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April 2, 2009

Through the velvet leaves
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:21 PM * 52 comments

[Queen] Elizabeth [I] appears chiefly to have affected embroidered and velvet bindings, if we may judge from the remains of her library, and from the account of the books, which Paul Hentzner, a native of Brandenburg, saw at Whitehall, when travelling in this country, in August, 1598. These books, he tells us, in his Itinerarium, were all bound in velvet of different colours, although chiefly red, with clasps of gold and silver; some having pearls and precious stones set in their bindings…
The Binding of Books, by Herbert P Horne, Chapter 8

Queen Elizabeth’s velvet library is well known in bookbinding circles, almost as well known as the history of binding in human skin1, but it’s rarely mentioned outside of them. The few examples we have left are quite spectacular2 indeed3.

Why did one of the most learned and literate of rulers in European history favor such a fragile binding material? Unlike leather-bound books, which wear the better for being read, velvet will become crushed and grubby with handling. Was it a subtle version of “math is hard”, letting rivals underrate the woman with the pretty library? Did the sheer tactile pleasure of holding the books override practicality? No one knows.

And what will be the velvet bindings of our day? (I vote for glued-spine hardcover books, myself).

  1. about which another time
  2. scroll down to the second item
  3. has her emblem but is not attested as her possession
Comments on Through the velvet leaves:
#1 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2009, 06:36 PM:

Apres moi, la désintégration!

#2 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2009, 07:02 PM:

Perhaps velvet bindings represented a bit of conspicuous consumption? After all, she could afford to rebind (if not reprint) as needed....

#3 ::: Pendrift ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2009, 07:07 PM:

Perfect-bound books are the worst - many of my family's paperbacks from the 70s and 80s are now falling to bits.

Certain digital storage formats are my candidate, if that counts. Think laser discs or 5.25 inch floppies.

#4 ::: Lynn ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2009, 07:18 PM:

I've got a velvet bound sketch pad that was a birthday present. I don't think I would have bought it for myself, but it is nice to hold/work with.

I agree with David: why would she care if it lasted through the ages? Being able to order up a new, intricate cover when the old one wore down may have been a perk.

I would say our equivalent is computer case engraving.

#5 ::: Jim Kiley ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2009, 07:28 PM:

Is that why the royalists among the wingnuts got so mad when Michelle touched the queen? Afraid she'd damage the binding?

#6 ::: Mark D. ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2009, 07:42 PM:

We interrupt this thread to direct readers to the "Tiling Patterns, Floor of St. John Latern" on the Particles list to the left, posted by our hostess from Rome yesterday. Wow!

That is all.

#7 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2009, 07:52 PM:

Velvet binding?
That sounds like a sequel to David Lynch's movie.

#8 ::: y ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2009, 08:48 PM:

Those floor patterns look like they could be the work of the Cosmati, who found a new use for all the fragments of ancient marble that were lying around in Rome.

A reminder, also, that St. Peter's, for all its grandeur, is one of the newer churches of Rome, and is not the cathedral of the city.

#9 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2009, 09:37 PM:

When my first book (a paperback original) came out, my father had it bound in leather, with marbled end papers and gilt edging. It's probably the classiest book I own--I wonder if Tor would consider bringing out the Sarah Tolerance books in a nice velvet TPB.

#10 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2009, 11:13 PM:

y, St. Peter's isn't a cathedral at all; it's a basilica. That's why the Cathedral Of St. John the Unfinished Divine is the largest cathedral in the world even though St Peter's is bigger.

#11 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2009, 11:29 PM:

y (#8), St Peter's, IIRC, has the length of other great churches marked down the main aisle (presumably superimposing their main altars). I found that rather uncool triumphalism whiffed a bit of Inferiority Complex. (Edifice Complex: the whole city is a textbook.) I did like the vault of Dead Popes, and the tiny point on which the whole upside-down pyramid balances — the reliquary of St Peter, in a (grandiose marble) pit beneath the altar.

Jim (#5) someone's on that again? There was a huge fuss in 1992 in the UK when Paul Keating, then our PM (recent link; an interesting perspective, check Keating: The Musical too) "outraged the Royal person" during her visit to Parliament House, Canberra according to the foaming sub-prime press. (Ah, search says it was during a UK election campaign.) The "Lizard of Oz" tag was too good to discard, though.
They tried it again, less successfully, in 2000 with John W Howard (BBC has both stories, with pix). It may be becoming a UK Press Tradition.

