Yes, this is the cover of my new book due to come out in June, and the book is rectangular - just like most books. Why this shape?
• Trim off the remains of its legs, neck and tail to give the largest possible rectangle of skin to be made into pages.
• Fold the rectangle in half lengthwise, then in half again and again at right angles to make a group of pages.
Yes it’s the cow’s fault!
Books were written on paper or skin from 1000AD onwards until skin became too expensive and not available in sufficient quantity. However, for a few centuries, even though writing and printing on paper was performed, the most ‘important’ books were always written on pages made of skin. Some books and documents are still written on skin.
Only in recent times have square and landscape format books been published or produced. For nearly two thousand years, books were always rectangular and ‘portrait’ – hinged on the long side.
Today, many books are printed with 8 pages to a side of large sheets of paper, which are then folded to make a gathering and sewn with others, and then trimmed perfectly to construct a book block ready for covering.
This method was used for the earliest books, too - folding sheets of vellum in half, then centrally at right angles, then in half again. Vellum (parchment means the same thing), made from cow or calf skin, was expensive in early times, so book creators always wanted to get the optimum number of pages from one hide, with no waste. When the remains of the neck, leg and tail had been removed, and the sides trimmed straight, the shape that remained for use was a rectangle, so the pages formed by folding were rectangular – and the tradition continued.
This method of folding was replicated for books with paper pages, and the sheets of paper were made in the same proportions as animal skins – and still are. Though no early instructions for folding have been found, study of ancient books from the first century AD onwards proves that this was the standard method of production. All medieval vellum books, without exception, had facing pages alternately ‘hair side together’ then ‘flesh side together’, no matter if they were precious or scruffily written and bound with little care. The same when paper was used, ‘wire marks from the mold (on which the paper was formed)/watermark sides’ together alternated with ‘non-embossed sides’ together.
You can test the outcome for yourself, similarly folding a sheet of paper that is printed on one side only. Facing pages are always the same, and alternate plain and printed – but the nature of the outer surfaces depends on whether you make the first fold with the printing facing you, or the plain side. There were traditions for vellum use. From the late Roman Empire and the Greek Orthodox world, the outer surfaces were flesh side, and this was revived in fifteenth century Italy for non-religious texts. But for the rest of Europe, from the pre-Carolingian to high Gothic periods, the first and last sides of the vellum were always hair side.
Skins were not always folded to make 8 pages (16 sides) in a gathering. In Spain, in particular, enormous 'antiphonal' vellum choir books were produced in the 16th century. I have a single page from one of them:
This one measures 85cm x 55cm.
Some books were smaller than a matchbox. This is the smallest one that I own. It was written in 1460:
|A vellum page from a Book of Hours|
As well as from cow and calf hides, vellum was also made from sheep, deer, goat, rabbit and squirrel skins – in monasteries, probably the remains of whatever was served for dinner – but these other animals all produced a rectangular sheet for folding, too, and therefore rectangular pages.
There are a few large sheets of vellum in existence that show that pages were sometimes written prior to folding, as a book would be printed today, but it’s uncertain how many early books were created in this way. Illuminations in manuscripts depict monks writing in folded sections and complete books. One scribe was responsible for writing a complete gathering, but multiple gatherings could be written by multiple scribes.
Just in case monks lost the plot of which page to write where on a large sheet, prior to folding, it’s thought the folding was usually done first, the front (fore-edge) slit through, and the folds along the short edge cut but leaving just enough remaining to hold the gathering together but still allow the scribe to turn the pages.
By the 15th century, at the latest, stationers were selling pre-folded and ruled gatherings of vellum and paper, ready for writing.
When I do school visits and workshops, students and attendees can handle these vellum pages and many more items from my collection. It can bring history and books alive - please check out the 'Visits' page on my Writing For Children website, and the 'History of Books'.