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

A small number of archival sources provide us with some sparse, chance information about the functioning of a portable book in the Middle
Ages. Nonetheless, it cannot be determined based on these sources what sort of bindings they had. Even though this portable character may
be attributed to a manuscript as its main function, this does not imply that it must have had a special bookbinding. On the other hand, we can
conjecture that the protection of a book with additional material covering its outer edges, which was relatively common in the late Middle Ages,
was strictly related to its being used in travel. Hence the rather succinct descriptions of the type of bookbinding found in old inventories or library catalogues, which only state the type of material used (board type, type and colour of the leather), usually do not tell us anything about the details of their structure. We may infer that a book referred to as portable might be abridged and smaller in format, so as to be more convenient for travel. In the inventory of Maciej of Szydłowo from 1498 a Dictionarius spissus in modum viatici… is listed.28 Yet, in this case we cannot be sure what type of binding this thick dictionary had. In the Middle Ages the phrase libri viatici was used for different liturgical books useful for holding religious services while traveling,29 and, along with other expressions, as a synonym for a portable breviary (liber viaticus), obligatorily used by a travelling monk or priest for the liturgy of the hours, as required by their rule.30

The idea of itinerant evangelization was still strong amidst the society of the late Middle Ages. In art it was reflected, among other places, in St. James the Greater in the left wing of the Triptych of St. John the Baptist in the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Złotoryja (fig. 1).31 The apostle is shown in traveller’s clothes and he points with his hand to the book of the Gospel partially visible in his bag. As can be imagined, such leather bags were used by the first Dominicans to carry the books indispensable for their evangelization work.

FIG. 1. St. James the Greater, sculpture from the left wing of the St. John the Baptist altar, 1497, St. Mary’s Church in Złotoryja. Photo: NID [National Centre for Heritage Research and Documentation, now: National Heritage Board of Poland] Archive in Warsaw.

During the 14th century diverse forms of portable book bindings reached expanding groups of users. Leather overcovers protected the books of
monks performing their evangelization mission, as well as clergymen serving within their dioceses. They secured the books of dignitaries sent
on long trips as envoys. They may also have protected liturgical books during war expeditions and hunting, and made safe the administration
books of local, royal, and ecclesiastic offices. From King Władysław Jagiełło’s accounts we learn that a portable missal was made for his hunting trips.32

As early as in the 13th century, a network of monasteries of the main mendicant orders was well established and encompassed above all the
most important centres of social life. In the cities, in novel conditions, the formula of their work changed. In the monasteries of the Order of
Preachers the book collections were enlarged and meticulously composed, as these were the main tool of the evangelizing activity. The custom
of carrying a book fastened to a belt by an extension of the binding leather became popular outside of the mendicant orders. Prayer books or
breviaries in this form were owned by members of various orders, church dignitaries, and ordinary clergymen, as well as by laypeople, often belonging to Marian confraternities created under the patronage of the orders. Iconographic representations of the latter are among the rarest. One of the engravings by Israhel van Meckenem shows genre scenes with representatives of different estates contemporary to the author, where we also see a couple of devout burghers on their way to church. The woman carries a rosary in her hands; the man holds a modest girdle prayer book whose leather covers the fastenings of the book, which is not protected by bosses or corner pieces.33


28 P. David, ‘Biblioteka wikariuszów w katedrze krakowskiej’ [Library of the vicars in the Cracow Cathedral], Przegląd Biblioteczny, t. 5, 1931, p. 147.

29 Du Cange, Ch. Du Fresne, Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis conditum a Carolo Du Fresne, domino Du Cange auctum a monaris Ordinis p. Benedicti cum supplementis integris D. P. Carpenterii, Adelungii, aliorum, suisque digessit G.A.L. Henschel, sequun, Paris 1894,
vol. 8, p. 307 – “Rituales in quibus de Viatico administrando sermo est; vel Breviaria viatorum utilitati accommodatum”.
30 W. Danielski, ‘Brewiarz’ [Breviary], in Encyklopedia Katolicka [The Catholic encyclopaedia], F. Gryglewicz, R. Łukaszyk, T. Sułowski (eds.), vol. II, Lublin 1976, col. 1065. This question has also been discussed by the J. Tomaszewski (‘Libri viatici – protection and usage of portable
books in mediaeval Poland’, in Care and conservation of manuscripts 13: Proceedings of the Twelfth International Seminar held at the University of Copenhagen 13th–18th April 2011, G. Fellows-Jensen, P. Springborg (eds.), Copenhagen 2012, p. 474).
31 B. Guldan-Klamecka, A. Ziomecka, Sztuka na Śląsku XII–XVI w. Katalog zbiorów [Art in Silesia in the 12th–16th c. Catalogue of the collection], Wrocław 2003, pp. 379–380.

32 “Rationes curiae Vladislai Jagiellonis et Hedvigis Regum Poloniae 1385–1420”, in Monumenta Medii Aevi Historica Res Gestas Poloniae Illustrantia, vol. XV, p. 206: Secundum distributa supradictarum pecuniarum per dnum Hyncziam vicethesauranum ad annum secundum sue
intromissionis 1394: “…item pro I missali viatico dno Regi misso post eum ad venacionem V marc.”
).
33 Illustration in: A. von Bartsch, German Book Illustration Before 1500. (Part VII: Anonymous Artists 1487–1488), W. L. Strauss, C. Schuler (eds.), New York 1984, vol. 9, p. 167 (no. 176).