#12 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 01:59 AM:

Wow, those pictures are just beautiful. Failing a full 360° panorama (WANT!), here's a shot that puts the patterns in context with the building.

It's fascinating how these patterns are similar in artistic intent, but stylistically and mathematically different from the Islamic patterns found at, for instance, the Alhambra in Spain.

#13 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 02:00 AM:

Maybe Elizabeth was saying in effect, "Only I may touch these books; if anyone else does, they'll leave a mark, and I will know.

CC: Woolsey"

#14 ::: sara ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 06:17 AM:

At least velvet is reasonably flat (if you do not cram the books together). I work in a school library, so I was recently asked to order Beastly Rhymes To Read After Dark. The mass market binding is, I kid you not, fluffy green fake fur.

Nice for a kid to take to bed, but impossible to shelve (or keep clean). I bought the library binding.

#15 ::: Eirin ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 07:16 AM:

I find myself consumed by a morbid fascination regarding binding in human skin.

I can imagine this was supposed to imbue the text with dire powers, but it's possible the idea came to me from fiction rather than fact. Hmm, must research now.

#16 ::: Mark D. ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 07:53 AM:

Bruce @12 - sorry, but it's St. John Latern, not St. Peters. Not that St. Peters is anything to sneeze at!

#17 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 08:00 AM:

Eirin @15:
Actually, there was remarkably little superstition about human-skin binding, at least by the period where it is well-attested, and from which the bindings survive.

Two general themes that emerge: availability of material and applicability to the subject matter. Beyond that, they don't have much in common.

More, as I say, another time; I'm waiting for a specific event before I post it. (Not a very exciting event, just convenient to me.)

#18 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 08:21 AM:

Eirin @ #15, the University of Georgia library has a copy of Apollodorus bound in human skin.

#19 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 08:58 AM:

Faerie skin is materially indistinguishable from velvet.

#20 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 09:21 AM:

<pedantry>The cathedral of Rome is called, in English short form St John Lateran, from the Roman family who formerly owned the site, the Laterani (Wikipedia) </pedantry> (Don't look sideways at me like that!)
The Vatican Museums site needs more work. btw.

#21 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 10:21 AM:

Am I the only one here who looked at Theresa's tiling patterns in St. John Lateran and thought, "ooo-OOOH! Quilting patterns!"? I saw P1070535 and decided I like that version of "Flying Geese" better than the traditional one.

#22 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 10:48 AM:

For those of us not in the know, what are some common and uncommon bookbinding materials? Would the following lists be a good start?

Common: Leather (cow? pig?), cardboard and cloth, glossy card.

Uncommon: Velvet, human skin, muppet skin.

I'm not sure that glue-spine hardcover books would be the modern equivalent to velvet bindings. The former is done to be cheap, the latter feels nice and is presumably expensive.

#23 ::: Janet Croft ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 11:01 AM:

Victoria @21, you're not the only one -- I had the same reaction. "Oooh -- a very nice Flying Geese variation!" You might be interested in: Simms, Ami , and Julie Hussar. Classic Quilts : Patchwork Designs from Ancient Rome. Flint, Mich., U.S.A.: Mallery Press, 1991.

#24 ::: Laramie Sasseville ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 01:07 PM:

Ooo! At last, books truly worthy of the finest bookmarks:

#25 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 01:23 PM:

Velvet bindings would also tell you if anyone else had been using the library, and which books the queen favored.

#26 ::: Pendrift ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 02:08 PM:

Or were the velvet bindings chosen to match her some of her velvet robes?

#27 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 03:11 PM:

My copy of the Tudor Tailor says that silk velvet is:

"An expensive weave with two warps...."

I think it was a combination of conspicious consumption and a nice feel to the hand. Red being an expensive colour, and of course with gold and silver clasps, they would look both extremely expensive and perhaps suitably feminine.

Remember this is still a time when there was little storeable wealth, and you wore your wealth to display it to the world, with expensive cloth, your ability to afford new clothes every year rather than wearing them until they wore out, blackwork, slashes and padding and stuffing and embroidery and pearls and silk and satin and expensive wools dyed red and black and on and on and on.
Maybe you can tell I've applied to do Kentwell this year?

