Sixteenth Century Breviary of the Use of Orleans

I am going to start this series of articles on the bindings of liturgical books, by looking at a French Breviary of the mid sixteenth century. The book I’m going to consider is sitting before me on my desk as a write. It is a Breviary according to the liturgical Use of Orleans and in that respect it is pretty scarce. The book was was printed in Orleans in 1542, by François Gueiard and was originally part of a pair of volumes, sadly only the pars estivalis survives. As you would expect from a liturgical book of the time, the printing of the text is very conventional in blackletter with rubrication throughout. The decoration within the text is also sparse; there are a couple of woodcuts and a decorated initial or two, but such fripperies are kept to an absolute minimum. This isn’t a luxury Book of Hours for a wealthy lay person, but a working text for a priest in a parish.

Those who have owned the book in the past have left their mark on it. We know that in 1761 this book was in the library of the Cluniac priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs in Paris. Presumably it was sold in 1790 when the priory was suppressed during the French Revolution. On the front pastedown a former owner of the book has written a line of plainsong. At the back of the book are a number of inscriptions written in a hand of the mid sixteenth century. One inscription is written in verse and records the name of the first owner of the book. He was a man (presumably a priest) called Jacobus (Jacques), who asks to be known as ‘Roger Bontemps’, a figure in French folklore who represented a state of leisure and joviality.

The binding of the book is a little later than the printing, perhaps of the 1550s of 1560s. In the Early Modern period, books were generally only bound once they were purchased at the bookseller and the sale of the book and the binding process often happened a considerable time after a book was printed. The form and decoration of the binding would have been chosen by the client, in this case by the priest Jacques and would have reflected their means. This book was bound just at the moment time when two innovations were occurring in book binding practice. Prior to the mid sixteenth century, the majority of books were bound with wooden boards. By the 1550's this was changing and a new material called ‘paste board’, made of sheets of waste paper pasted together, was being used introduced. It was cheaper produce, was easier to work and it was lighter, making the bound book easier to handle. The boards of this book are made paste board and they have been overlaid with a full calf binding.

The second innovation that was becoming common practice at this time, was the use of gold tooling. Books prior to the 1530s were invariably decorated in blind tooling, without the use of gold leaf. The decoration on the binding of this Breviary, is entirely in gold leaf. The decoration is quite restrained and minimal. The front and back boards of the volume are decorated with a single line running around the margin of the board, this is called a ‘fillet’ line. In the centre of each board a large centre tool has been applied, this is in the fashionable ‘Moresque’ or ‘Arabesque’ style, which contrasts with the conventional late medieval form of the printed text the binding protects. Each compartment of the spine is decorated with a single cross pattée and as you would expect from a book bound when books were stored fore-edge facing outwards, there is no spine label. Although the gilt tooling on the boards is very spare, that doesn’t mean this is a budget binding, quite the contrary. This form of minimalist treatment and the Arabesque decoration, was the height of fashion in France in the mid sixteenth century. Although worn now, it is clear that when first bound the edges of this book were gilt solid too, further evidence that this is a first rate binding. When originally bound for the priest Jacques, this little Breviary, the tool of his trade, was a fine volume indeed and worthy of the liturgy of the Church.

Dr. Allan Barton
Art historian, bookbinder and clergyman of the Church of England. Allan Barton obtained his MA in Medieval Studies and Ph.D in Art History at the University of York.

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