2012 Seminar on the History of the Book: Gaye Morgan, ‘Bookbinding in Oxford in the long sixteenth century’

Example of an Oxford binding from the Codrington Library, All Souls College


from Martha Repp

The seventh in the 2012 series of the Oxford Seminars on the History of the Book was held at All Souls College, Oxford, on 2 March, 2012. Ms. Gaye Morgan, Assistant Librarian in the Codrington Library, spoke on “Bookbinding in Oxford in the long sixteenth century”. Ms. Morgan is currently working on a doctoral thesis on bookbinding in Oxford in the sixteenth century, and, while her research is still in progress, her paper provided a fascinating overview of the avenues she hoped to pursue and the questions that had so far been raised.

Much of the existing work on Oxford bindings and bookbinders has tended to focus on very specific areas, such as the decorative tools or pastedowns. Equally, bookbinders have generally tended to be seen in relation to the University, rather than considered as tradesmen, and in their relationship to the town and to other related trades. In fact, bookbinders occupied a kind of hinterland between “town” and “gown”. Comparatively little is known about how or where bookbinders worked. Did they work on their own, or did they collaborate? Did they work in individual or shared workshops, or even in the colleges they were working for? Where did they acquire the raw materials they needed, and from whom? These are the kinds of questions that Ms. Morgan hopes to address in her research, but which are necessarily difficult to investigate because of the patchy nature of the remaining evidence.

The question of where and how raw materials were acquired was addressed first. The leather used in bookbinding has to be strong enough to take the weight of the boards, the sewing, and the joints, and also needs to be supple enough to mould around the corners of the boards and over the raised bands. Obtaining a suitable piece of leather for use in bookbinding was therefore not as straightforward as it might at first seem. The leather trade was very tightly controlled; legislation passed in the reign of Henry VIII specified the standards to which skins had to be prepared, and all hides offered for sale had to be inspected by representatives of two different branches of the leather trade, and would then be stamped to indicate that they had been approved.  Universities, however, were given carte blanche to overrule this legislation when it interfered with the way in which the university wished to control the trade. In spite of this prerogative given to the universities, there is evidence of the town authorities having inspected and approved skins in Oxford; leather off-cuts marked with the town stamp have been found at the Castle site. These inspections appear to have been carried out by four cordwainers; does this mean that there were no skinners or tanners active in the city at the time? Nevertheless,  there is evidence of a disagreement in 1620 between the town and the university over whether the town had the right to carry out these inspections, or whether this interfered with the prerogatives of the Chancellor of the University as superintendent of the market. The town authorities, anxious to keep the peace with the University, eventually surrendered their licence to inspect and approve leathers to the University authorities. Despite the evidence of cordwainers having been active in Oxford during this period, there is little evidence as to where Oxford bookbinders acquired their leather from. Slaughtering and tanning were not allowed within the city limits, but plans of the market indicate space set aside for tanners, and prepared skins may also have been brought in from the country. It is unlikely that the skins would have been sold ready for bookbinders to use, so there is also the question of whether the binders would have dressed the skins themselves.

Ms. Morgan then went on to consider the existing evidence on how Oxford bookbinders would have worked.  Firstly, based on the sheer numbers of surviving Oxford bindings, apparently produced by a relatively small number of named individuals, these individuals must have been turning out vast numbers of bindings.  It is also reasonable to assume that, given the number of bindings involved, most of the binders would have had their own set way of doing things. It is, however, much more difficult to link a specific binding to a specific individual binder, and there are only a very few cases in which such an attribution can be definitively made. One such case is that of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible in the Codrington Library, where the All Souls College accounts record a payment made to the binder Dominic Pinart for binding that particular book. This is, however, the exception rather than the rule, and most entries in college accounts will simply record payments “for binding”, without mentioning the specific books. In trying to identify particular bindings with specific binders, most scholarly attention has focussed on the decorative tools used, such as centrepieces, rolls, and stamps, but it is very difficult to make a definitive connection between a particular tool and a particular binder, as tools are known to have changed hands and to have been used by more than one individual. Another potential way of associating particular bindings with a particular binder is to look at manuscript or printed waste. Here, Ms. Morgan provided two very interesting examples. The first is of two printed books originally in Corpus Christi College library, which were disbound and used as printed waste for bindings. So many of the books in which this printed waste was used remained in Corpus library that when the pastedowns were removed and the leaves reunited, it was discovered that the College still had very nearly complete copies of the two original books. Unfortunately, as the shelfmarks of the books from which the leaves were removed are no longer current, it is almost impossible to associate this printed waste with specific bindings. Another example is of a number of bindings in All Souls College in which eight leaves from a manuscript have been used as manuscript waste, with the rest of the manuscript remaining in the College library.

The final discussion  explored a number of other issues, such as whether there is sufficient evidence to determine whether the Oxford binders acted as a kind of cartel to keep prices artificially high or whether the colleges acted to keep prices down, and, related to this, the more general question  of how price conscious the colleges were.