embroidered bindings

So last week’s crocodile mystery was nailed by Aaron Pratt within a half-hour of my posting: what you see below is, as he notes, an embroidered binding depicting David and Goliath and covering a Book of Psalms, in this instance, one from 1639. 

The whole booke of Psalmes (1639), with an embroidered binding featuring David and Goliath; click to enlarge

One of the great joys of embroidered bindings is that they are, first and foremost, often amazing and beautiful. This is one of my favorites; in part it’s the combination of the gruesomeness of the subject and the pretty butterflies and flowers, not to mention the spangles. But what I like about this example are its oddities and what it reveals about the making of such bindings. Psalters often feature images of David on them, but typically of David playing a lyre. Why does this one feature David’s slaying of Goliath? And why is Goliath appear to be grinning? And most of all, why is the story backwards? You don’t necessarily notice it the way the binding has been photographed, in which we read the image from left to right, encountering in chronological order David holding his slingshot and then David holding Goliath’s head. But if you were reading this as a book, seeing first the top cover and then the bottom, you meet David and the decapitated Goliath first, and then move backwards in time to see David with his slingshot preparing for battle.

Luckily for us, as Michelle Sellars noted in her comment to last week’s post, there’s another book with this pattern of embroidered binding held at the British Library:

David & Goliath in a BL embroidered binding
shelfmark c143a10 (c) British Library

Aside from the pure fun of finding multiple instances of the same pattern in use on different books, this copy helps answer some of the questions I raised above. For starters, the coloring on this binding makes clear that Goliath isn’t grinning, he just has an enormous mustache that looks like a grin! Then there’s the question of the sequence of the events: in this binding, the images appear chronologically as you would encounter them covering a codex: first, on the front cover, the preparation for battle, then, at the end of the book, David’s victory. My first reaction when I saw the BL binding, was to think that the two images had been swapped: the front cover was now the back cover, and the reverse. But that’s not it. In the Folger binding, David holds Goliath’s head in his left hand; in the BL binding, he holds it in his right. It’s not that the two panels have been swapped, but that the entire image has been reversed.

A sense of how this binding was made helps explain how that happened. It’s clear that these two bindings were made from the same pattern—they’re not similar, but the same. There was a picture of David and his slingshot and Goliath’s head that was transferred to the pieces of satin that form the ground for the embroidery. Mary Brooks explains this transfer process from pattern book to fabric: “Small holes were ‘pricked’ in the paper [of the pattern] and charcoal rubbed through to transfer the design to the fabric.” ((Mary M. Brooks, English Embroideries of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries in the Collection of the Ashmolean Museum (London, 2004), p14)) Imagine, then, you have a piece of paper with holes in it and you placed the paper recto side up and transferred the image to the fabric; you’d get Goliath on the left, being held in David’s right hand. But if you place the paper verso side up and transferred the image, Goliath’s head would end up on the right side of the fabric, held in David’s left hand. If you were reading the image as a panel of fabric, it would read correctly and even if you were paying attention to your subject, you wouldn’t necessarily notice the out-of-sequence images.

Although studies of embroidered bindings will note that some bindings are similar to other (often using Cyril Davenport’s 1899 English Embroidered Bookbindings as the basis for comparison), it’s not that hard, given the growing number of libraries and museums that are digitizing their collections, to find copies of bindings that are identical. For instance, compare these two books:

New Testament, 1628 (Princeton)
dos-a-dos New Testament and Psalter, 1627 (St Andrews)

The British Library has a closely related binding, featuring an iris rather than a tulip in the center:

New Testament, 1628 (British Library)

And Sokol Books recently sold another instance of that binding with an iris, describing it as a dos-a-dos New Testament and Psalter from 1628. ((Thanks to Brooke Palmieri for sharing information about this copy.))

The instances of these matching bindings reminds us that the relationship between binding, book, and owner aren’t necessarily as close as we might have first imagined. The bindings were indeed carefully matched to books; if they weren’t, the covers wouldn’t be the right size to cover the book, and the thickness of the spine wouldn’t match the pattern of the spine on the embroidery. Look closely at this plate from Davenport’s book and you’ll see that the design of the spine isn’t wide enough and that the pictures on the covers wrap around.

But while such bindings might not be mass-produced, there were clearly stock patterns and stock bindings that were associated with categories of books. It’s useful to recognize that in most instances, embroidered bindings were done by members of the Broderers Guild, that is, professional embroiderers, rather than ladies and girls sitting at home. Thinking about these objects as part of the book trade of early modern England can help us move beyond their “oooh, pretty!” factor and start thinking about how they circulated in the economic and cultural landscape of early modern England.

Having said that, if you’re interested in browsing more embroidered bindings, whether to think about their circulation or to admire their artistry, there are some great collections online, starting with the Folger and the British Library’s Database of Bookbindings; the BL also offers a brief introduction to the topic and a reference list. Finally, as an aside, I only noticed the matching tulip and iris bindings because I gathered together as many embroidered bindings as I could into a Pinboard collection. I’ll continue to add to it, so if you’ve come across bindings that aren’t included or bindings that match, let me know in the comments!