Category Archives: Leatherware

The Final Chapter: The Book of Dimma’s New Binding

As was detailed in the previous blog we carefully planned in advance the rebinding of MS 59 once the extensive additional repairs to the brittle and damaged vellum of the backfolds had been carried out. The opportunity was taken to photograph the backfolds prior to sewing as valuable clues to previous bindings visible at this stage would be again hidden once the manuscript was resewn and bound.

Fig. 1 The outside of bifolia from quire 4.
Fig. 1 The outside of bifolia from quire 4.

The traditional sewing frame was set up with the new linen cords attached and tensioned. The cords were fabricated by cabling unbleached linen thread to the required thickness. The sewing commenced with the new front vellum flyleaf followed by each of the six quires of the text block and finally the new back flyleaf. The linen thread was passed into the centre fold of each quire and out and around each of the double linen cord sewing supports. At the changeover point it passed into the next quire and the process was repeated travelling in the opposite direction. The sewing needle was modified by bending the shaft to allow an easier transition between the cords.

Fig. 2 Sewing MS 59 employing techniques practiced for centuries.

Once the manuscript was sewn it was removed from the frame and endbands were sewn at the head and tail with the same cabled linen cord as the endband. The endband thread was passed through a vellum ‘slotted spine’ which protects the backfolds of the quires and gives some resistance to the opening characteristics of the manuscript.

The next stage was the attachment of the new cushioned ‘blue jean’ binding boards. Channels were cut into their inner surface and the sewing supports and endband cores were laced on to give a very robust mechanical attachment between the text block and binding boards. Like the sewing, this work also emulates methods employed in early medieval book making.

Fig. 3 Sewing cords laced into channels cut in the board.
Fig. 3 Sewing cords laced into channels cut in the board.

The white alum tawed leather was prepared with the minimum of paring using the full thickness of the skin where possible. Starch paste was applied over the surface of the leather apart from the spine. The manuscript was covered, stretching the leather over the boards and turning in over the edges. The binding was then allowed to settle and dry under light weight. In order to attach the covering leather to the spine of the manuscript; a secondary endband combined with a primary stitch through the cover was sewn at the head and tail using two coloured threads.

Fig. 4 The new binding in alum tawed calfskin.
Fig. 4 The new binding in alum tawed calfskin.

In addition, a chemise made from linen, similar in form to the modern dust jacket, was sewn up and this will help keep the cover clean. A dropback box designed to apply slight pressure to the closed binding will keep the manuscript in optimum condition.

The finished structure opens with ease and with minimum strain on the thousand year-old vellum folia and the pigments and ink applied to their surface. The information recorded during the disbinding phase will help us better understand how this small ‘pocket gospel’ might have looked when it was first produced in central Ireland in the eighth century. The current binding will hopefully protect the precious contents into the next millennium.

John Gillis




The Evangelists’ Shoes

How important are shoes? Ask Dorothy – or Cinderella! Footwear had significance for medieval Christians, too. Looking closely at the figures in our early medieval Irish manuscripts, we see that some figures wear shoes and others do not. It is possible to identify many of these figures as portraits of the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Before they wrote their Gospels, these men were disciples of Christ.

Two Gospels record specific instructions that Christ gave his followers about shoes. The guidelines were given to the apostles as they were sent out on missions to preach. In Matthew’s Gospel (10.8-10), Christ advises the apostles to travel without money or a change of clothes and that they should not take shoes, either. Mark’s Gospel (6.9) gives similar instructions about travelling light, but recommends the wearing of sandals.

During the central Middle Ages, a few hundred years after our manuscripts were produced, new currents of thought about monastic practice sought to reconnect with early Christian practices. Monks were especially interested in imitating the apostles and their devotion was measured in austerity. Monastic leaders like Peter Damian (11th century) told their monks that they should not wear shoes or even cover their legs as a sign of their commitment to Christ. The link in the minds of these later medieval monks between early Christian behaviour and the renunciation of even the smallest luxury likely led to the iconographic convention of rendering the apostles barefoot.1 We see barefoot figures in the images for Matthew and Mark in the Book of Mulling and the evangelist on the left in the Garland of Howth (figs. 1a-b, 3a). Their lack of shoes, however, may not reflect their sanctity.

In the early Middle Ages, when our early Irish manuscripts were made, shoes were prescribed for monks. John Cassian (5th century), whose records of early Christian desert ascetics were so influential in the West, regarded sandals as appropriate footgear for hermits. Benedict (6th century), one of the earliest abbots in the West to write down guidelines of behaviour for monks, recommended that either shoes or sandals were worn. John in the Book of Mulling, Matthew, Mark and Luke in the Book of Dimma and the evangelist on the right in the Garland of Howth all wear shoes (figs. 1c, 2a-c, 3b).

Fig. 4 On the right, leather shoe found at Iona, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. Source.

Although medieval shoes have survived to this century, they are often in a fragmentary state. Shoes were made from leather and like other organic materials, they broke into pieces over the centuries. It may also be that the shoes were discarded only when they wore out and so have been mere fragments since the Middle Ages.2 Leather uppers from three styles of shoes were recovered in excavations at Iona, site of an important early medieval monastery. A reconstruction of one shoe type (fig. 4) proposes that it would have looked very much like the ankle boots worn by St. John in the Book of Mulling (fig. 1c).3

Fig. 5 Shoe found in a bog, Carigallen, Co. Leitrim, early medieval, National Museum of Ireland, W. 10 © National Museum of Ireland, Dublin.

The slippers worn by St. Mark in the Book of Dimma (fig. 2b) better resemble an early medieval shoe found in an Irish bog in Co. Leitrim (fig. 5). The majority of our Evangelists are equipped with the same footwear as the monks who made and used the Gospel books.

Colleen Thomas, Research Fellow