This is a question I have often been asked during one of our workshops on bookbinding. I have been reminded of this question again this week as I have been re-reading an excellent book called “The Archaeology of Mediaeval Bookbinding” by J.A. Szirmai. It approaches the question of age from an archaeological perspective, treating each ancient book as though it were a trench in a field which has to be carefully taken apart to reveal how the book was put together in the first place. Sadly, many old books that have been unearthed were opened without the care and attention needed to understand its construction and so small pieces of thread will have fallen out from between the signatures before their exact position in the book could be understood.
However, some records have been kept and not all of the bindings were lost or damaged and so Szirmai has undergone a fascinating and in-depth investigation into the origins of Western bookbinding in his book. Sometimes he has used the descriptions of others and sometimes he has had the opportunity to archaeologically excavate the structure of a book using museum artifacts.
So turning to the question in hand; how old is the craft of bookbinding? It depends what you define as a book. The ancient Egyptians used papyrus rolls to record all sorts of things but these are not really books. Szirmai defines a book as folded sheets sewn either together or onto a common spine and his definition starts with single signature bindings with leather wrap over covers. I do not intend to go into detail here but it is interesting to note how the techniques used at the very start of bookbinding as a craft are still in use today in hand bound books.
The earliest bindings of this type seem to date from the third or fourth centuries AD and are part of a collection found in an Egyptian village, Nag Hammadi, near an ancient monastry. The text is written onto folded papyrus and the signatures are sewn onto leather which is then folded to protect the papyrus within. These early bindings are often referred to as Codices and they bear a striking resemblance to the leather wrap around books that we make today.
The Nag Hammadi codices
The leather covers are strengthened with sheets of papyrus but they feature the leather thong to wrap around the signature, they have a spine and covers, the leather is folded over the papyrus leaves inside and there is even a notch cut into the leather spine where it gets folded over.
The ones where there are more than one signature use a link stitch where the thread is looped through the stitch below before moving up to the next signature. Sometimes, if there are many signatures then the loop may take in three or four signatures. This is again exactly the same as the twin needle coptic stitching that is used on the leather wrap around books and on the spines of many more modern bindings where the stitches are left exposed including the ones we make here at the Old School Bindery.
The codices of the early Islamic world are wonderful to behold and works of art in themselves with headbands and elaborate sewing used on the spines as well as decorated covers.
The problem with sewing directly onto the spine or sewing the signatures directly together is that when you open the book, particularly if it is a thick book, the signatures bend outwards and the covers are only sewn on with the same thread as the signatures are sewn together so the covers tend to come off. In the 7th or 8th century, western binders started sewing onto a separate, stronger support. Again this is exactly as we sew our books today sewing either onto cords or onto sewing tape.
So when we are making books by band in the bindery we are copying techniques that have been used since the dawn of bookbinding in the Western world and I personally love that connection to the past. So you know the books in our Etsy shop are similar to the books that were used as far back as the third or fourth centuries!