To sum up - "I am Queen Elisabeth and I can afford to have these books rebound as often as I wish, and the bindings are most pleasing to me."

The metalwork on the examples given is very good as well.

#28 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 03:17 PM:

"An expensive weave with two warps...."

So they couldn't do any better than Warp Factor Two? No wonder the Elizabethans didn't get very far. :-)

#29 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 03:23 PM:

"An expensive weave with two warps...."


#30 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 03:38 PM:

ok, the rest says:
"... one of which was passed over metal rods in the loom to create loops which were left of cut to form a pile; the use of both in one fabric made a pattern. Velvet was restricted by sumptuary law. Used for gowns, kirkles, coats, jackets, jerkins, doublets, hose, partlets, shoes, headgear for the wealthy; also guarding garments of less costly or lighter-weight materials; purses, partlets, bonnets for less folk."

As I'm sure you know, aping ones betters has a history of thousands of years, so someone who was trying to dress up or at least look like they had some money would have at least facing strips on their gown made from velvet, or one garment of velvet, and I'm sure even the comparatively poor could afford a velvet purse for high days and holidays. Meanwhile the great mass of peasantry etc had to make do with linen and wool that was grey, brown or white simply by virtue of the sheep being that colour. Silk is known of in the UK in the, IIRC 12th century, used in bits and pieces all the way through to the 15th century, for scarves and headdresses, and the richest folk could afford cloths of it. By the Tudor period it was more common, but would still have cost shillings per yard, or as much as several weeks work for a common labourer.

And the mass of books were bound in leather, so your book reading and using upper class person (by this period a great many lay people from merchants, burghers, nobility and gentry, could read, there were schools and everything) would see this library and think "Wow, how rich and impressive is the queen."

#31 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 03:53 PM:

With the transwarp, everything went haywire.

#32 ::: Henry Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 04:24 PM:

There would also be the limited edition in 25 copies of Manet's letters described in the collection of Myles na Gopaleen's Cruiskeen Lawn columns, which was "printed on steam-rolled pig's liver, and bound with Irish thongs in desiccated goat-hide quilting, a book to treasure for all time, but to lock away in hot weather."

#33 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 04:32 PM:

Serge @ 31: But the transwarp is based on string theory, so I think you're yarning us again.

#34 ::: Emma ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 05:17 PM:

Am I the only one here who looked at Theresa's tiling patterns in St. John Lateran and thought, "ooo-OOOH! Quilting patterns!"?

I saw blackwork patterns myself. I have a collection of old roman tile patterns which I'm hoping to convert to blackwork; also photos of cathedral ceilings -- the cathedral at Bath will make a spectacular pattern.

#35 ::: Ralph Giles ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 05:37 PM:

KeithS @ 22:

For those of us not in the know, what are some common and uncommon bookbinding materials?

Leather is what's survived, so it's what on thinks of as the traditional material. But there were other. We know embroidered cloth bindings were popular in the 19th century, and then as now there were a few bindings with wood and metal covers.

There were also many paperback-equivalents bound in, well, paper, or parchment. I have a book bound in half-parchment with paste paper covers. It's not a softcover: it has proper board covers, and the sewing and glue are still perfectly solid. The paste paper is doing ok, but the parchment covering the spine cracked at the hinge fell off long ago. It must have looked lovely when it was new, though, all red and white.

At least today, goat and calf skin are generally preferred. Adult cow leather is too thick, and most other leathers aren't as strong or are too elastic. I've done some books with garment lamb skin; it feels wonderful, but it's like tooling a sponge.

I understand pig skin was used a lot historically for cheaper bindings, and is the closest to human skin. I've never worked with it though.

Cloth used to be common, but today's hardbacks are all paper. Paper spine and paper-over-board covers under the paper dust jacket. So for common materials, I think we're down to paper (possibly glossy/plastic coated), leather, and cardboard.

#36 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 05:49 PM:

Apparently the boards of medieval manuscripts were also made of wood, often with a leather outer but there is, for example a record of the private library of Jean Bayart, canon of COurtrai, of 120 books with 46 "in asseribus", 'in boards'.

#37 ::: ppint. ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 06:01 PM:

keiths @ 22: and you truly wish to be able to judge a book by the material in which it is bound, the ultimate choice has got to be wub fur...

