Thinking medieval this Halloween? If you want to dress the part of a monk, judge or noble from the Middle Ages, and be authentic, then you must put your girdle on; that is, a girdle book, from the less widely known, obscure piece of vintage book history that, when worn, will make your costume the buzz of the party. Well, maybe not the buzz, but a likely conversation starter, at least.
Think ancient iPad; these small portable books were made for convenience, travel, and were more often symbols of faith and one’s status in society. A book, yes, but one that was specially constructed to attach to a belt (girdle), or slung over the shoulder or across the arm, with a covering made to protect it from the elements and provide a level of security.
The book’s cover, usually made of pliable animal skin, was extended at the bottom’s edge, tapered, and the end tied into a good-sized knot, or a hook was attached. Secured to the belt, the book hung upside down which made it easy to flip up into the right reading position when needed. Ingenious design at the time.
I’ll leave you with links at the end of this post for instructions on how to put together one of these rare gems. Just don’t zip-scroll through my
amazing brief survey of the role played by the girdle book, just to get to the link, or I’ll have to go all medieval on your….well, you know.
Say your prayers. As we know, faith played a crucial role in the Middle Ages, sometimes referred to as the Age of Faith. Times were tough for most — “nasty, brutal and short,” to borrow from Hobbs. The rules of social behavior were spelled out through every religious faith, with the ultimate promise of eternal bliss or damnation in the here-after.
Those rules, in the form of stories and prayers, had already been scribed in books and scrolls for centuries, in works such as the Bible, Torah and the Koran. They were a major ingredient in the glue that held societies together. Whether peasant or king, I can only imagine a life of fear not knowing the science behind a solar eclipse, drought, or diseases like the Plague. In medieval Europe, the Bible, by way of the Church and its clergy, held the answers.
No monkeying around. At that time, monks, nuns, priests and other church officials prayed often and at certain times of the day. The girdle book, in this case, was made as a reduced-sized prayer book. For the monk who worked in the fields, the book was tucked through his belt and hung, leaving his hands free for work, the prayer book protected and ready when needed. Some monks and other clergy traveled for missionary work and pilgrimages. Having the prayer book attached with other travel necessities along the belt was a convenience, as well as an outward symbol of one’s faith.
At left, is a close up of St. James on pilgrimage prominently wearing a girdle book, from “The Last Judgement” by Hieronymus Bosch, 1482. The significance of displaying ones faith in this time period is evidenced in the hundreds of paintings and sculptures where girdle books appear.
Here comes the judge. The other major ingredient holding back society from chaos was law, both civil and criminal. As you may be aware, the earliest of judges traveled great distances to cover their jurisdictions. A judge brought the legal authority with him and held “court” in the towns and villages on his route (or, circuit). Carrying a regular-sized legal book filled with cases and codes was too daunting. They, too, put the smaller, lighter girdle book to use.
Two of the remaining girdle books hold philosophy texts. The most famous is of Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy, held at Yale.
Bedazzle! Of course, those that didn’t have to travel light, wanted a piece of the papal action. Religion meets high fashion. Well-to-do, God-fearing Christians traveled with their girdle books. Only, these were also colorful works of art.
Every book, manuscript or scroll up until the invention of the printing press in the 1500s was painstakingly handwritten. In fact, that was the work of many monks, to copy and scribe religious texts on parchment. Nobility had the means to hire artists to create private copies of illuminated Bibles and prayer books. It was a certain type of devotional book, a Book of Hours, a much smaller book–deck of cards size and even miniatures–that was sometimes bound as a girdle book. A Book of Hours was a very popular medieval text with nuns, as well as, among nobles and wealthy laypersons, that contained prayers, calendars and zodiacs.
Not to miss out on the opportunity to exhibit their religious devotion, literacy and place in society, girdle books for nobility were also blinged out with brass fittings and iron-clad corners, gold and jewels. The photo below, from the British Museum, shows the Rolls Royce of royal girdle books. This was the time of feudalism. Of great wealth and greater poverty. Less than ten percent of the people could read. Hanging a book from one’s belt, for some, reeked power and status.
Time marches on. So far, only — and, remarkably — 23 original girdle books are known to have survived six to eight centuries. Interest in them has grown over the last decade or so with scholars and book binders. Girdle books were here a relatively short span of time in book evolution years, but they served crucial cultural, social and, in some ways, political roles.
As promised, here are two links that show how to put together one of these Gothic books. Amaze your friends and family this year with a medieval girdle book straight from the days of Robin Hood!
**This gives a pattern for the material to cover the book. She embroiders it, but I would bling it out!
**This one seems simpler, like covering your books from school, she explains. It involves sewing, but I’ll wager the fabric could be glued onto the book covers.
I’ve only scratched the surface. If you want to find out more, tap these wonderful resources:
The Medieval Girdle Book: A Format for Easy Access. Great research presentation by Margit Smith.