Vellum Through the Ages

Vellum Through the Ages


This segment, I think, could be entitled Vellum
through the Ages. It ought to begin with what may seem like a startling statement that there
were books long before there was printing. Most people think about books as printed objects,
but we have always dealt with and been fascinated with illuminated and decorated manuscripts,
the earlier the better. The more splendid the better in terms of their decoration.
The earliest book that we have in inventory right now is a 13th century lectionary. It
was produced in Lombardy. It’s got 220 leaves, and it is a monster. It’s 445 – Well, you
can see how tall it is. 445 millimeters tall, 221 leaves. It’s got lots of decorative initials.
It’s a liturgical book, a book that would have been used in an Ecclesiastical context.
Finding single leaves from a book like this in today’s marketplace happens from time to
time, but to find a book this grand, basically intact – There are eight leaves missing,
but 221 that are there – is a special kind of experience. The book later belonged to
a 16th century humanist named Paolo Giovio, whose name is important, especially if you’re
interested in history and illustration. The oldest item in inventory now is leaf from
the ninth century. We think it was probably done about 850. A time not far removed from
a special moment in the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne, in 1796, appointed Alcuin of
York to be the supervisor of the scriptoria at Tours. In the scriptoria at Tours, he supervised
what was basically the evolution of the Carolingian Minuscule. The Carolingian Minuscule basically
was a revolutionary handwriting. Before Charlemagne, before Alcuin of York,
there were a lot of regional scripts that were all crammed and difficult to read. This
was a standardized script. It was beautifully fluid and clear. It could only facilitate
learning across Europe because it was readily embraced, because why not. It could be read,
and it could help in the dissemination of text. This leaf, you may notice, is not entirely
there. This column is all there except maybe at the top or bottom; that’s because it came
from the lining of a book. Most manuscripts, once printing began, were
considered to be obsolete. Not only without much use, but in a way undesirable. They were
put to use – It’s a very strong substance, vellum. They could be used as structural elements
to make books sturdier. This has come from the lining of a book. It’s important, even
though it’s a single leaf, because the manuscripts at Tours are basically all gone, or mostly
gone. 1592, the scriptoria, the monasteries were sacked by the Huguenots. Elements took
care of the rest of the manuscripts. When the elements and the Huguenots were done,
then the French Revolution wiped out the rest so even a single leaf from the ninth century
is special. I have two more examples of vellum illuminated
manuscripts. One is from about 1470. It’s what called a Book of Hours. It’s a prayer
book that would have been used not in an ecclesiastical context, not in a monastery, but in a private
home. These Books of Hours tend sometimes, or tend usually, to be decorated, to be illuminated,
to have miniatures if they could be afforded. If you were a person of means, you would not
be self-respecting unless you had a Book of Hours full of wonderful pictures to look at.
This is a very substantial Book of Hours. 331 leaves, 662 pages. It’s got 13 full page illuminated
borders and 33 historiated initials, initials that have history in them. Pictures I think
almost entirely of Saints who are being venerated in prayers where the miniatures are located. The production of illuminated manuscripts did not stop with the Renaissance. They continued
up through modern times. Of course, there was many fewer of them. Vellum is an expensive
material. A lot of sheep died for that lectionary on the table. But for people who were interested
in preserving the book arts, and interested in retraining a sense of the middle ages and
the renaissance, we continue to see the production of, and the purchasing of, illuminated manuscripts.
This is done about 1905. In fact, it is done in exactly 1905 because it’s signed in the
back by a woman named Ibbs, I-B-B-S. Her work is not particularly prolific. She’s only known
to have illustrated four books, but boy is it beautifully done. Done in the manner of
the 12th/13th century. The quality of the illumination is just outstanding.
Now I’m going to go backward a little bit because what I have in my hand here is a vellum
leaf from 1460. It’s not a manuscript, but it’s a printed leaf. I wanted to organize
this presentation into manuscripts and into printed items, as opposed to chronological.
But this is a very good example of the fact that printing and illuminated manuscript production
were taking place at the same time. When this 1470 Book of Hours was being commissioned and
produced, printed books were also being issued. A person forming a library would have a choice
between the newfangled technology or the tried and true way of producing books.
This is a vellum leaf again recovered from the binding of a book, which comes from a
work on Canon Law. It was printed by two guys named Fust and Schoeffer. 1460 is a very,
very early book, very, very early printed book. Not surprising, Fust and Schoeffer have
a very direct connection with Gutenberg, the person responsible for the Gutenberg Bible,
which is generally considered to be the first important book printed in the western world.
Schoeffer worked for Gutenberg. Fust lent him money. When Gutenberg couldn’t pay it
back, Fust foreclosed on his print shop. Then Fust and Schoeffer went into business for
themselves, cemented by the fact that Schoeffer married Fust’s daughter. Anyway, this book
was printed in 1460, Canon Law. It’s probably printed on vellum, a good friend of mine says,
because earlier books on Canon Law would have been in vellum and it makes sense that this
book, which is going to join them on the shelves, would be on vellum as well, even though it’s
a lot more expensive than printing on paper, also technologically a lot more difficult. From the beginning with early printed books, printers usually issued most copies on paper
but they kept a few, printed a few, on vellum for very special clients like the Pope. Down
through the ages, printers who were interested in reaching clients who were interested in
putting together libraries full of luxury items would issue books in the same way; mostly
on paper but with a few copies on vellum. This is a book by a Frenchman named Gresset,
printed in France in 1867. It could hardly be more luxurious, certainly hardly more limited,
because it’s one of only two copies printed on vellum. It’s the poems of Gresset. It’s
a kind of a humorous story. It was very well received. Gresset, the author, was an Ecclesiastic.
His poems were popular enough that he wrote more. Some of them were slightly risqué.
He got thrown out of his order and he spent the rest of his life in deep remorse.
But it’s a beautiful book; both in terms of the vellum, the illustration, and the binding.
It’s no surprise that because of its binding, and because of its limited luxurious nature,
it was owned by a man named Robert Hoe and a man Mortimer Schiff. Robert Hoe was America’s
most famous book collector, founder of the Grolier club. He owned a Gutenberg Bible on
paper, one on vellum. When his library was sold, it fetched more money than other library
ever had. The record’s held something for like 50 years. Mortimer Schiff specialized
in fine binding, bought a lot of books that Robert Hoe had owned.
Finally, we get into what we can call modern private press books. Again, the same principal
holds. The number of books issued in a private press run would typically be small, 200, 250.
Of the 200 or 250, a certain smaller number, 10, 12, 15 sometimes, would be printed on
vellum. Here is Spenser’s Epithalamion and Amoretti, two of the most famous poems in
English in a binding by an outfit named Bumpus. Bumpus is not in the first rank of binders,
like Riviere, and Sangorski, and Sutcliffe, and Zaehnsdorf, but very high up in the second
rank. It’s a lovely binding with lots of inlays. It’s simply a beautiful book and that’s the
end of the story. Last, and in way grandest, at least in a certain
way, is the Ashendene Apuleius, printed in 1924. This is one of I think 16 copies on
vellum. In a special biding done by W. H. Smith. Because it’s a large book and printed
in black, red, and blue, it is simply a wonderful thing to look at, and a wonderful thing to
touch. It has a kind of buttery feeling, the vellum, because there’s all kinds of vellum;
some that’s rough and scratchy and not much fun to touch, and some that’s like this.
The Ashendene press was one of three presses in the forefront of the arts and crafts movement
in England. There was William Morris’ Kelmscott Press. There was Cobden-Sanderson’s Doves
Press. And there was Hornby’s Ashendene Press. For my money, the Ashendene Press had the
most beautiful books and this is one of the most beautiful Ashendene books, especially
on vellum.

