Letters and Figures: the book object and the human body

Letters and Figures: relationships between the book object and the human body as metaphor-clues to an epistemology of the book

MA Thesis in History of the Book, University of London (Commonwealth Scholarship, 1998)


Eschatology and bookbinding are not a pairing that comes immediately to mind — unless you are a bookbinder in the Middle Ages, or someone attempting to understand the origins of a seemingly transparent cultural form. My MA thesis concerned the book as an object, and in particular the practices and technical terms of bookbinding in relation to cultural attitudes to the human body, to death and to ‘last things.’  The thesis shows how hand-bookbinding, as it evolved in the west until the early modern period, is intimately connected to ritual practices of inhumation and spiritual notions of resurrection — themselves liturgically linked to the texts contained within the very same books.

This is a study of material culture and craftsmanship, and of the meaning of both practice and product to the craftsperson, in and of their time.  Not a religious study — I am not a religious person — but rather a study of religion as it is manifest by makers in what they have made. I was attempting to apply some of Carlo Ginzburg’s micro-historical textual techniques to the evidence left by craft practices, practices of bookbinding.  Reliquary bindings, containing the venerated fragments of the bones of saints; so-called ‘sarcophagus’ bindings; leather itself as skin; are all addressed. For example, the hammers, tongs, nippers and awls of the binders craft are conjecturally compared with the images of the arma christi, or instruments of the passion, which would have infused the texts European medieval binders would have been binding with those same tools.


Another level of reciprocity between the book object, its texts, and the human body can be seen in the treatment of books themselves, and the stipulations for their care or indeed their destruction. Among the responsibilities of the public hangman in the 16th and 17th centuries was to burn discredited books. And in Richard de Bury’s 1345 treatise Philobiblon (amongst the first western manuals of librarianship), he makes several mentions of leather boots and gloves which are directly paralleled with the leather-bound book. Chapter 17, “Of Showing Due Propriety in the Custody of Books” begins: “surely next to the vestments and vessels dedicated to the Lord’s body, holy books deserve to be rightly treated” and continues with a comparison between book and boot which shows that the former cannot be roughly opened or left “unlaced” and laying about; “it behoves us to guard a book much more carefully than a boot.”

As an extension of the craft and the material, the holding of books to the body is examined. The case of phylacteries containing sacred texts to be bound with thongs to the body, of saddle-books for travellers on horseback, and girdle-books to be hung from the waist and available for devotion at any time, are cases in point.

The references in the thesis are widely varied — from Ginzburg’s Ecstasies to Walker Bynum’s Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, from Evans’ Language and Logic of the Bible to Waterer’s Leather in Life, Art and Industry.

“The form of the western book and the acts involved in both its manufacture and ‘use’ compose a site of constant negotiation of differing views on the eschatological question. To Curtius’s question “Where and when has the book been accounted a sacred thing?” my inquiry has also added the question how, and we are beginning to see the ways in which the answers might also show us why

The complex of Christianity imbues both book and body with the significance of spiritual vessels, concurrently investing words with divinity. The codex contains a text, a relic of the breath of the author (divine or otherwise), a spirit that lives on; it is as compact as a reliquary or a portable altar, and its shape is that of the tomb. By dint of its form and its materials — powerful mnemonics for sensory humankind — any book bound in shares with the Bible a representation of this fundamental eschatological question of the integrity of body and soul, bound in skin. The binding houses an essence or extrusion of the soul, and the book object thus shows both the integrity of body and soul and their inherent difference; it is both a talisman promising resurrection and a site of the constant exchange, in physically interactive terms and anagogically representational terms, of body and soul.


My supervisor was Roy Moxham, then Conservator at the University of London Special Collections Library, and a skilled bookbinder.

The Institute of English Studies of the School of Advanced Study of the University of London instigated one of the first programmes in the History of the Book, and I was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to enable my studies there. The teaching team was composed in part of curators from the British Library and the National Art Library. In house, teaching faculty included Warwick Gould, Robin Alston, Ian Williamson, Keith Sambrook, Julia Walworth, Simon Eliot, Pamela Robinson and others.

Over the period of study, I managed to cover aspects of the western codex from the 13th to the 20th centuries. Other papers I produced during my MA were: ‘Illustrators and Illiterates in the Production and Use of Chapbooks, A Methodological Challenge for The History of the Book’; ‘Grosseteste, Bacon, Peckham: Book History Contexts for the Development and Dissemination of Optical Science and Technology in 13th Century England’; ‘Viewing Vision: Diagrammatic Space and Practice in Medieval Optical Manuscripts; and a two-part study on the relationship between Schocken Verlag and Walter Benjamin concerning the (non) publication of Benjamin’s Franz Kafka during his lifetime.

Having at that time recently completed The Spirit & The Letter & The Evil Eye at the Book Museum of Bayntun’s Bookbindery, the MA was a fantastic way to extend my creative inquiries by acquiring emerging methodologies in history of the book. Later I was able to reflect on this juxtaposition of approaches, and the origins of my preoccupation with the book form, in an article for History Workshop Journal, entitled ‘How Books Go Together and How They Come Apart’ (HWJ 55, Spring 2003).


Further Links: MA History of the Book, University of London

[Image References: detail of the Clare Chasuble, Victoria and Albert Museum (1272-94); Devotional booklet on ivory, Victoria and Albert Museum (ca 1330); The Laws of Jutland, scribe Jens Nielsen, in a girdle binding, Bremer Staatsbibliothek (ca 1490)]