Medieval Bookbinding Workshop at Tech Valley High School

It has been a snowy winter in the Adirondacks. In a lull between storms, a sunny, but chilly February day found Jack and Taff driving south, out of the mountains, to Tech Valley High School located on the SUNY Polytechnic Institute Campus in Albany, New York. Our mission: to lead a workshop in the medieval book to the ninth-grade students. Tech Valley High School is a public, regional high school with an innovative program and teaching style, based on project-based learning, collaboration, and interdisciplinary studies, with the goal of preparing its students with the creative, critical thinking and character skills to productively live in the 21st century world of current and emerging technologies.

Jack Fitterer and students of the medieval book
Jack demonstrates sewing the long stitch binding to Tech Valley High School students.

I was approached by Jennifer Muirhead, art teacher at Tech Valley, along with English teacher Sean O’Brien and history teacher Jennifer Ezzo, to inquire if I would be interested in presenting a session on binding as the students, as part of a global humanities program, were studying the Middle Ages. I was certainly intrigued that a school focused on 21st technology would be interested in involving their students in the cutting-edge technology of the medieval book. The students’ project certainly embodied the mission and method of the school, being a collaborative venture of the three enthusiastic and engaged teachers. The students worked together in teams to learn about the culture and history of the Middle Ages, and then to produce an “Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages” to demonstrate their grasp of the subject.

It was an ambitious undertaking. The students were to write well-researched and documented articles about people, places, events, and objects of the time; to describe the changing power structures with the decline of the Roman empire; to write a poem in the appropriate alliterative style; to paint an illuminated letter and decorated border; and to develop a glossary and a bibliography, properly formatted. Together, these contributions were assembled into their “Encyclopedias”.

Sheet of papyrus showing grid pattern
This backlit photo of a sheet of papyrus shows how it was formed by laying two layers of fibers of the plant Cyperu papyrus hadidii at right angles to one another and pounding them together.

My role was to speak briefly about the forces that led to the development of the codex book structure away from the earlier scroll format that had been the standard for millennia. Some of these forces look quite modern. Material shortages due to disruptions of global supply chains by war and other causes, demand outstripping supply, and cultural changes  influenced book production methods, as did the introduction of new materials. Papyrus, a reed growing only in the Nile River delta had been the writing material of choice for all the Mediterranean cultures, but in the extended Roman empire it was not always easy to get in sufficient quantity. Scrolls were difficult to use and were heavy. Any lengthy text would take many, which were housed in cumbersome wooden boxes.

Leather and vellum (aka parchment) were also used, originally primarily for ephemeral writings. Vellum had the advantage of being sturdy, able to be folded, and, most importantly, scraped and reused. Out of these temporary ‘notebooks’ evolved the idea of the codex: text written on gatherings of folded sheets, stacked one atop another, sewn together and put into some sort of protective cover. Essentially, this is still the form of our modern book. Some scholars believe that the spread of Christianity aided the spread of the codex. Jewish law requires that the Torah be written as a scroll, as they still are. Christians, in a move to distinguish themselves, may have chosen to use the codex form in its place for its own holy book.

medieval book bound in wooden boards
A model of a medieval book in shaped wooden, shown before covering in leather, to illustrate the structure. The pages are sewn onto alum-tawed goat thongs that are pegged into the wooden boards.

Paper was another technological development that first appeared in Europe about the eleventh century in areas under Moorish control. Invented in China in the second century of the common era, it was carried westwards by Arab traders along the silk road trade routes through central Asia. In China paper was enthusiastically adopted and its use spread rapidly. It was far superior to then existing writing materials: bones, tortoise shells, and bits of bamboo. In Europe, its adoption was much slower. Vellum is a remarkably strong and durable material, while paper was seen as a flimsy substitute. Soon enough though, the economy of paper production led to its increasing use and the decline of vellum as the writing material of choice. By the time of the development of moveable type in the fifteenth century, paper was already in place to assist in the explosion of the printed book.

Over the course of a thousand years, forces familiar to us in our modern world shaped the changing technology of the written word from scroll to book: introduction of new materials, global trade and trade disruptions, war, culture and cultural identity, and the rise and fall of political systems and boundaries.

Limp Vellum Long Stitch Binding Model
A model of a simplified limp vellum book binding, substituting heavy paper for vellum, to be used by the Tech Valley students in binding their own books. The sewing is reinforced by two leather tabs. The sewing station on the left has added decorative weaving to further protect the thread and add a decorative element.

The second, and primary, part of our presentation was a demonstration of a simplified medieval binding based upon a limp vellum model. In advance, I had sent along to the teachers at Tech Valley a diagram showing how pages would be arranged on the folded sheets, making up signatures (or quires) of eight pages, so they would end up in proper order, along with an instruction sheet for the sewing of the book. In the end, the project, from both their end, and mine as well, was overly ambitious. They were unable to paginate the students’ books in time to use the original format, instead gathering the sheets into a single large signature. The structure I proposed, was also too complex for the truncated time allowed and wouldn’t have worked anyway with the single signature format. So, making some quick adjustments, I demonstrated a simplified method of the simplified binding. Taff and I went from table to table, team to team, to assist them in sewing their books together. In the end, all the students were able to complete their project in this form. (You can find the instructions for the original model here.)

We enjoyed the opportunity to work with the students in this unusual and creative learning setting, sharing our enthusiasm for books and their production. It is our hope that perhaps our presentation, together with the chance to hold in their hands a 600-year-old illuminated manuscript page, a vellum book, a piece of papyrus, may inspire some of them to look at books with a new curiosity and appreciation. Thank you to the teachers of Tech Valley for inviting us to be a part of your experiment.

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