Jacek Tomaszewski Girdle Books and Leather Overcovers in Poland. Relics and Iconographic Sources*

II. Protective bindings of portable books

It is hard to determine precisely the moment when the use of additional, permanently fixed protective wraps on books became common. What
is sure is that different protective forms of manuscripts in travel had been used since the book first appeared, and not only in Christian culture. The usual protection for books in transport, however, was an additional wrap made of cloth or leather, or a bag, a sack, or a casing. The earliest examples of leather overcovers, which can be dated owing to the manuscripts they envelop, come from the 13th century. Similar overcovers occur throughout Europe, wherever the Roman church exerted its authority, from Portugal and Spain to the eastern border of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The popularity of this type of bookbinding was arguably due to the emergence of mendicant orders in the late 13th century, especially the Dominicans, but later also Franciscans, Carmelites and Augustinians. These orders promoted religious renewal and wanted to revive the itinerant apostolate rejected by the preceding monastic tradition. To that end they had to come up with a system and regulations that were later included in the monastic rule, so as to efficiently perform the difficult apostolic mission in travel.

This task concerned especially the order based on the Rule of St. Dominic whose founder paid particular attention to books – above all the Bible and commentaries on it – as the main tools for apostolic work. The new conditions of evangelization meant that the books which until that time had only been made for intramural monastic routine had to quit the closed rooms of the librariae and were thus vulnerable to damage by people and by changing weather. One of the legends is symptomatic of this and tells what happened to St. Dominic, wandering near the southern frontier of France: And as Saint Dominic on a time came to a river toward the parts of Toulouse, his books, which had no custody, fell in the water, and he could not find them, but must leave them behind him. And the third day after a fisher cast his hook into the water, and supposed to have taken up some great fish, and drew up the books of Saint Dominic without any wetting, like as they had been kept diligently in an almary.19

Such a prosaic event to which the legend attributes a miraculous ending draws a vivid picture of new real problems the monks had to face while travelling on foot or on horseback from village to village. Each of them had to be equipped in a way that he could realize his apostolic mission, as the Rule of St. Dominic required: A friar, when sent to another province as lector, took with him all his annotated (glosaios) books, a Bible, and his notebooks.20

Therefore the awareness of the dangers of such wanderings was reflected in the regulations that appeared in the later versions of the Rule
referring to the collection, utilization and storage of the manuscripts. As Humbert of Romans has it, the books were sacred to the Dominican
monks, though they were not called so in order not to be excessively venerated, but rather to remain the monks’ essential tool of apostolic work.21

The first experiences with a novel monastic way of life, different from that of other orders, also influenced the preparation of young friars in the
correct use of books. With the passing of time these issues were becoming more and more strictly regulated, being included in the Rule of the
order and taught to the young adepts by the master of novices. The duty of looking after the books was shared by the librarian who was in charge of the actual library (armarium) and the cantor, who was responsible for the liturgical books stored in the cabinet of the sacristy or the monastery chancel. The latter was also supposed to supervise the condition of the books, and to repair the book bindings and their wraps, cases or boxes.22 We know from this provision, arguably one of the oldest, that at least some of the liturgical books were given additionally protection. It is, however, not certain whether they used separate sacks to keep books in, or if  the wrap was permanently fixed to the books and thus formed the actual overcover. The monastic regulations, which resulted from practical experience, required additional protection of the books’ edges with a loose strap of leather at the top of the front cover and on the outer edge of the back cover, as was done in the Nuremberg workshops of the Dominicans (1433–1522) and Augustinians (1464–1526).23

The missions run by the Dominicans on a large scale in East-Central and Northern Europe from the 13th century naturally resulted in the migrations of manuscripts. Through mendicant orders, practical theology writings, born in the west, systematically made their way there.24 From the 1230s, Dominicans co-operated with Franciscans to begin missionary activity in the territories of Rus’, Lithuania, Yotvingia and Moldova and continued this in Lithuania throughout the 14th century.25 The monasteries in such cities as Sandomierz, Płock or Gdańsk served as a base for this activity in Prussia26, and arriving there were liturgical manuscripts, homiletic literature and the works of the great masters of the scholastic tradition – for Dominicans these were above all Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas.27 These books, necessary for the evangelization mission, travelled the wilderness alongside the monks.


19 J. de Voragine, The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, vol. 4, transl. W. Caxton, London 1922, p. 181.

20 These are the words of the first Rule (pt. II 36.9) according to Humphreys: The Book Provisions of the Medieval Friars, 1215–1400, Amsterdam 1964.
21 Humbertus de Romanis, De vita regulari, vol. 2, ed. J. Berthier, Romae 1889, pp. 263–265, the chapter “De officio librarii” regulates questions related to the protection of Dominican book collections.
22 Ibid., p. 238–239.
23 J. A. Szirmai, op. cit., p. 236.

24 J. Kłoczowski, ‘Dominikanie w środkowo-wschodniej Europie i ich kultura intelektualna oraz pastoralna w wiekach średnich’ [Dominicans in Central Europe in the 13th–14th century and their intellectual and pastoral culture in the Middle Ages], in Dominikanie w środkowej Europie w XIII–XV wieku. Studia nad historią dominikanów w Polsce, vol. 3, J. Kłoczkowski, J. A. Spież (eds.), Poznań 2002, p. 168.
25 J. A. Spież, ‘Dominikanie w Polsce’ [Dominicans in Poland], in Dominikanie. Szkice z dziejów zakonu, ed. M. A. Babraj, Poznań 1986, p. 155.
26 J. Kłoczowski, ‘Zakon braci kaznodziejów’ [The Preaching Order], in: Studia nad historią dominikanów w Polsce (1222–1972), ed. J. Kłoczowski, Warszawa 1975, p. 36.
27 J. Kłoczowski, ‘Dominikanie w środkowo-wschodniej Europie ...’, op. cit., p. 169.