Kit: Books and bookbinding

Anglo-Saxon books

Books were generally produced in monastery scriptoria by monks and nuns. Religious works (Bibles, lives of saints etc.), translations of classical texts, medical books (leechbooks), collections of literature and versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were made. Some monasteries (e.g. Monkwearmouth-Jarrow) had impressive libraries. Alfred the Great was incredibly keen on increasing literacy (both in Latin and Englisc) among the clergy and in promoting learning and knowledge of the classics. To this end, he sent out copies of his Englisc translation of Gregory's Cura Pastoralis to churches throughout his kingdom. Nevertheless, books were expensive artefacts and not something to be owned by the common man or woman (most of whom were illiterate). A book would be an appropriate accessory for a priest, bishop, monk or nun and so if you take on one of these characters a book might be a nice addition to your kit. There is some evidence for small, personal books: for instance, Aelfwine, who became the abbot of a monastery at Winchester in the early 11th century, possessed a book which contained prayers, methods for calculating the date of movable feasts, notes on numerology and natural phenomena, medical remedies and other interesting things.

How to make a book


This sequence of photos show I (Freya) made the experimental book shown on the right. It is for my nun character and contains mainly remedies from Bald's Leechbook, plus a couple of religious texts. The finished item measures approx. 100x120x10mm. The texts were copied onto parchment double-pages which were then sewn together along the spine into a single 'quire.' (Larger books would have multiple quires). This was attached to leather thongs whch were threaded through holes drilled in the front and back covers. These were made of pieces of 3mm plywood. I covered the inner side of the wood with linen prior to drilling - I have no evidence for this being done, but the wood was rather scruffy and I had scrap linen, so it seemed sensible. I then sewed the end of the thongs together to make closed loops. The book was then covered with sheep leather, which is thin and flexible. Before gluing on the leather, I attached a hook made of twisted and hammered wire to the front cover (stitched on) and a leather strip terminating in a decorative hook of knotted and hammered wire to the back cover (glued through a slit cut inthe cover). Pachment likes to spring back into the shape of the animal it covered, so closing the book with a clasp of some kind is essential. Very expensive books would have wonderfully decorated coverd with inlaid metal and precious stones, but I think it very unlikely that a personal book of this sort would have been decorated. The sheep leather won't take impressions well and there is very little evidence for leather being painted in our period, so I'm keeping it plain.

1) Attaching thongs to the spine of the quire as it is sewn together with linen thread.


2) View of the inside of the bound quire.


3) Front and back cover boards, covered with linen and drilled.


4) Sewing the thongs together to close them.


5) Leather glued over back cover; note use of a single cross-stitch in each corner to fix them tightly (put the stich in loosely and pull tight as you wrap the glued leather over).


6) View of the inside front cover once glued.



Eadfrith the Scribe: a 15-minute programme about Anglo-Saxon scribes from BBC Radio 3's The Essay.
The Making of the Lindisfarne Gospels: Midgard Living History's wonderful guide to inks and pigments (including how to make your own).

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