The Eichstätt Prayer Book: A Bookbinding Specimen

Newberry Vault Case MS 192, front cover.
Newberry Vault Case MS 192, front cover.
Newberry Vault Case MS 192, spine.
Newberry Vault Case MS 192, spine.
Newberry Vault Case MS 192, colored ink.
Newberry Vault Case MS 192, colored ink.
Newberry Vault Case MS 192, gatherings.
Newberry Vault Case MS 192, gatherings.
Newberry Vault Case MS 192, hand-colored woodcut.
Newberry Vault Case MS 192, hand-colored woodcut.
Newberry Vault Case MS 192, leather tabs.
Newberry Vault Case MS 192, leather tabs.
Newberry Vault Case MS 192, heart-shaped insert.
Newberry Vault Case MS 192, heart-shaped insert.

The evolution of tactile information dissemination is a slow yet fascinating process. Oration changed to text as papyrus scrolls shifted into vellum manuscripts, were folded into folios, bound between leather covers, printed into mass production, and recently, digitized into pixels. It is my belief that the most beautiful textual artifacts are books. The Newberry Library is home to many early manuscripts with original bindings. One example is the Eichstätt prayer book, a leather-bound book believed to have been copied by the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of Saint Walburga in the town Eichstätt of Bavaria, Germany (figure 1—click on the images for a larger pop-up version).

The style of binding and the illustration within the text block enable the scholar to identify the date of the book to the late fifteenth century, between 1470 and 1480. The Eichstätt prayer book is unique in that it displays both manuscript and print characteristics. As seen in figure 1, the original dark brown leather has been blind-stamped with a pineapple centerpiece with a floral border. Blind stamping is the process of striking a metal panel stamp onto the hide with a hammer. Early blind stamping began around the twelfth century, when stamps were struck individually by hand. By the fifteenth century, when the Eichstätt prayer book was bound, stamps had evolved into bigger blocks, or even wheels that rolled in the desired impression (Johnson 14).

A clasp on the front cover of the book remains intact; however, its partner is no longer attached to the back cover. Significant deterioration of the leather on the front cover has also occurred—this gives the scholar a literal “inside-look” at the binding style (figure 2). As can be seen near the head of the spine, the prayer book displays two cords. This type of cord binding is called raised sewing, with the Eichstätt prayer book using a double cord. The cords are sewn into the text block stitching to permit a flexible durability of the spine, allowing the reader to make the spine concave while reading the book. While looking at the spine head-on in figure 2, manuscript fragments can be seen near the tail of the book (in this photo at right end of the spine). It was common practice to use manuscript scraps within bindings because the vellum is durable. Rather than buy expensive new vellum, binders often just cut up medieval manuscripts they had lying around. This seems harsh—even criminal—to today’s bibliophile, but this fragment’s addition to the binding is one of the reasons why any scholar can come to the Newberry today and read the Eichstätt prayer book without it falling apart.

Moving between the boards to the text block, the High German text is written in semi-cursive gothic hand by multiple scribes. The ink appears in many colors, ranging from green to red to blue to brown (figure 3). To make up the text block groups of papers folded within each other into gatherings (figure 4). Multiple gatherings are sewn together on top of one another to get the desired book width. They are combine by stitching thread through stations, or sewing holes in the center of each gathering. The Eichstätt prayer book has a four-station binding. There is no evidence of a missing headband, but as this is a small, simple prayer book, no extra strength or decoration would have been needed.

As mentioned earlier, this book is a sort of hybrid with both manuscript and print details. One print detail is the image on folio 39v (figure 5). This image, a hand-colored woodcut depicting the flagellation of Christ, with Mary and John the Evangelist watching from the window above, has been pasted into the book. Seven leather tabs have been attached to the fore-edge of the text block, apparently as “quick flip” tabs to easily locate prominent prayers (figure 6). The book not only contains the more popular prayers such as prayers for communion, Lent, and the Lord’s Prayer, but also prayers for Saint Brigit, Saint Anne, and Saint Walburga, a local saint of the Eichstätt region.

Besides being a treasured prayer book that was presented to the Bishop of Breslau in 1848, the Eichstätt prayer book is a beautiful bookbinding specimen, with the original binding, manuscript fragments, prayers in High German, and the scribed words of nuns. There is even a loose heart-shaped one-inch drawing depicting the Pietà attached between two pages (figure 7).

Call number: Newberry Vault Case MS 192.

Work Cited:

Johnson, Arthur W. The Thames and Hudson Manual of Book Binding. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1978. Print.

Posted by Samantha Leshin, Center for Renaissance Studies Summer 2012 Intern

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