a handwritten book, analysing writing methods, and recreating the equipment of a bookbinder’s workshop. At the same time they provide information about how books used to be stored and what equipment might have been found in the libraries that no longer exist. Iconography is also an important source of information in the area of historical book protection, as it explicates how bound books were used, which in turn influenced their state of preservation and explains characteristic damages in the volumes.

The deeper the researchers delved into the past and the fewer originally preserved bindings they found, the more their attention was drawn to the representative arts. These sorts of sources have also greatly influenced the research on the symbolism of books as carriers of intellectual content and ideas.1 Iconography has long been an important source of information in the study of mediaeval girdle books and overcovers. In one of the first syntheses of the history of book bindings, and for the first time in the literature on the subject, Jean Loubier emphasized the abundance of characteristic girdle books representations in mediaeval art.2 This approach to the study of bookbinding, initiated by Loubier and embracing the history of art, was further developed by Otto Glauning3 in the mid-1920s. He was the first to present a list of originally preserved girdle books known at the time and made an inventory of 156 works of art that depict this type of bookbinding. The list of artistic iconographic representations of such books was also expanded by Kazimierz Hałaciński4 and by Rev. Edmund Majkowski,5 who provided nine examples from the Polish territory.

Investigation into the function and typology of mediaeval book bindings exemplified by actually preserved books and by their representations
in art inspired the German scholar Heinrich Schreiber to distinguish two apparently similar kinds of bindings: the girdle book and the overcover,6
the latter being built differently and typically used for larger books. Based on previous contributions7 and on their own research, Lisl and
Hugo Alker published a list of 477 related works of art and additionally grouped them according to the type of plastic art, territorial localisation
and users.8 Later research performed mainly by German scholars increased the number of registered plastic representations to over eight
hundred.9 More examples were added to the list of iconography of this kind by Anna Lewicka-Kamińska and Janusz Tondel.10 Also, Ursula

Bruckner collected data about the few original girdle books11 preserved in library collections and managed to compare the information from the
iconographic sources with the twenty-three original items she had encountered. 12 After having summarised the conclusions of her predecessors who had dealt with girdle books, she pointed to the differences in their structure. Thanks to a thorough analysis, several types of apparently similar books were distinguished. The characteristic features of them were: an additional overcover meant to protect the book block – as in chemise binding, girdle books or a book pouch – and the ability to be worn on the belt, typical of folded books, girdle books or those with a hook or chain. 

The existing studies, which are based not only on iconographic sources, have had to overcome the problem of clearly identifying the binding type. The most difficult task was to discern whether the binding is but a protective overcover or is adopted to facilitate carrying the book in different types of plastic representations of the book. This is not surprising, given that there are terminological problems distinguishing between those two types even in the case of volumes preserved in their original form. This difficulty arose chiefly when it came to interpreting plastic art representations; moreover, diverse temporary variations in the original bindings, successively introduced in the contributions on the subject, greatly complicated the creation of a clear and unambiguous classification. The term camisia or chemise for an additional cover of a book was introduced by Wilhelm Wattenbach13 as early as in the 19th century; yet, he did not specify the type of the material used for the cover.

Likewise, Jean Loubier, when mentioning similar bindings in Dutch art and describing six original relics, introduced the term Hülleneinband,14 without considering the type of the material used. Further debate on the iconographical sources did not help to solve this problem definitively.15 Despite the problems with interpreting and naming the intermediary forms, four categories of bindings with an additional overcover have been discerned: with a protective wrap of soft leather overcover or Hülleneinbände, with a wrap of cloth (chemise), with a primary or supplementary wrap that enables carrying the book in hand or attached to the belt (girdle book), and with an additional protective wrap fixed to the book spine and partly to its covers.16 The first two categories are represented in the plastic arts in fairly large numbers. Nevertheless, of the 222 representations of leather overcovers in plastic art relics between 1425 and 1550 discovered by Jan Storm van Leeuwen 145 were covered with an unknown material.17 These examples are a representative complement to the fourteen documented original cloth bindings of the chemise type and the previously known 75 examples of leather overcovers.18


1 E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, New York 1953, pp. 304–310 (German version, Berno 1954, pp. 306–352). The role of the secular symbolism of books as carriers of intellectual content in the humanist period was discussed by Justyna Guze (‘Książka
jako symbol treści intelektualnych w sztuce doby humanizmu: XV–XVI w.’ [The book as a symbol of intellectual content in the humanist period art], in O ikonografii świeckiej doby humanizmu. Tematy – symbole – problemy, ed. J. Białostocki, Warszawa 1977, pp. 221–238). The changes in the symbolism of books in European art from the Middle Ages to the Baroque as well as the tradition of the writer’s portrait in Renaissance art and the role of books in the portraits of the epoch were more deeply explored by Jan Białostocki (Spätmittelalter und beginnende Neuzeit, Berlin 1984, pp. 88–114). Iconographic sources in the context of 17th-century literature and plastic arts in Poland were also written about by Alina Dzięcioł (Książka jako symbol w kulturze polskiej XVII wieku [The book as a symbol in Polish culture], Warszawa 1997, pp. 20–23).
2 J. Loubier, Der Bucheinband in alter und neuer Zeit, Berlin–Leipzig 1905, fig. 18–21, pp. 77–79. 
3 O. Glauning, ‘Der Buchbeutel in der bildenden Kunst’, Archiv für Buchgewerbe und Gebrauchsgraphik, LXIII, vol. I, 1926, p. 126.
4 Kazimierz Hałaciński (‘Sakwowe oprawy książek w krakowskiej sztuce kościelnej’ [Girdle books in Cracow’s church art], Silva Rerum, III, 1927, pp. 33–35) noticed three representations: the scene of Christ Teaching in the Temple in Veit Stoss’s altar in the St. Mary’s Basilica in Cracow, a miniature from Erazm Ciołek’s Roman pontifical with the scene of Crucifixion and the statue of St. John the Evangelist from the Crucifixion group in St. Mark’s Church in Cracow.

