Coptic Book Binding

This past April, I took the Bookbinding Core Certificate Program at the San Francisco Center for the Book, in where I learned how to bind books in four distinct styles:

coptic binding
limp vellum binding (or limp parchment)
flat back hard case binding
classic rounded back cloth or leather binding (with the boards laced in)

I asked Gleeson Library’s Head of Special Collections, John Hawk, if there are any fun examples of these types of bindings in the Rare Book Room. He pulled a wonderful variety of examples. This is Part 1 of the treasures discovered, and will include items representing coptic binding. Coptic binding is one of the oldest ways of creating a codex, and one of the most simple, as it leaves the spine exposed. See my blog post for more information.

Wild Parrots and the King of La Brea. Designed and produced by Gerald Lange, and illustrated by Jiggs. Rare Book Room PS3550.A1 W43 1998

This item is a great example of a rare book not being old–it is decidedly contemporary yet uses one of the oldest methods of book binding. Its covers are wooden, which also echoes the origins of the form, and contains a long poem and illustrations.

Exposed spine of Wild Parrots and the King of La Brea with apparent coptic stitching

Exposed spine of Wild Parrots and the King of La Brea with apparent coptic stitching

Detail of sewing stations--one hole is bored straight through the board further from the spine, while the hole closest to the spine bores through to the hole on the spine

Detail of sewing stations–one hole is bored straight through the board further from the spine, while the hole closest to the spine bores through to the hole on the spine, creating a diagonal tunnel for the thread to pass through

The end sheet and inside back board show the ends of the binding thread fanning out

The end sheet and inside back board show the ends of the binding thread fanning out

In coptic binding, gaps between signatures (the gatherings of pages) can be apparent because the spine is not backed or covered

In coptic binding, gaps between signatures (the gatherings of pages) can be apparent because the spine is not backed or covered.

Detail of content--poem and illustration. Also apparent is thread coming through the inside of a signature in the top left of the image.

Detail of content–poem and illustration. Also apparent is thread coming through the inside of a signature in the top left of the image.

This next one does not have a title or author, and in fact, it does not have a record in our catalog, Ignacio. It is a coptic bound Ethiopian manuscript probably from the 19th century, which makes it fairly “young” for a hand-copied codex, yet it demonstrates all the hallmarks of medieval European manuscripts: it is hand-written on vellum (animal skin, probably calf, sheep or goat), it is illuminated, and each page has prickings that were used for ruling (or lining).

Ethiopian Coptic Bound Manuscript 1

This object was bound with wooden boards, a characteristic repurposed for the contemporary coptic binding we saw above.

This object was bound with wooden boards, a characteristic repurposed for the contemporary coptic binding we saw above. Its braids are apparent, and the way in which each sheet of vellum is folded to create the signatures or gatherings is beautifully displayed as well.

Because the style of braiding the threads when binding allows much movement, coptic bound books are surprisingly flexible. Here again is the gap between signatures we also saw above.

Because the style of braiding the threads when binding allows much movement, coptic bound books are surprisingly flexible and can often lay flat without a problem. Here again is the gap between signatures we also saw above.

The beautiful illuminations, which would be called miniatures (2 full page illustrations)

The beautiful illuminations, which are called miniatures (2 full page illustrations)

Ethiopian Coptic Bound Manuscript 3

Evidence of mending tears in the sheets of vellum. The detail of the stitching is as carefully measured as the braids of the coptic binding on the spine.

Evidence of mending tears in the sheets of vellum. The detail of the stitching is as carefully measured as the braids of the coptic binding on the spine.

Prickings along the left margin are apparent--these were used to guide the scribe's hand and were typically a mark of high quality.

Prickings along the left margin are apparent–these were used to guide the scribe’s hand and were typically a mark of high quality.

A note from a bookseller (I presume) indicating the qualities of the item. According to this, it was produced in the 1800s. Also on this page, the nature of the animal skin is apparent.

A note from a bookseller (I presume) indicating the qualities of the item. According to this, it was produced in the 1800s and is a prayer book. Also on this page, the nature of the animal skin is apparent.

The residual threads between the end sheet and the back board are similar to what we saw in the contemporary example, which was likewise taking its cue from tradition

The residual threads between the end sheet and the back board are similar to what we saw in the contemporary example, which was likewise taking its cue from tradition

If you would like to learn more about medieval manuscripts, I encourage you to visit the Medieval Manuscript Manual. These items–and much, much more–are available to be consulted in person in the Rare Book Room.

See you next time when we’ll talk about limp vellum binding!

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