TECHNOLOGY OF THE MEDIEVAL BOOK
    by Fred Shihadeh 
    From: Conservation Administration News,

    In a time when conservation and permanence is uppermost, looking to and learning from the past can be profitable. We know that materials of the past lasted. Paper, leather, thread survived; wood boards did not warp., Don't we wonder how and why?

    A timely opportunity to learn early bookstructure and materials was presented in Jack Thompson and Jim Croft's "hands-on" workshop near Santa, Idaho, in June 1987, titled "The Technology of the Medieval Book." Making a twelfth century book was the project.

    Participants from diverse parts of the book and conservation field were able to depart with a genuine hand-crafted twelfth century book, complete with brass clasps. No modern materials or methods were used in its construction. We started with local grown flax, the basic ingredient. Ancient methods in flax preparation were used: rippling, retting, hackling, spinning. The fibers were wound into lustrous thread by hand spinning, using the drop spindle method. The same flax was used to make linen paper after beating by dipping the mold (participants' watermarks attached), couching, pressing and drying it flat. It is true that paper was not manufactured in twelfth century Europe - this was a concession. Parchment, of course, would have been the usual period material.

    After all had participated in making paper, our sheets were folded three times for an octavo size book. Finished sections with deckle edge were 41/2" X 6". The sewing was supported by alum-tawed pigskin flexible bands, sewn without a sewing frame. A boar bristle was used as a needle.

    We chose wood board construction, rather than limp vellum. Alum-tawed skins were used by some for quarter-tawed over wooden boards. Our skins were prepared quite simply, using the medieval technology with naturally available materials [such] as lime, wheat flour, eggs, alum, salt, soaking, sunshine, time, stretching frame, etc. Scraping blades were needed to finally convert the stretched skin for book use. Here was a lesson in the simpler process of tawing (a separate industry), rather than tanning. Properly done, a tawed skin is a more durable product.

    Preparing wood boards for covers took most of the participant's attention and time. The natural seasoned quartered and split oak was further reduced to workable thickness and width with froe and mallet. Further planing, spokeshaving, scraping, and sanding brought our boards to the correct thickness (about 5/16"). This produced a board with grain that would not warp (known currently as quarter sawn). The boards were cut to size - flush with no squares. Chamfering the edges and chiseling the tunnels for lacing-in completed the preparation.

    All that remained to be done was to lace-in the thongs, sew the primary and decorative headbands, and attach the brass clasp and pin. Only [paste] made with wheat starch was used to adhere the skin. Those who are bookbinders might see little new in this binding process. However, one can perceive the mind of the person who used craftsmanship on many levels.

    With this understanding of methods and materials, one can with assurance duplicate or restore a book to a beautiful functional item that will last many generations. Such was the value and experience of this workshop in a twelfth century setting of leisure and accomodations.

Thompson Conservation Laboratory
7549 N. Fenwick
Portland, OR 97217
503/735-3942 (voice/fax)
E-Mail:tcl@teleport.com