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Advent Definitions: Why did the manuscript lose its tail?

By Helen F Biggs, on 19 December 2017

Contributed by Angela Warren-Thomas, Senior Conservator.

Christmas is a long list of exciting stuff for most of us, and near the top of my list is wrapping paper and presents. Actually, wrapping is a complicated process of choosing a precious item for a special person and presenting it in a beautiful covering that keeps it cosseted and safe.

R 221 DICTIONARIES WORCESTER 1855 – Worcester, A universal critical and pronouncing dictionary of the English language (London, [1855])

There are many reasons for and ways of wrapping special or precious things.  At Special Collections, we have an amazing example of just such a thing. One of my absolute favourite items in our collection is a 15th Century Chemise or girdle binding.

This small volume, almost pocket size, has a soft pink binding of alum-tawed sheepskin.  Alum tawing was an ancient process of treating prepared animal hides with alum salts and other materials. This process made the skins very soft and flexible, rather like suede leather today. The production of alum leathers became very widespread during the Middle Ages, and was used for the production of not only bookbinding leathers, but amongst other things gloving leather, leather for belts or girdles and leather for women’s shoes.

This little book then, has an extra wrapping; its Chemise covering, also made from alum-tawed sheepskin. The Chemise cover traditionally continued loose below the cover of the book in a long tapered tail with a large knot at the end, which could then be tucked into someone’s girdle or belt keeping the precious book safe and close to hand. The knot was usually strips of leather woven together in some decorative manner. The book hung upside down and backwards so that when lifted it was ready for reading.


The Altar of the “Gertrudenbruderschaft der Träger”1509. St. Anne and the Holy Kinship. Two of St. Anne’s relatives are carrying a girdle book
 

These books were normally religious: a cleric’s daily Office, or for laypersons, especially women, a Book of Hours. Women particularly wore the girdle book; it was already fashionable, in the 15th century, to wear a girdle belt above the waistline and these books in their “wrapper” or Chemise binding became visible statements of social position, wealth and learning, intellectual curiosity or at the very least literacy.

MS GERM 20 at UCL Special Collections. Inside our Chemise binding is a manuscript, “The Passio Christi”. Written in beautiful Bavarian script, it has ornamental red ink initials throughout.
 

Our Chemise binding has unfortunately lost its tail at some time in the past. There are one or two theories as to why this could have happened.  Possibly, it survived the destruction of libraries and books during the Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church, which swept across Europe in the 16th Century. Cutting off the tail of the chemise binding, most of which were religious texts (which is not surprising, as it was churches, monasteries and convents that produced the majority of manuscripts), would have been an instant disguise for a religious manuscript. Perhaps the leather tail was removed to make it easier to store the volume on a shelf. It was only in the late 16th century that books began to be shelved upright with the spine outward, and the construction of a girdle book would have made it difficult to slip the volume onto a shelf between other books. On the other hand, possibly a nice piece of leather was needed for some other use, and the extension on a Chemise binding was a handy source of leather.

Whilst we may never know the reason why our manuscript lost its tail, we do know what it would have looked similar to in all its glory. Thankfully, wrapped in the remnants of its Chemise binding, our manuscript remains a precious gift for anyone fortunate enough to open it.


A model of a Chemise binding made by Fred Bearman

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