5 Edmund Majkowski (Oprawy sakwowe. Przyczynek do historii introligatorstwa u schyłku wieków średnich [Girdle books. Study on the history of bookbinding in the late Middle Ages], Poznań 1932) mentions a sculpture of an unknown apostle holding a red girdle book from
a church in Grodzisk Wielkopolski, which has not been identified, as well as five other examples (E. Majkowski, ‘Neues zum Buchbeutel in der bildenden Kunst. Beiträge aus Polen, den Niederlanden, Deutschland und der Schweiz’, Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, 1939, pp. 331– 339):
the triptych from Blizanów (St. John the Evangelist), two polychrome sculptures from Koza Wielka (St. James the Greater and St. Philip (?)), a sculpture from Mikorzyn (St. Giles) and a sculpture of St. John the Evangelist from the Crucifixion in the church in Pobiedziska (now
missing). 

6 H. Schreiber, ‘Buchbeutel und Hüllenband, Funde und Betrachtungen’, Archiv für Buchgewerbe und Gebrauchsgraphik, 76, 1939, p. 492–496. The author lists other examples of works of art depicting girdle books (H. Schreiber, ‘Vom Buchbeutel und seinem Verwandten’, Sankt
Wiborada. Ein Jahrbuch für Bücherfreunde
, 7, 1940, p. 13–28).
7 Thanks to further investigations Glauning’s list was supplemented with other examples from Germany, Switzerland and Austria: F. Blaser, ‘Der Buchbeutel in der bildenden Kunst. Fünf Luzerner Beispiele’, Schweizerischer Graphischer Zentralanzeiger, 1941, p. 18–24;
H. Alker, ‘Beutelbücher in Österreich’, Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, Bd. 30, 1955, pp. 238–241; H. Alker, ‘Beutelbücher aus Oberösterreich’, Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, Bd. 31, 1956, pp. 282–287; F. Dressler, ‘Beutelbücher in der Bamberger Kunst’, Bericht des Historischen Vereins für die Pflege der
Geschichte des ehemaligen Fürstbistums Bamberg
, 95, 1956, pp. 243–259; H. Alker, ‘Unbekannte Darstellungen von Beutelbüchern aus Wiener Sammlungen’, Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, Bd. 32, 1957, pp. 294–302; H. Alker, Das Beutelbuch in der bildenden Kunst, Stuttgart 1961.
8 L. and H. Alker, Das Beutelbuch in der Bildenden Kunst. Ein beschreibendes Verzeichnis, Mainz 1966, pp. 80–85. The book contains an index of places that indicates the range of territorial influences on this type of bookbinding which was limited mainly to the German-speaking
countries. The index of types of plastic art indicates the prevalence of sculptures (35%) over woodcut (19%) and panel painting (17%). Even less representations can be found in book painting (11%), stone sculpture (9%) and engravings. A comparison of persons depicted with
a girdle book indicates that among Christian saints it appears mainly with the apostles (48%), most often with: St. John the Evangelist, St. James the Greater, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Andrew and St. Philip. Numerous representations include Mary, or, to a lesser extent, St. Jerome,
St. Anthony and St. Catherine. Girdle prayer books are also held by clergymen: monks, nuns, bishops, cardinals, popes and parish priests. Seldom do laypeople of either sex or scholars appear in this context.
9 H. D. Petersen, ‘Unbekannte Beutelbuchdarstellungen”, Philobiblon, vol. 11, 1967, pp. 279–280 (no. 498–501). The list was developed in successive papers – L. and H. Alker, ‘Das Beutelbuch in der Bildenden Kunst. Ein beschreibendes Verzeichnis: Ergänzungen’, Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, Bd. 53, 1978, p. 302–308 (no. 448–497); R. Neumüllers-Klauser, ‘Auf den Spuren der Beutelbücher’, Gutenberg- Jahrbuch, Bd. 55, 1980, pp. 291–301 (no. 502–530); U. D. Oppitz, ‘Beutelbuchdarstellungen in Südtirol’, Der Schlern, Bd. 66, 1992, pp. 566–569 (no. 538, 544, 545, 565, 575); U. D. Oppitz, ‘Weitere Spuren von Beutelbüchern’, Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, Bd. 68, 1993, pp. 311–318 (no. 537–577); U. D. Oppitz, ‘Weitere Darstellungen von Beutelbüchern und Hülleneinbanden’, Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, Bd. 70, 1995, pp. 228–239 (no. 578–709); R. Neumüllers-Klauser, ‘St. Theodul mit dem Beutel’, in Lusus Campanuarum Beiträge zur Glockenkunde. Festchrift Sigrid Thurm, ed. T. Breuer, München 1986, pp. 76–81 (no. 710–718); R. Neumüllers-Klauser, U. D. Oppitz, ‘Beutelbuch-Darstellungen in der Kunst der Spätgotik’, in Anzeiger des Germanischen Nationalmuseums, 1995, pp. 77–92 (no. 719–783); U. Merkl, ‘Neuentdeckte Darstellungen von Beutelbüchern’, Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, Bd. 72, 1997,pp. 303–306 (no. 784–813).

