Clasps that Hold Tight: Archival Sources for Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book

Clasps that Hold Tight: Archival Sources for Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book

In her 2008 novel, People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks presents the fictionalized history of a single book through the lens of Hanna Heath, an Australian expert in rare books. Centered on the Sarajevo Haggadah, Brooks flips through its pages and offers her readers a glimpse into the book’s past using clues stuck to, drawn in, spilled on, and missing from the book.

Over the next few weeks, I want to provide readers of People of the Book with real-world examples from archives, libraries, and museums across the world. These examples should help you picture what Brooks is describing, contextualizing her novel and providing an introduction to the history of the book.

Other posts in this series:

Clasps appear to have developed in tandem with the codex, manuscripts bound together to form the first recognizably book-like books. Since these very first books were made of parchment or other organic materials, they were particularly vulnerable to moisture and fluctuations in temperature.

There are two ways clasps promoted longevity. First, clasps insured that books remained closed when not in use. The less a page is exposed to things like air, dust, humidity, or light, the longer it will last. Locking a book shut with a clasp meant that no matter where a book was, no matter what position it was in, it would remain closed tight.

Second, clasps provide consistent and even pressure, which was needed to keep a book’s pages flat. Parchment pages, for example, buckle at ambient room temperature with enough force to crack a wooden book cover. By holding a book tight, clasps prevented pages from warping, cracking, and becoming illegible.

Although clasps were very practical, they were also aesthetically important. The clasps on a book told you a lot about the values and social position of its owner. Weither they were made out of modest (leather straps) or expensive (gold, gems) materials, simple in design or extravagant, homemade or crafted by the world’s finest jewelers, reflected a book’s content and its owner’s wealth.

In People of the Book, the Sarajevo Haggadah’s clasps were definitely in the expensive-extravagant-world’s finest jewelers category. They were silver, carved with a “motif of flower[s] enfolded by wing[s].” (104) But rather than being luminous in gold or incrusted with jewels, it was delicately carved in silver.

The Sarajevo Haggadah, like most of its contemporaries, would have had two clasps, one near the top of the book and one near the bottom. This insured that the pages remained in place, and it was the dominant clasp style in Medieval Europe until the end of the 16th century.

There are two reasons clasps became obsolete. First, books were increasingly made out of cloth or rag paper. Made from leftover clothing fibers, like linen and, later, cotton, rag paper was much less venerable to changes in temperature and moisture. It was also resilient against dust and light, meaning it could be left out and open without any negative effects. Second, the advent of the printing press and a general increase in European literacy, meant there were many more books in circulation. Up until then, books were always stored horizontally, taking up a lot of room on shelves and tables. With the massive influx of material available, people had to start shelving their books vertically to save space. Not only did giant clasps get in the way, they were also just no longer necessary.

Regardless, they remain beautiful reminders about the complex and developing history of the book.

Below are a few clasps from the same period and in the same style described in Brooks’s book, all of which can be found preserved in archives and special collections:

  • Folger Shakespeare Library | If you scroll though the Folger’s online collection of clasps, you will get a great idea of the different types of binding from different places and periods. Although none of them really line up with the Haggadah in Brooks’s book, this blog entry does give a solid overview of the topic.
  • Hugging a Medieval Book (Leiden University) | On his blog, Erik Kwakkel, a book historian, explores a type of Medieval clasp, which was a popular contemporary to the Haggadah’s clasps. However, instead of a rose and wing, these clasps are meant to mimic clasping hands and arms. If you are interested, Kwakkel’s blog is a rich resource for information on all aspects of Medieval manuscripts and books.
  • The British Museum | These clasps, removed from their original book, are probably very similar to those in People of the Book. They are beautiful examples of detailed silver work, although Christian in origin and not Jewish.

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