Bookbindings are an essential element of Bridwell Library’s mission to document the cultural history of books. In addition to enclosing and protecting valuable texts, bindings can serve as a mirror of society, reflecting religious attitudes, cultural values, and social status. Often beautiful as well as functional, bindings embody historic shifts in tastes and attest to the advanced state of craftsmanship in bygone periods. Bindings also provide valuable documentary evidence, as many contain names, coats-of-arms, and inscriptions of historical significance.
The principal form of surface decoration used by fifteenth-century binders was blind tooling, in which heated metal punches were used to press designs into the damp leather “in blind,” that is, without the use of pigment or gold leaf. Another traditional technique was cuir ciselé (cut leather), in which a pictorial design was carved into the leather. Later in the century, incised metal rolls were used to create repeating friezes of blind ornament, and engraved metal plates were used to impress a pictorial centerpiece in a single operation. These innovations were important labor-saving devices – a major concern as printed books became increasingly plentiful.