10 A. Lewicka-Kamińska, ‘Z dziejów średniowiecznej oprawy książkowej na Śląsku’ [On the history of mediaeval bookbinding in Silesia], Roczniki Biblioteczne, vol. 21, 1977, pp. 43–44. The author did not find original girdle books in Silesian collections but she noticed their
presence in paintings and sculptures in the art of the region, and thus she enriched the list with the example from the Dormition of the Mother of God from the altar in Świdnica (previously only St. Barbara’s altar had been known). J. Tondel (Książka w dawnym Królewcu Pruskim [Book in the former Prussian Konigsberg], Toruń 2001, pp. 241–243) quoted four examples from Royal Prussia: a woodcut representation of St. Dorothy from Mątowy by Jan of Kwidzyn and the sculpture of St. James the Greater from the collection of the Muzeum Okręgowe in Toruń, St. John the Evangelist from the church in Nowe Miasto Lubawskie and an unidentified saint in the Museum in Kwidzyn.
11 U. Bruckner, ‘Beutelbuch – Originale’, Studien zum Buch- und Bibliothekswesen, Bd. 9, 1995, pp. 5–23.
12 U. Bruckner, ‘Das Beutelbuch und seine Verwandten- der Hülleneinband, das Faltbuch und der Buchbeutel’, Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, Bd. 72, 1997, pp. 307–324 (no. 814–822).

13 W. Wattenbach, Das Schriftwesen im Mittelalter, Leipzig 1871, pp. 230–231.
14 J. Loubier, Der Bucheinband..., op. cit., p. 45; J. Loubier, ‘Hülleneinbände des ausgehenden Mittelalters’, in Bibliografiska studier tillägnade Friherre Johannes Rudbeck på hans femtioårsdag den 7 mars 1917, ed. G. Rudbeck, Uppsala 1917, pp. 39–51.
15 J. Loubier, ‘Ein Original – Hülleneinband in Göteborg’, in Werden und Wirken- Ein Festgruss Karl W. Hiersemann zugesandt am 3. September 1924 zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. M. Breslauer, Leipzig 1924, pp. 178–183; H. Schreiber, ‘Buchbeutel und Hülleneinband...’, op. cit.,
pp. 492–496; H. Schreiber, ‘Vom Buchbeutel...’, op. cit., pp. 13–28; V. Starcke, ‘Posebind og Poseboger’, Bogvennen, New Series, vol. 4, 1949, pp. 60–89; A. Rhein, ‘Falsche Begriffe in der Einbandgeschichte’, Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, Bd. 35, 1960, pp. 366–370.
16 J. A. Szirmai, The Archeology of Medieval Bookbinding, Aldershot 1999, p. 234.
17 J. Storm van Leeuwen, ‘The Well-Shirted Bookbinding. On Chemise Bindings and Hülleneinbände’, in Theatrum Orbis Librorum. Liber Amicorum presented to Nico Israel on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, A. R. A. Croiset Van Uchelen, T.K. Croiset Van Uchelen,
K. Van Der Horst, N. Israel (eds.), Utrecht 1989, pp. 277–305.
18 J. A. Szirmai, op. cit., p. 235. Apart from seven chemise bindings and 49 leather overcovers documented by J. Storm van Leeuwen there are six discovered by F. A. Bearman (‘The Origins and Significance of Two Late Medieval Textile Chemise Bookbindings in the Walters
Art Gallery’, The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, vol. 54, 1996, pp. 163–187) and one by C. F. R. de Hamel (Glossed Books of the Bible and the Origins of the Paris Booktrade, Woodbridge 1984, p. 45). This list does not include the seven leather overcovers mentioned by Lewicka-Kamińska (‘Dzieje oprawy książkowej w Polsce. Stan badań, problematyka i postulaty’ [History of bookbinding in Poland. State of the art, problems and postulates], in Dawna książka i kultura. Materiały międzynarodowej sesji naukowej z okazji pięćsetlecia sztuki drukarskiej w Polsce, S. Grzeszczuk, A. Kawecka-Gryczowa (eds.), Wrocław 1975, p. 161 – one binding), and (Z dziejów średniowiecznej oprawy..., op. cit., p. 44).