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The Medieval Girdle Book Project

The Medieval Girdle Book Project

By Margit Smith and Jim Bloxam

International Journal of the Book, Vol.3:4 (2005/6)

Abstract: The study of girdle books in their historical context will add to our understanding of late medieval social history in some European countries. Since little has been written on the subject, and no comprehensive resource exists with text and illustrations of all surviving girdle books, the results of this project will fill a gap in the documentation of the development of bookbinding styles, their utility, and the variety of materials and techniques used to produce these books. All documented girdle books will be individually analysed and described in bookbinding terms, with photographs and drawings to supplement the text. Although very few girdle books have survived, they are frequently pictured in the visual arts of the times and are referred to in the literature. The outcome of this study, a monograph, will provide future students of the history and archaeology of bookbinding with a handy reference tool. It will also provide historical and bookbinding information to the institutions holding the girdle books; three of these institutions are in the United States, the rest are in Europe. Additionally, raising awareness of the girdle book may lead to discover as yet unrecognized and undocumented examples of this book format.

Introduction: In the summer of 2003 Mr. Jim Bloxam, who is Senior Conservator at Cambridge University Library, and I, Margit Smith, Librarian at the University of San Diego, began to consider collaborating on a project to document in text and illustration the still existing medieval girdle books. Impetus for this project derived from the lack of easily available material about girdle books, as well as the fact that no single resource exists which pictures and describes the girdle books known so far. The surviving volumes are housed in libraries, museums and private collections in the United States and in Europe. The desired outcome of this project is a published monograph bringing together comprehensive documentation of these medieval books. The opportunity to present this project at conferences such as this, as well as in several forthcoming articles, will bring the topic to a wider audience, and additional girdle books may come to light that have not yet been identified, cataloged and described.

Scholars have researched the historical background and development of the book for many years. The intellectual contents of the book, as well as its physical form and format combine to provide the object that has withstood innovations, but has also adapted to them over the centuries. The main purpose of girdle books was the protection of the written word, and as such they developed a particular shape and needed specialised construction.

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