#38 ::: tykewriter ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 07:59 PM:


#39 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2009, 08:47 PM:

Nope. But working around those curves would be kind of tricky. (My grandmother made a pieced top in 'Glorified 9-Patch', which has football-shaped pieces between the 9-patch sets. It's hard to piece the curves (we had to replace a couple of them before it was actually quilted).

#40 ::: sharon ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2009, 04:59 AM:

Were the books covered in velvet the books that Elizabeth actually read? Or was the velvet library primarily for public display?

And on using human skin as a bookbinding material... There is a museum in my home town of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk that contains various items related to William Corder, who was hanged for the murder of his lover in 1828. One of the exhibits is a copy of the printed account of the case, bound with Corder's skin.

#41 ::: Singing Wren ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2009, 10:18 AM:

Victoria @ 21, Emma @ 34:

I saw embroidery patterns in the tiles. But then, I see embroidery patterns in quilt blocks, so it must just be how I'm strung.

Of course, the covers of some of Elizabeth's books would also be neat to try and duplicate. Maybe on a crazy quilt...

#42 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2009, 11:32 AM:

Probably the most infamous title bound in human skin would be the Malleus Maleficorum ("Hammer of the Witches"), a witch-hunting manual which was "traditionally" bound in the skin of executed witches.

#43 ::: Sarah W ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2009, 12:59 PM:

Leather is hardier than velvet, to be sure, but leather bindings, depending on quality and care, still disintegrate in a relatively short time.

The library where I work acts as the archives for our city and also stores a lot of original county records as a back-up facility. Part of my job involves researching or providing access to fairly recent (no more than 150 years old) leather-bound county and city record books--those enormous red or black ledger-size ones that were guaranteed to last forever and look impressive.

Most of these were falling apart before we managed to get them (through bad storage, mishandling, etc.), and it's impossible to handle most of them without breathing in a lot of history and getting it all over your clothes---I tend to sneeze orange for hours afterward.

We've just learned that we were awarded a grant to microfilm* the earliest city council minutes of most of the incorporated municipalities in our county. I did the "we got the money" dance for a few seconds, before remembering that we pledged to do the prep all those volumes.

Wish I'd thought to budget for orange coveralls and nose plugs . . .

On that note, I wonder if I'd be allergic to decaying velvet?

*Digital might be better in many ways, but OCR software, at least as afforded on a public library budget, doesn't work well with this amount of diverse handwriting, so using silver nitrate quality film will provide a sort of link for future digitization. Ahem, sorry, that would be the grant talking.

#44 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2009, 02:24 PM:

#38: For bookbinding? Only if it's live otters, and bottles of wine.

#45 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2009, 04:45 PM:

Sharon #40 - I just asked a friend your question.
The reply is:

"Famously literate - in English, latin, french, Greek and italian (probably spanish too). She was genuinely academic and intelliegent.
Tutored by Ascham to love learning and books. I very much doubt she had any books to show off but because she wanted to read them - all of the classical Renaissance usual supects etc"

#46 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2009, 02:21 AM:

guthrie: there was storable wealth. That's what plate, and fine houses, and good swords, etc. were for. There wasn't as much in the way of banking houses; where wealth was safe (and cared for) but there were ways to store it.

Velvet was really expensive. Silk even moreso. The famous "Gorget" portrait of Sir Philip Sidney has him wearing a slashed doublet of white satin. Scholars are divided on the material. I know several clothing scholars who have looked at it and decided it was a wool satin. Sadly the picture is now in private hands, so seeing it it hard.

When I say really expensive, I mean something like a mark (five schillings, 60d, or sixty loaves of bread, pints of beer, or dinners for two, at a pub. It was also, depending on the age of the lease, more than most middle-class farmers paid for a years rent) for a yard. Not the sort of thing the, "comparitively" poor would bother spending money on.

The point of consumption was to show one had the money to spare, and so was able to spend it on things the crown needed doing, and didn't want to spend money for up front (things like paying the soldiery at Calais. The governor did it out of pocket, and then dunned the crown for the expense. This has it's drawbacks).

The other reason the crown liked to see the peers spending money (a good velvet doublet, when all is said and done, could cost 20-30£, more than the well to do middle class would see in a year. Even today, when cloth is, "cheap" a tailored Elizabethan suit will run to about 1,500USD (that's what I paid for mine, not velvet, just decent wool, and cotton satin gimping).

