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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.
Finding the Haggadah: Archival Sources for Understanding Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book

Finding the Haggadah: Archival Sources for Understanding 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–the Sarajevo Haggadah–as seen by Dr. Hanna Heath, an Australian expert in rare books. Alternating between Hanna’s story and glimpses from the Haggadah’s past, Brooks pieces together the book’s history using the clues stuck to, drawn in, spilled on, and missing from it.

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.

To start us off, the Haggadah.

The Haggadah is a sacred Jewish book that sets out to fulfill the commandment to “tell your son” of the escape from Egypt. A blueprint for the Seder, or ritual feast at the beginning of Passover, the Haggadah is a very common book, one that can be found in almost every Jewish home. Although most are rather normal-looking, throughout the last eight-hundred years many have been designed with extraordinary attention to detail and a lot of money. Surviving examples in libraries, archives, museums, and private collections present scholars with insight into Medieval manuscript illumination, Jewish and Biblical art, and the history of the book in Europe.

The examples provided below are keeping to the general genre of Brooks’s Haggadah. They are from Medieval Europe, illuminated with human figures, made from expensive materials, and finely decorated by a master.

  • Sarajevo Haggadah (Catalonia, c. 1350): This real book was the inspiration for Brooks’s fictional one, in name and design. Although it belongs to the National Museum, the Haggadah is currently on display in the main hall at the Sarajevo Parliament in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • The Golden Haggadah (Catalonia, c. 1320): Comparable to the Sarajevo Haggadah, both being created in the same area around the same time, the Golden Haggadah is different in two ways. First, although the Sarajevo one is illuminated with copper and some gold, the Golden one lives up to its name: gold covers almost every page of illustration. Second, the Golden Haggadah has almost double the miniature illustrations (56 to Sarajevo’s 34). In content and size, this version of the Haggadah is stunning in its overwhelming luxuriousness. Currently owned by the British Museum, it is available in full online.
  • The Birds’ Head Haggadah (South Germany, c. 1300): Quite possibly the oldest Haggadah in existence, the name comes from the bird-like features of the people in this book’s marginal illustrations. This style of drawing skirted the rules against drawing humans by giving them pronounced beaks, and it was very common in Southern German manuscripts of the time. This Haggadah is currently owned by the Israel Museum.
  • The Washington Haggadah (South Germany, 1478): Created more than 100 years after the Sarajevo Haggadah in Brooks’s book, the Washington Haggadah has a much clearer provenance (the history of who owned it, when, and where). We know, for example, that it was created by Joel ben Simeon and came into the possession of the Library of Congress as part of a large accession in 1916. Frequently on tour, this version of the Haggadah is one of the most accessible in person, having spent a long time at the Met and available in facsimile through Harvard University Press.
  • The Rylands Haggadah (Catalonia, c. 1330): Most likely the finest Haggadah in existence, the Rylands Haggadah incorporates a variety of illustrative techniques with the text and includes a 13-page miniature cycle, which details Exodus from the burning bush to the Red Sea. As such, it is a pillar of Judaic and Biblical art and a standout example of the genre. Owned by the John Rylands University Library, Manchester, it was also displayed at the Met and available in facsimile.
The Platonic Crises of Form: Chartier’s Evaluation of Dualities

The Platonic Crises of Form: Chartier’s Evaluation of Dualities

More information is lost every day than is saved, which is as true of today’s digital information overload as it was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The origins of overload, argues Roger Chartier in Inscription and Erasure, are located in its own success.

An early image of an archive, complete with a mention of its organizational system.
An early image of an archive, complete with a mention of its organizational system.

In obsessively saving, organizing, and preserving the written word from destruction, our grasp of the seemingly boundless amount of information spirals out of the control of its makers. Between fear and overload, oblivion and loss of control, and erasure and inscription lies written culture. These dualities, according to Chartier, underpin the foundational tension between producing and consuming the written word; however, this has been obscured by historiographical dualities, specifically between the materiality of the book and the book’s content.

