Figure 6: Primary end band

A Gothic endband from Chichester Cathedral Library – Part 1: An unusual feature

By Lena Krämer, MA Conservation Studies: Books and Library Materials

As part of our course, our subject leader Mariluz took the MA books students to Chichester Cathedral to look at some of the marvellous bindings kept in the library. Throughout the visit, we not only saw a great range of binding structures, but also examined some bindings in detail and exercised our bibliographical description skills. Being able to understand and describe bindings just from looking at them is a vital skill for conservators, because this allows us to make treatment decisions that are tailored to the individual item, and to accurately document the changes we may make to the object.

One of the books we discussed during our visit was a Gothic binding covered in alum tawed skin stained a bright pink. This binding was an eyecatcher, even despite its very apparent areas of damage (Figure 1). We had already spent some time examining different elements of the binding when I noticed something odd about the endbands. At first, I could not quite explain what it was, and perhaps it was simply the extent of damage that drew my attention there. The more I looked at them, the more the endbands confused me, and the less was I able to understand how they could have been made.

Endbands are important structural elements of a Gothic binding, as they provide additional support to the sewing of the textblock and play a vital role in the way a book opens and moves. Throughout the history of bookbinding, there has been a great variety in the way endbands were made and attached to the textblock, and in the way in which they interact with the covering material. In most books, the covering material stretches over both boards and the spine, and the excess is turned in to the inside of the boards along all edges. However, there is also excess covering material at the spine, and this has been dealt with in a number of ways. Either, it is left where it is as a tab, through which an endband can be sewn (Figure 2); or it is folded in over itself, out of the way of the endband (Figure 3);  sometimes it is simply trimmed off (Figure 4); and other times, it wraps around the endband as additional protection of the endband (Figure 5).

In the pink Gothic binding, the covering material was abraded away over the endbands, making it difficult to determine how they might have looked when still intact. What was visible was a primary endband: a thick cord core, secured in place by a thread wound again and again around it and tied down at the kettle stitch hole at every gathering (Figure 6). The covering material seemed to have extended at least some way over the primary endband, but evidence for this remained only in one small area (Figure 7). What was truly unusual were little strips of alum tawed skin, the same colour as the covering material, which appeared to stick out from between the textblock and the primary endbands (Figure 8). Initially, I thought that the covering material would have come up and over the endband and been secured in place by a saddle stitch running across the spine. On closer examination, however, I discovered that what we had presumed to be the thread of the saddle stitch was not thread at all, but strips of alum tawed skin, coming out from underneath the endband through holes in the spine (Figure 9). When I gently prodded one of these strips with a pair of tweezers, the strip on the other side moved, and it became clear that they were both ends of the same strip (Figure 10). I had never seen anything like it, so I decided to consult the “bible” of historic book structures - Szirmai's book The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding.

Unfortunately, Szirmai does not mention any comparable endband types in his book, and all attempts at researching this unusual feature have been unsuccessful so far.

Read my next blog post, Part 2:  A Reconstruction Attempt for an exploration of a possible way in which this endband could have been assembled.

Note: All diagrams were created by the author. All photographic images were taken by the author, with kind permission from Chichester Cathedral Library.


Szirmai, J. A. (2016). The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding. New York: Routledge.


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