The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVIII. The Book-Trade, 1557–1625

§ 27. Bookbindings

The books which a stationer kept in stock for sale at his shop might be either in sheets, or stitched, or ready bound. A large number of books were sold in sheets, that is, merely folded, and the binding was a separate transaction carried out according to the taste and purse of the purchaser, either by the stationer who sold the book, or by any binder whom the purchaser might choose to employ. Pamphlets and books of an ephemeral nature were generally stitched, that is, stabbed through with a bodkin or awl and stitched with thread or a thin strip of leather, maybe with a paper wrapper to keep the outside leaves clean, or, sometimes, without any covering. By a regulation of the year 1586, it was ordered that no books so stitched should exceed forty sheets if in folio, twelve sheets in octavo, or six sheets in decimo sexto; any books consisting of more sheets than these were to be sewn in the regular manner upon a sewing press. The books kept in stock ready bound would be those for which there was a steady demand. These would be bound either in leather, sheep and calf being commonly used; or in vellum, finished off with two silk ties to keep the book closed; or they might be bound in paper boards.

In the first half of the sixteenth century, these commercial leather bindings were frequently ornamented with panel stamps, often of beautiful design, in which the royal arms and the Tudor rose frequently figured. The later panel stamps are much inferior in design and interest; and, in course of time, this form of decoration was to a large extent superseded by the roll, a tool which applied the ornament in the form of a ribbon on which the design was repeated. This method lent itself very readily to the decoration of either a folio or smaller cover; but the mechanical nature of the use of this tool soon extended to the ornamentation itself, which rapidly deteriorated both in the size of the roll and in the character of the design, and this was followed by the practical extinction of stamped work.

When books were bound in more luxurious fashion, they were usually executed for wealthy collectors or royal personages, and often represent the personal taste and predilection of the owner. The use of gold tooling on bindings, which originated in Italy towards the end of the fifteenth century, was introduced into England in the reign of Henry VIII, probably by Thomas Berthelet, printer and stationer to the king. In the bills for books bound for, and supplied to, the king by Berthelet, in the years 1541–3, are several instances of this new style of binding; some are described as “gorgiously gilted on the leather,” or “bounde after the Venecian fascion,” while others are “covered with purple velvet and written abowte with golde.” The English gilt leather bindings of this time, and throughout the sixteenth century, are almost entirely imitations of foreign styles, in which French influence predominates. Not only were a large number of the binders actually foreigners, but even the English craftsmen did little more than copy foreign designs.

One of the favourite styles of design in the latter half of the century was an imitation of the Lyonese manner, in which the sides were decorated with heavy gold centre and corner pieces, enclosed within a plain or gilt border, the ground being either left plain or, more generally, powdered with small ornaments. This style continued in vogue into the reign of James I. Archbishop Parker, whose catholic tastes included bookbinding, employed a bookbinder in his own house, and the special copy of his De antiquitate Britannicae ecclesiae, which he presented to lord treasurer Burghley, and which was “bound by my Man,” was done in this manner. On the other hand, the copy of this book which he presented to the queen was in an elaborate and beautiful embroidered binding, possibly in deference to the taste of Elizabeth, whose preference appears to have been for embroidered bindings and for books bound in velvet, especially red, with clasps of gold or silver. This taste was shared by her successor, for whom, in 1609, Robert Barker, at that time printer and binder to the king, bound books in “crymson, purple, and greene velvet,” and “in taffity, with gold lace.” James I, who was a lover of sumptuous bindings, also had many books finely bound in leather, and these usually bore the royal arms stamped in gold on the side, the ground being powdered with fleurs-de-lis or other small emblems. Another style which obtained in the sixteenth century was a plain binding of leather or velvet, decorated with corners and clasps of pierced silver work. The elaborate embroidered bindings in which coloured silks, gold and silver thread, and occasionally pearls were employed was an essentially English art.

Among the notable collectors who dressed their books in distinctive coverings were Thomas Wotton, who adopted the style and adapted the motto of Grolier, and Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, whose most characteristic style was a plain binding having his well known badge, the bear and ragged staff, with his initials stamped on the side. But there were book lovers as well as book collectors, and one’s heart warms much more towards the scholarly library of archbishop Parker, or the plain brown folios of Ben Jonson with their familiar inscription Sum Ben: Jonsonij, and his motto Tanquam explorator.

In the early seventeenth century, there worked at Eton a good binder, who commonly had “his hands full of worke, and his head full of drinck”; at Oxford, Pinart and Milles bound for Sir Thomas Bodley; and, from Cambridge, where good work was being carried on, Nicholas Ferrar obtained the crafts-woman “that bound rarely,” and the result of her instruction is seen in the bindings of that distinctive character which is associated with the settlement at Little Gidding and the name of Mary Collet.