12 thoughts on “Vellum Through the Ages

  1. Are the books all in original bindings? They seem like they're in really good condition for being so old!

  2. Most of the books are, in fact, in original bindings–this is what we try for. But inevitably sometimes the bindings perish and need to be replaced.

    Thanks for your interest, and all the best,
    Phil

  3. Very interesting; thank you. I have a special interest in 11th-12th century France. Would the Carolingian script that you mention became universal, have dominated educated and liturgical writing in France by that period?

  4. Awesome video, I really enjoyed watching it. It's interesting to look at these historic pieces, and get the context for how and why they were made, compared to books today. Not to mention, they're works of art in of themselves!

  5. Hello, just found your channel and I'm hooked! 🙂 Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I wanted to know, if I may, where can I learn about the types of vellum available? which is the highest quality one? how do you measure the quality of vellum? and even more broadly, what is the most durable and highest quality type of paper available? (i.e. vellum, regular wood paper, etc. — what are the differences between them) Thanks! 🙂

  6. By the twelfth century late Carolingian miniscule was transitioning to proto-Gothic, which would eventually yield the minim-laden, dense Gothic hands characteristic of the late middle ages. Carolingian miniscule dominated from the ninth, through the eleventh centuries, except in England, where insular hands remained strong until the late ninth/early tenth century (though English handwriting continued to retain much of its local character).

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