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The Fascination of Fore-edges

parts of book

In the original College library, books were placed on the shelves with the fore-edges facing outwards. This was normal practice in libraries for much of the sixteenth century for two reasons. One is that writing or printing the title and author’s name on the spine was not common until the 17th century and therefore the ‘back’ of the book was purely functional, holding the pages together. The other is that books, like the manuscripts which preceded them, were often held securely by a chain fastened to a metal staple on the fore-edge of the wooden board. (There are a few examples in this blog post of libraries which have retained their books on chains and, of course, there were the magical books in the library at Unseen University in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.) The chain was long enough to reach both the shelf where the book was stored and a sloping lectern* where it could be read.


Sometimes the shelfmark was written on the fore-edge, as in these examples (these shelfmarks are no longer in use, although the Long Room classification system still uses letters and numbers). The original system used in Trinity College Dublin Library consisted of four elements: a letter – T for Theology or H for Humanities – and three numbers (as above left, Titus Flavius Clemens: Opera, [Heidelberg], 1592, old shelfmark T.2.2.6, now at C.dd.4). The first number was a class division within the subject; the second was the shelf number and the last was the number along the shelf.

Shelfmarks BB.e.42 (L) and Fag.K.20.28 (R)

Some of the information we now expect to read on the spine – author and title – might have appeared on the fore-edge, as on the two books in the picture on the left, both of which came from private collections, since there would have been few other identifying marks. In the early 15th century, books were often housed lying flat, so the information would be most useful written on the tail edge, as is the case with this 1561 book (below).

Shelfmark Gall.6.p.83

Once it became the custom to shelve books spine-outwards, the fore-edge no longer needed to offer information as to the contents. To enhance the appearance of the book, the edges of the text block might be cut uniformly and then stained with a single colour, gilded, or decorated by sprinkling (spotting) or marbling:

Sometimes the marbling on the edges would match the boards – maybe even the endpapers as well:

More ambitiously, and certainly more spectacularly, but also more rarely, the edge(s) may be tooled – a pattern created using hand-tools, sometimes on gilt or silver, in which case they are described as ‘gauffred’ (think of the surface texture of Belgian waffles!):

A creative craftsperson might choose to match the tooling to the binding, as demonstrated by our copy of Tacitus: Annals, Leiden, 1559 (shelfmark: Armoire):

… or even to produce a picture, as Livy: Decades, Saragossa, 1520 (shelfmark: Armoire):

In some instances, a book may look quite plain until the pages are fanned slightly, when the reader discovers a picture. This would have been created by clamping the text block with the leaves fanned and painting on the very edges. A clever artist might then reverse the book and go through the same process again, producing a double illustration. Sadly, I don’t think we have any examples of this last in our collection – yet! – but the Quin Collection does contain examples of a marbled pattern, such as Longus: Pastoralia de Daphnide and Chloe**, Parma, 1786, Quin 43, which was “bound and ornamented to [Quin’s] own directions by Kalthoeber”, according to Quin’s catalogue of his collection:

and, on Shakespeare: Dramatic works, London, 1784, Quin 35, a picture of Shakespeare’s house, which is faintly visible when the book is closed, but far more obvious when the pages are fanned. This volume was bound by Edwards of Halifax, a family of bookbinders and booksellers who, according to Jay Gaidmore, Director of Special Collections at the Earl Gregg Swem Library in Virginia, have been credited with establishing the custom of fore-edge painting (see this blog post):

A recent trend has been to shelve books spine-inwards to match the decor of the room. Have a look at #BackwardsBooks on Twitter, for example. Presumably the owners don’t intend to read them – unless they like to be surprised every time they pick up a book! I shall stick with my overflowing bookshelves and colourful, informative spines … at least until I own a book with a beautifully decorated fore-edge.

Much has been written about fore-edge painting and there are books on the reference shelves in the Early Printed Books reading room and in the library bookstacks if you would like to learn about it in more detail.

* The word lectern comes from the Old French letron, meaning reading desk in a church.

** I wrote about some of the beautiful editions of the story of Daphnis and Chloe, including this one, held by TCD Library here last July.