A Medieval Bookbinder’s Knife?

Actual medieval bookbinding tools are almost nonexistent. Apart from a few finishing tools, there really aren’t many documented, extant examples. That’s why a knife that John Nove brought to my attention is extraordinary. Could it really be a medieval bookbinder’s knife? A note associated with this knife claimed it might be.

Medieval Bookbinder’s Knife? Private collection. Photo: John Nove.

At first glance it looks similar to a typical “gift set” carving knife given to newlyweds in the 20th century. The tip looks to be slightly serrated, or perhaps just extremely pitted. The handle has the tonality of antler, but it is actually a carved, lightweight wood according to John. This strikes me as odd: historically, the handles of most knives tend to be a dense exotic woods, bone, horn, or antler. The blade is extremely rusted, while the handle is relatively intact. Is this a red flag?

The ferrule is very odd, one piece of metal hammered around the blade tang hole. Photo John Nove.

Is it a knife that maybe belonged to a bookbinder or bibliophile, hence the very cool handle decoration? Or is it an assemblage of some older and newer parts? Or something else?

The handle is what makes this knife so special. These intricately carved books are convincingly realistic. To me, the books look Gothic, and possibly Germanic, given the overall morphology. The sewing supports appear to be double cords or split tawed thongs, both appropriate to a Medieval book. The pronounced endbands, with the cores lying on the spine are also consistent with this. The clasps look like split thongs, possibly there is a pin attachment? The very rounded spine with pronounced supports extending onto the face of the board is typically Gothic. The carved representation of panels is also typical, though a little odd with the carved triangles, though this might be a limitation of the size of the original and the carver. After all, it only about an inch wide.

The curved, almost spiral grip in the center of the handle is similar to Medieval carved columns I have seen in the Cloisters at the MET. The traces of red (paint ?) on the page edges is somewhat unusual, yellow or a blue would be more common, if in fact it is a German binding represented. The overall length of the knife is 9 inches, with 5 inches for the blade. The blade is quite flexible, with the back measuring only .012 inch.

The elaborate handle seems out of place with a functional tool used by a craftsman, but there are many examples of very elaborate Medieval tools with zoomorphic designs carved into them. The ferrule is also strange with its scalloped collar. John Nove wondered if the blade might have been stuck into an older handle. Book-themed ornamentation on a knife like this might indicate a 19th c. page opening knife? The size is right for that as well.

If this is a medieval bookbinder’s knife in the German tradition, are there modern styles we can compare it to? And how would it have been used? I’d guess that all knives were originally undifferentiated for different trades. Knife-makers would make their knives for a variety of purposes. When did the specific needs for specific trades start? Even today, shoemakers and bookbinders, in the English tradition, use a the same Barnsley paring knife, older examples having an image of a shoe stamped on them.

Top: My Henckel 8 inch Chef’s knife. Bottom: Modern German style bookbinder’s leather paring knife.

I’ve noticed the similarities between German style chef’s and bookbinder’s knifes for a while. The primary one is the taper of the blade from the back to the cutting edge, parallel to the length of the knife. It doesn’t make sense functionally to make a paring knife like this, so German binders wrap the handle with leather, cord or thread to hold it more comfortably. The thin metal around the cutting edge is quick to resharpen, though. There are also the three cutlery rivets on the handles; these are technically called scales on a full tang knife.

Bauer and Franke, Handbuch der Buchbinderei, 1903. Thanks to Peter Verheyen for this reference

The text mentions that the Offenbacher shape is good for weaker leathers, and the Parisian shape is good for thicker leathers. For the leather to be held in the hand position depicted with the Parisian knife, the leather would have to be very thick, almost more of a tanned cowhide, rather than a typical bookbinding calf, sheep, or goat.


Detail p. 91. Zaehnsdorf, Joseph. The Art of Bookbinding. 2nd. ed. London: George Bell and Sons, 1890. <https://archive.org/details/artofbookbinding00zaehrich&gt;

The paring knife in Zaehnsdorf’s manual has a similar shape to the medieval knife and moddern chef’s knifes, as do the ones in Peter’s 1928 Braunwarth & Luthke catalog, below. Most seem to have a taper towards the edge of the blade on the left, as indicated by the thicker black line indicating the back of the blade.

Braunwarth and Lüthke catalog from 1928. Collection: Peter Verheyen

To return to the central question. Is this knife a medieval bookbinder’s knife? Without having any scientific analysis of the materials (XRF? FCIR? Carbon dating on the handle?), or more information on province, and examining it in person, I can’t say for sure.