Add the cost of the sumptuary taxes (which might rise to 200 percent of the value of the material, per annum) and the use of velvet wasn't something to be done lightly. It was seriously showing off.

Which is part of what Elizabeth was doing, but mostly I think they pleased her to handle. She liked her books, and read them. Ascham (her tutor) was a fiend for reading. One of the things to recall is how often her portraits showed books.

Portraits of the age were meant to show a lot of things about the subject, both what they were, and what they wanted to be known for. The famous portrait, with the window, and the defeat of the armada, has her holding a place in a book with her finger. That pretty much says she read for pleasure. Comments from the courtiers letters, and the gifts she gave/received support this.

#47 ::: sisuile ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2009, 10:52 AM:

Guthrie @ 27 Kentwell?? Really? Coolness!!!

Let us know if you get in!

Are you going to Kalamazoo?

#48 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2009, 02:41 PM:

Terry - I said little, I didn't perhaps qualify it as much as I could, but hey, thats life - I know what you mean but I was trying to get out what was in my head at the time.

Modern hand woven silk can cost over £1000 a yard, or so I understand. Authentic wool from authentic sheep dyed Authentically will be 30 or 40 pounds a yard, but Stuart Peachy has almost run out of coloured material for this year.

Sisuile - whats Kalamazoo?
I want to be an Alchemist this year, what with having translations of period texts and equipment of my own, but Patrick was a bit offputting at the interview and I have a horrible suspicion he'll put me on pewter casting or somesuch, which would be fun, but I'm phsyched up to do Alchemy.

#49 ::: sisuile ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2009, 05:14 PM:

Guthrie @ 48 K'zoo, as it is often called is the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, or the biggest collection of true medieval geeks in the world. You'd fit right in. Think the Medieval Conference at Leeds times 6. If you're looking for pieces in our field, look up the sessions sponsored by DISTAFF, Early Modern Dance (that's me!), Mid-America Medieval Association, Higgins Armory, and the Association of Historical Fencing (also me, though just as a presenter). Or just flip through the pages and drool madly.

Also: Silk Velvet. I have a lovely cocoa linen velvet I picked up last fall to do a mid-tudor:

#50 ::: Ralph Giles ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2009, 10:38 PM:

I am reminded that I saw some gorgeous velvet (and otherwise) bindings at this exhibit last year.

The velvet was generally over wooden boards (a la guthrie @ 36) which looked horribly clunky and, well, overengineered to my modern eyes, but gosh were they pretty.

#51 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2009, 10:28 PM:

Guthrie: I also said little. Really, I could have gone on for days.

Some coparitive figures, for, roughly 1575.

Quarterly rents might be as low as 2s (though that was a holdover from "2 life rents" and was pretty much gone by 1600, the stories/broadsheets about "rack-rent" were vicious).

A fine velvet suit might costs several hundred pounds, in an age where the avereage person never saw an entire pound at one time.

Imagine, if you will, that a yard of velvet cost about ten years wage. A scrap is going to be more than you bother to obtain. Somethings might be available as cast-offs, but some won't.

Even if the cast-off was available, how many are going to be willing to pay for it, every year, just to keep it, because that's what the sumptuary taxes cost.

Imagine a 100 per cent, per annum, addition to the cost of that 1,000 a yard handwoven silk? (and it's worth noting that modern yards are wider than Elizabethan ones).

It's not that the silks and velvets and purples weren't selling. The entire point of sumptuary taxes was to try and limit the sales/use, to those who were, "entitled" to them, but, as with today, the "poor" aren't the one's buying them. That 1,000 a yard silk, even in small bits and pieces, is outside their reach/need/interest.

#52 ::: dlbowman76 ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2009, 05:52 PM:

I rouse from my slumber,
Bound to reply to this thread -
Several volumes my shoulders encumber,
I've a lot to get off of my head.

There's a horrid copy of Bolingbrooke
Bound in slightly tanned skin of young Tory.
And over here an unspeakable book
Rendered from Labour flesh most gory.

The Lib Dems offered a fibrous binding,
The Greens, a vile organic creation
Designed to disintegrate, not minding
The rubbish left behind, our foul portion

Of souvenirs. All behind us save for
A pocket of tin, and a Louis d'or.

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