Mysterious iron rods in a 16th limp vellum binding


No one would say that Esther feels burdened by the case she is working on: removing an old repair that was deforming some parchment manuscripts. And besides her patient attitude I can’t agree more with her when she says that it is much more complex to treat something that has already been restored, than documents with more notorious damages at first sight. Esther Carrillo is chief conservator at the National Archive of Andorra, and ñ she has seen the most amazing conservation projects in this conservation lab.

Esther Carrillo showing the conservation of a manuscript

Left: Esther Carrillo at the conservation laboratory. Right: Before and after the conservation treatment of a very peculiar manuscript from 16th century.

She tells me that one of the most peculiar projects she has had to deal with, and also one of the most enjoyed, was the conservation of a notarial registry from 1505, a manuscript in iron-gall ink and limp vellum binding. A feature of these parchment bindings is their flexibility, since there is no inner support in the covers than the lining itself (a parchment). That’s why they are much lighter than bindings that have a board or wood inside the covers. But this bundle was unusually stiff on the spine, and you can imagine their astonishment when they discovered that the stiffness was due to three iron nails hidden in the sewing. Exactly: the thongs of the sewing were iron nails!
In those times the thongs (the structure that holds the sewing) were typically made with leather or parchment, and more recently with cords, or tapes; but… iron?! As far as they know there is no such structure in issues of that age, and the only example I can think of is the bindings with metal pins… already in the 19th century!.

Enquadernació flexible dels.XVI després de restaurar

Left: Restored manuscript, opened at the first page. Enlarged (in a circle) the top of the metal nail is visible (i.e. the thong), all covered by thread. Right: The limp vellum binding after conservation. It has flap, knotwork decoration on dyed leather and belt fastening. In the spine we can see non-dyed leather knots that hold the metallic thongs.

During the conservation treatment they picked out all the information left in the original, very much deteriorated, and they could reconstruct the binding with an impressive result. The knotwork and the tinted leather -from which only some fragments were conserved- were returned to its original shape; and also the belt and its buckle, that they modeled on issues from the same holding and age. The losses on paper sheets and on the parchment covers were infilled, yet they were significantly attacked by microorganisms. As for the thongs, they reproduced exactly the same structure found, consisting on three thread encased iron pins. The sewing lay down in these three nails, and then some parchment knots held them together to the covers, through the spine, with the characteristic crossover knots.

Limp vellum binding with iron thongs structure. Screen capture from the graphic documentation given by the National Archive of Andorra.

Cèlia and Esther wonder if the fact that Andorra is a natural source for iron can be the reason of this rarity… In my opinion the bookbinder was just experimenting. If there are no other examples is because this structure happened to be too costly, or inefficient. Be that as it may, the main thing is that this rarity has been thoroughly documented and also that the conservation treatment has kept unaltered the structure of both bookbinding and sewing. Thus the evidence is preserved and further research is possible: either because it is singular and unique, or because it represents a type of a whole set of similar issues.

Esther Carrillo (esquerra) i Cèlia Realp (dreta), restauradores de l'Arxiu Nacional d'Andorra

Fascinating discoveries can be found in conservation studios, and it is a pleasure to chat with profession colleagues who, like me, get excited with those as kids solving misterious cases.
Thanks a lot for sharing yours with me!

PS: I am well aware that many of my readers are very much knowledgeable conservators and bookbinders, I am just waiting for all that bunch of iron thongs examples to come to light!

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Esther Carrillo & Cèlia Realp, conservators at the National Archive of Andorra.

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6 thoughts on “Mysterious iron rods in a 16th limp vellum binding


    My dear friends Rita, Esther and Celia,

    Limp vellum bindings with iron nails are not too common in archives, but we can find them more frecuently than we could imagine. Janos Szirmai wrote a paper few years ago: Gnirrep , W.K & Szirmai , J.A. “Spines reinforced with metal rods in sixteenth-century limp parchment bindings” in Qaerendo XIX , No. 1 & 2, 1989 , pp . 117-140 . This kind of binding was made for books that expected heavy and frecuent use and they doing to prevent the concave deformation of the spine.

    Kisses to all three , good job!

  2. (E-mail message from Dr. Nicholas Pickwoad):


    The use of rigid sewing support stiffeners was not uncommon feature of many late medieval and early modern stationery bindings. They are most often made of wood, probably because of the risk of metal (iron) rods corroding – as they had in an example I was shown in the National Archives in Portugal two weeks ago. They have been recorded, by Szirmai among others, on printed books bound in the early sixteenth century in the north-west corner of Europe, possibly mostly in Westfalia. Their purpose would appear to have been to render the spines of books in regular heavy use (e.g. account books) inflexible and thus prevent the wear and tear on their structures resulting from repeated opening and closing. Stationery bindings were used in the early modern booktrade to give provide lightweight, low-cost, but durable bindings for printed books as they moved from the printer to their customers, and were often retained by owners who could not, or did nor wish, to replace them with something more expensive.

    Nicholas Pickwoad

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