But I can say it is an intriguing object, worthy of further research, preservation, and hopefully clarification in the future.

“An Investigation of Seventeenth Century English Bookbinding Tools in Randle Holme’s Academy of Armory” Now Available!

It’s exciting be published in The New Bookbinder 41 with such a beautiful layout and high print quality!

Publishing a blog post is instant gratification compared to a print article. An Instagram post is an even quicker higher-octane endorphin hit. Writing a print article already feels archaic and process of publishing is frustratingly slow: finding a suitable vehicle, researching a topic, writing, gathering images, requesting (and often paying for) reproduction permissions, formatting, incorporating reader’s comments, working with an editor for additional revisions, triple checking everything, and finally approving a final layout. Then waiting for months while it is being printed and shipped. At least in this case, though, the result is deeply rewarding.

Seeing and holding your writing makes it feel like a thing, not just ideas in your head. It implies a permanence and accessibility. But I wonder how long print — at least for non-fiction scholarly articles — will be used, in terms of people reading, using, and citing it. Many papers I read from younger people only cite the online sources. On the other hand, the transparency of online data is rewarding for the author (as well as profit generating for the corporate overlords…) For example, I will know how many of you read this blog post, how many times it is linked to, what links you click on, and where you are from. I have no idea if anyone actually looked at or read the printed article. Anyway, onward!

OVERVIEW

Randle Holme’s little known Academy of Armory contains the only images of seventeenth century English bookbinding tools currently known. Six fundamental tools described in it are analyzed: a folder, a beating hammer, a needle, a sewing frame, a lying press, and a plough. The context of seventeenth century English bookbinding and other contemporaneous sources are investigated. The relationship between the nature of seventeenth century English books and the tools used to make them is also explored.

FIRST PARAGRAPH SNIPPET

“There are a variety of ways of approaching the history of bookbinding. Examining actual books for physical evidence is, of course, the primary method. But additional context can be gained by interpreting historic images and texts — including, manuals, advertising, trade cards, archival records, etc… — making models of historic bindings, and investigating how traditional tools were used. (2) In the case of seventeenth century English books, there are tens of thousands of extant books, but only one currently known text that contains images of bookbinding tools from this time, Randle Holme’s 1688 Academy of Armory. (3) Just over thirty copies are located in the English Short Title Catalogue, and it escaped the rigorous eyes of Pollard and Potter in their standard reference, An Annotated List of Technical Accounts of Bookbinding to 1840. (4) Analyzing the tools and equipment of bookbinding is one way of understanding how books were made, which is one of the foundations of bibliography. (5)”

PURCHASE: The Designer Bookbinders online shop.

Jeff Peachey “An Investigation of Seventeenth Century English Bookbinding Tools in Randle Holme’s Academy of Armory“. The New Bookbinder 41 (2021):38-48.

Thanks to OG Joel Moskowitz of Tools for Working Wood for introducing me to this text and allowing reproductions of his copy!

An Investigation of Seventeenth Century English Bookbinding Tools in Randle Holme’s  “Academy of Armory” to be presented at The Guild of Book Workers Standards of Excellence 2021 Online Conference October 9

I’m making great progress on my bookbinding tool presentation. But I need a longer title….

Randle Holme’s 1688 Academy of Armory contains the only known images of seventeenth century English bookbinding tools. It has been almost forgotten in bookbinding literature, and wasn’t included in Pollard and Potter’s standard reference, Early Bookbinding Manuals: An Annotated List of Technical Accounts of Bookbinding to 1840. Holme describes six essential tools: a folder, a beating hammer, a needle, a sewing frame, a lying press, and a plough. The relationship between actual books of the time and the tools used to make them will be explored in this presentation. A demonstration of reproduction folding sticks — and a discussion of the difficulties in deciphering extant evidence of them — will end the session.

It only costs $79 to attend the entire conference. This includes the opening reception for the WILD/LIFE exhibition, Peter Verheyen on fish-skin in bookbinding, Karen Hanmer on an even more simplified binding, Radha Pandey on Indo-Islamic papermaking, and a roundtable discussion on exhibiting books. I hope to see some familiar faces there, in little squares.

Register here for this online event!

If you can’t attend the conference, or are thirsting for more information concerning Randle Holme and 17th c. bookbinding tools, an article will soon be published in The New Bookbinder 41.

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