The History of Coptic Bookbinding (Erica Crane '13)

Introduction:
Coptic bindings are seen as the first “true” codices in book history.  Dating from the second century, Coptic bindings use a multiple loop stitch to bind page sections to a front and back cover. This method of sewing together paged documents was common practice through the eleventh century (Peterson, 41). “True” Coptic bindings leave the spine exposed, but some later examples of this technique have been encased in leather wrappings (Peterson, 45). The Coptic method of binding was first used to bind together leaves of papyrus in Islamic Egypt, and evolved alongside the ever-changing book technologies, binding everything from parchment to vellum and paper books. Tracing the history of Coptic Bookbinding from early uses through modern applications can help illuminate its relation to advancements in the technology of the book.
Figure 1.2, A simple Coptic Binding
 (Fig. 1. A simple Coptic Binding)
 
Figure 1, A typical Coptic sewing pattern
(Fig. 1.2. A typical Coptic stitching pattern)

Origins of the Technique

The transition from scroll to binding was a long one, but it is connected to the spread of Christianity. Beginning in the 2nd century AD in the eastern Mediterranean basin, the Egyptian Copts used a chain stitch (Fig. 1) to bind sheets of papyrus into the first single-quire or multi-quire codices. This book-style became the preferred format for texts in the new Christian religion (Gardner 42-45). In most cases, pages or quires were sewn together with a continuous thread and a single needle. The cover would be attached after the pages were sewn, protecting the front and back of the book, while leaving the spine exposed (Fig. 1.2). The pages could then be opened completely flat (Fig 1.3). The Copts were known to use pasteboard (made from papyrus) or lush, red leather as cover materials (Peterson, 41-46).

A Coptic binding open to 180 degrees

(Fig. 1.3. A Coptic bound book open to 180 degrees)
 

Nag Hammadi Codices

The most well-known early examples of bindings in the Coptic tradition are a series of Gnostic texts found near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi. It is thought that these codices may have belonged to a nearby monastery, and were buried after Bishop Anthanasius condemned the use of non-religious texts in 367 AD (Robinson). The writings contained in the Nag Hammabi codices included writings on the Gnostic tradition, many of which had been suppressed by leaders of the early Christian church. Their discovery spurred a strong push for scholarship on the Gnostic tradition, as previously discovered writings were rare and in poor condition.

These 13 papyrus codices (Fig. 2, below) were found buried in a sealed jar, still in their original binding. Needham describes their appearance in his history of bookbinding: “They are made of prepared goatskin or sheepskin, the upper covers have flaps similar to those later routine on Islamic bindings extending over the fore-edge and folding around to the lower cover” (Needham, 55-57). The bindings also have leather cords that can be used to tie the flaps down.
The Nag Hammadi Codices shortly after their discovery
 (Fig. 2. The Nag Hammadi Codices shortly after discovery) 
 

Coptic Bindings in Western Tradition

In Sixth through Ninth-century Europe, manuscripts were written on parchment and vellum, rather than the papyrus of eastern Egyptian Christian tradition. Since vellum and parchment are prone to curling, heavier wood boards replaced leather flaps as the binding of choice (Fig. 2.1 below).
(Fig. 2.1. A selection of Coptic
bindings using parchment with wood covers)
 

The St. Guthbert Gospel

The earliest surviving European book is the St. Cuthbert Gospel. The Gospel is comprised of 94 vellum folios bound in leather. The Coptic influence is “seen in the structure of the flax-thread stitching which holds the pages of the book together” (Breay, 2012). The Gospel, secured by the British Museum and displayed at Durham University, is a hand-sized copy of St. John’s Gospel that lay buried with St. Cuthbert for over 400 years until his allegedly incorrupt body was exhumed in 1104. The St. Cuthbert Gospel is the highest priced book in the Libraries collection, having been purchased for £9 million in 2012 (Breay, 2012). The book, produced in the Monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow retains its original bindings, revealing an intimate connection between the Coptic bindings of Eastern Christianity and the advancement of book technology in Europe.

A replica of The St. Cuthbert Gospel
 

(Fig. 4. A replica of the St. Cuthbert Gospel exterior binding)

The first folio of the St. Cuthbert Gospel
 
 (Fig. 5. The first folio of the St. Cuthbert Gospel)
 

VI. Coptic Bindings and their Modern Usage

The Coptic binding technique is used today by artists and hobbyists alike. The form is appreciated for its simplicity and durability. Not only can the binding be done easily by hand, it requires little tooling beyond an awl, and needs no adhesive. Coptic bindings are ideal for limited run artists’ books, as the exposed spine allows for pages to open flat, and also lends a true handmade quality. Handmade notebooks and journals, bound in the Coptic tradition, are popular items on the craft site etsy.com (Fig 6).

 

(Fig. 6. an example of a handmade Coptic bound journal on sale at Etsy.com)

   

Here is a link to a Coptic chain stich tutorial that would be ideal for a hobbyist looking to bind a handmade journal, sketchbook or scrapbook.

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Works Cited

Gardner, K. B. "Three Early Islamic Bookbindings." The British Museum Quarterly 26.1 (1962): 28-30. JSTOR. Web.

James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977).

Kammerer, Winifred. "A Coptic Bibliography." Traditio 2 (1944): 507-12. JSTOR. Fordham University. Web.

Milner, John, "Account of an Ancient Manuscript of the St John's Gospel", in Archaeologia, Volume xvi (1812), pages 17–21 online text, accessed 20 April 2013

Needham, Paul, Twelve Centuries of Bookbindings 400–1600, 1979, Pierpoint Morgan

Library/Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-211580-5

Peterson, Theodore C. "Early Islamic Bookbindings and Their Coptic Relations." (1954): 41-64. JSTOR. University of Michigan. Web.

"St Cuthbert Gospel Saved for the Nation", British Library Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Blog, accessed 20, April 2013

 

 

 

 

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