Artisans have probably been decorating book covers for as long as there have been books — and before the invention of the “codex,” the book with pages that has been the mainstay of literature in the West for a thousand years or so, the long Judaic tradition of rich covers for the Torah scroll tells us that there were fancy covers for scrolls, too.
Particularly precious are the many covers that have been made for sacred scriptures, such as the Psalms, or the four books of the Gospels. Many “treasure” covers survive, whole or in pieces, decorated with gold, ivories, enamels and precious stones.
Needlework, however, seems to be a relative latecomer to the book cover trade. If that’s true, one reason for it may be that, for books written on parchment or other animal skins, covers tended to be rather rigid and heavy. Parchment is not completely flat by nature, and to keep the pages of a parchment book flat and smooth, it helps to store them between rigid covers that can apply a bit of pressure. Not until books came more commonly to be written, and then printed, on paper, did soft covers really become practical. So the oldest and most precious books often have wooden, metal, or thick leather covers that can be firmly fastened with clasps or ties. These can be stamped, carved, painted, or set with metalwork, but are not a very good medium for needlework.
The earliest English needlework book cover to survive is two rather worn panels of Opus Anglicanum, now inset into a leather cover. The book they cover is a manuscript psalter that was written in the 13th century and later belonged to Ann Fellbrigge, a late fourteenth-century nun in Suffolk. The front cover is a scene of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, and the back cover is a Crucifixion scene. The subjects and framing suggest that these really were worked as a pair of book covers and not cut down from something else, as they are very similar to the central layouts of earlier Gospel book covers. The figures are worked in bright colored silk split stitch and the backgrounds are gold underside couching in a pattern of fine zigzags. They aren’t illustrated here because they don’t reproduce well in photos, but you can see a color illustration of what the front cover may have looked like when new in Cyril Davenport’s English Embroidered Bookbindings, available online (see Bibliography).
Later book covers appear in a variety of techniques. Especially popular in the Renaissance were small editions of books of psalms or prayers, which could be heavily ornamented and carried in a pocket or hung from a belt. As particularly precious objects, a number of these have survived, in sizes ranging from the 5x7-inch book at left, down to miniatures just two or three inches high.
Satin and spangles
Who and why
Who was actually working these elaborate bindings? In large cities there were professional embroiderers in plenty. There were also independent craftsmen, who could be hired to design or execute large embroideries for noble households in the country, such as Bess of Hardwick’s embroiderer Thomas Lane, who appears in her account books off and on for nearly twenty-five years.
We also know that women wealthy enough to have some leisure time also did competent embroidery on their own, usually of smaller items. This is especially likely when the items were intended as special gifts, as with the book cover worked by Princess Elizabeth already mentioned. She may also have worked the cover for a small copy of the Letters of St. Paul bound in black velvet with a design in silver and gold twist. And we know other women worked book bindings as well: at least one slightly later book, a copy of the Psalms from 1633, has a note in the manuscript that the cover was worked by “Elizabeth, wife of Matthew Wren, Bishop of Ely.”
Books were valued possessions in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, even after the invention of printing had brought down their price somewhat. Whether done as a tribute to the value of the words inside, or simply as a piece of wearable art, an embroidered book binding was something to work with care and show with pride.
British Library Catalog of Bookbindings Online — Over 100 BIG pictures of embroidered bindings, ranging from about 1500 into the 20th century. Go to: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/bookbindings/keysearch.asp and enter the keyword “embroidered.” The first 100 or so books are mostly pre-1600.
Davenport, Cyril: English Embroidered Bookbindings,
ed. Alfred Pollard 2006 (originally published in 1899)
Foot, Mirjam: Pictorial Bookbindings, 1986, British
Library; ISBN# 0-7123- 0099-6 (pbk.) (This only has a few pages of discussion
on embroidered bindings, but quite a few nice pictures in color.)
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This particular web page last updated on September 13 2006.