His volume reorients the discussion, uniting the symbolic meaning of the text with its textual forms. Appropriating the structure of the dualities he critiques, Chartier uses a series of juxtapositions as the basis for his essays on how the process of writing and publishing were incorporated into literary works. Though this approach is at times uneven and occasionally leads to unconnected tangents (like the three pages on whether or not Cyrano de Bergerac was homosexual, which I found particularly out of place), this allows Chartier to deconstruct two axioms of written culture: the fixity of print and the universal experience of the reader.

First, in his project to unite material culture with the sociology of the text, Chartier argues that variations in the text of a publication could occur at any point in the production of the work, calling into question fixity of print. Chartier is pushing Adrian Johns’ argument that in early modern Europe print was not considered fixed because of the ever present specter of plagiarism one step farther. For Johns the search for fixity is the search for authority, but for Chartier fixity was never really part of the equation, as fixity or as authority. Because publishing was necessarily collaborative and because, even after publication, changes could be made (via stop press corrections or page cancels), the manner of production automatically renders print not only unfixed, but unfixable. Instead print existed exclusively in relation to other modes of knowledge—handwritten manuscripts, oral transmission, and memory—essentially a definitive feature of print. As he argues, “Every work exists only in its simultaneous and successive forms.”[1]

Not relegated to early modern Europe, this coexistence is seen even into modernity. For example, Soviet Russia’s underground literary scene required multiple though simultaneous modes of textual transmission. Mikhal Bulgakov’s masterful The Master and Margarita has no definitive original text. Instead the book as we know it today was a compilation of several different manuscripts which secretly circulated in the 1930s and were constantly being revised. I assert, and I think Chartier would agree, that none of these versions are anymore fixed than any other; instead, they should be understood in relation with each other, with their multiple revisions, and with their historical context.

Second, this approach allows Chartier to question the universality of readership, suggesting that not only did the experiences of texts differ but so too did their modes of readership. Although this argument is most pronounced in “Commerce in the Novel” where Chartier argues that the dichotomy between extensive and intensive reading is a figment of the historiographical imagination and that the innovation of silent reading coexisted with more traditional modes, it is also suggested in “Text and Fabric.” Using the lens of gender in this chapter, Chartier attempts to reconstruct the relationship between text and textile.

This argument starts out strong by connecting the “word” of Italian comedy to the textile trade, but then he gets bogged down in establishing the feminine connection to authorship via their traditional connection to textiles, specifically in needlepoint. In sewing letters onto canvas, Chartier argues, women were reaffirming their feminine role as purveyors of fabric while also subverting the assumption of female passivity in reading. Here he wants to see readership in its multiplicity, that of the feminized textile and the masculine craft. Though I agree that readership should never be seen as universal or teleological, this particular example does not hold any water. Not only does he ignore the very literal connection between text and textile—that paper originally was made with rags—this supposedly subversive act was not of authorship or readership at all. Instead, these needlepoint letters were graphic and part of a larger culture of needlework and female craft.

Chartier’s instinct to take a gendered approach to readership, however mistaken in implementation, is sound in principle. Heidi Brayman Hackel uses marginalia, another form of writing which exists between erasure and inscription, to reach a similar conclusion. Though the social and material limits on female reading and writing were more restricted in early modern Europe than on their male counterparts, women still showed profound variation in the types of material they read and how they expressed their understanding of their reading. In the end, she concludes as Chartier does, that even gendered readership was not uniform, universal, or totalizing.

Unifying the material and social aspects of literary works in this way reminds scholars that when studying written culture, in all of its many forms, one must maintain a dynamic tension between the permanency and ephemerality, between historically and historiographically constructed dualities.

Works Mentioned:
  1. Brayman Hackel, Heidi. Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  2. Chartier, Roger. Inscription and Erasure: Literature and Written Culture from the Eleventh to the Eighteenth Century. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
  3. Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998.


[1] Chartier, 33.