Dirck de Bray – Dutch Parchment Bindings, Montefiascone 2018

By Sarah Graham, Conservator, Maynooth University Library

As you walk along the nineteenth century Russell Library and look into the open bays, the light parchment bindings are easy to spot on the shelves. These have been brought to the collection from across continental Europe and so I was excited to return to Italy to learn more about their structure and production. The Montefiascone project is a four week programme every year at the Seminaro Barbarigo where students and tutors come from all over the world to study historic book structures. The seminary has a beautiful collection of books in its library which was first inventoried in c.1692 although some of its contents date back to the 15th century.[1] Flood damage and unideal environmental conditions were the geneses of a preservation project, from which the summer school grew. Thanks to funding from Maynooth University Library, I was able to attend two of these weeks; A Study of Romanesque Sewing Techniques in Book Production taught by Jim Bloxam and Shaun Thompson and Dirck de Bray and Beyond by Anne Hillam and Maria Fredericks. This blog will look at Dirck de Bray and how this method of production relates to items in the Special Collections and Archives.

Dirck de bray image 1.0At the centre of Anne and Maria’s week was a bookbinding manual produced by Dutch artist Dirck de Bray. It is a small, beautifully illustrated volume which provides thorough and practical steps as to the binding of books in 1658 when the new Dutch Republic was the largest European printing centre.[2] During the 17th century, text blocks and bindings were sold separately but the volume of printing in the Netherlands supported a healthy binding trade. It was liberating to follow de Bray’s instructions completely. He said only to sew the text block, so no pre-punching the sections or measuring distances between supports was allowed! To keep pace with demand, de Bray mentions a couple of ways to speed up the sewing process; either by sewing 2 sections at once or sewing every other support.

Dirck de bray image 1These variations continued when it came to sewing our endbands and attaching the vellum and boards. Guided by Anne and Maria who made each step look so easy in their demonstrations, we all quickly understood why the stuck-on sewn endband was so popular. The parchment core for the stuck-on endband was anchored in place by the adhered textile on the spine, making it much less fiddly. Likewise, I preferred the in-boards binding method where the paste boards are adhered and cut to the size of the text block. Then you have something to shape the vellum around. The other method is to shape the vellum first (as with a limp binding) and then slide the boards in. Turns out, I can make the latter method look very wonky! Both books look similar once finished, so by experiencing the variations of each step you better appreciate the details which give away the method of production.

Dirck de bray image 2Dirck de bray image 3The third book was a moulded spine, more common in Italy. Here the sections are sewn onto cords rather than strips of parchment to create the raised profile of the spine. As cord is weaker than parchment, it is not laced through the cover and in our models, only the parchment headband core can be seen on the outside. To make the parchment flexible enough to stretch over the cords, it was immersed in a bucket of water. Once it had been pasted, it was then shaped around the cords and tied in place so the definition of the raised cords would be retained as the parchment dried and contracted overnight. We also made paste papers to cover the boards but it is also common to see parchment cover the whole binding. The simple step of adding watercolour to the wheat starch paste ubiquitous in all conservation studios can result in so much fun! Maria made great vats of flour paste in the primary colours and we all got creative.

Dirck de bray image 4It was great to make every part of these books from the paste boards to the decorative finishes such as fore-edge ties and tooling. The course had a lovely, encouraging atmosphere thanks to the other students and especially the tutors.  Anne and Maria’s programme was fun, informative and creative. Their wealth of experience from years of research and conservation practice in New York gave great context for the bindings we were making within European book production. I went from being apprehensive with parchment bindings to feeling much more confident in knowing what to look for and in working with vellum.

Dirck de bray image 7Since being back in Maynooth I have been looking again at the parchment bindings and the subtle differences in their construction. They come from all over Europe but it may seem unusual that we have so many books printed in the protestant Dutch Republic. This shows both that there is a lot more to the Russell Library than theology, also the Counter-Reformation demand for theological and devotional literature ‘appears to have been irresistibly attractive even for the Calvinist booksellers in the Dutch Republic.’[3] I wonder if any elements of the following bindings now look a little more familiar?

Dirck de bray image 5

Dirck de bray image 6

CK905, 1583, 1865 and 2519 reproduced by permission of the Librarian, Maynooth University, from the St. Canice’s Cathedral Library, Kilkenny; on long-term loan from The Representative Body of the Church of Ireland. PH.1.61, SS.1.55, SS.2.20a and SS.3.47 reproduced by permission of the Librarian, Maynooth University, from the collections of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.


[1] http://monteproject.co.uk/en/the-seminary-library/ (accessed 03/09/2018)

[2] Hoftijzer, P.G. Dutch Printing and Bookselling in the Golden Age http://publications.nichibun.ac.jp/region/d/NSH/series/symp/2001-03-30/s001/s010/pdf/article.pdf (accessed 03/09/2018)

[3] Clemens, T.H. Trade Catholic Books From The Northern to the Southern Netherlands, 1650-1795. In Berkvens-Stevelinck et al (ed.) Le Magasin de l’Univers. The Dutch Republic as the Centre of the European Book Trade. Papers Presented at the International Colloquium, Held at Wassenaar, 5-7 July 1990. (Leiden, 1992) p86.

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