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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.
Thomason Tracts, EEBO, and Using Online Archives

Thomason Tracts, EEBO, and Using Online Archives

Untitled_Clipping_031114_033841_PMEarly English Books Online (EEBO) is a fantastic online database of scanned English language books from 1450-1700 and is comprised of 125,000 unique titles—a staggering resource by any measure!

For early modernists interested in print during the English Civil War, one of the most important collections included in EEBO are the Thomason Tracts, a collection of documents (pamphlets, manuscripts, journals, and books) which were collected, organized, and annotated by George Thomason between 1641-1661 (for more on the man and the collection).

This work’s value, besides its near completeness, lies in the remains of Thomason’s own hand, scrawled in the margins of nearly every page he obtained. Just like modern readers take post-it notes and highlighters to their materials, Thomason took his pen. English historians and literary critics have creatively used these remnants to reconstruct topics as disparate as reading habits, archival and library methodologies, political radicalization, and ideological transmission.

According to Jason Peacey (his new book is AMAZING-good) and since collaborated by several scholars and my own snooping, many of these annotations are missing from the digitized version of Thomason’s Tracts. Some were too faint to make out in the scan, and others were rendered completely illegible by it. This seems to me to be a profound loss of valuable historical documentation, of a unique epistemology which he created as he read and stored these written materials.

In a book talk with Dr. Peacey late last week, he suggested that this failure to correctly digitize Thomason’s Tracts was a failure endemic in the impulse to digitize archives at all. The process, he argued, inherently decontextualizes documents, making them easier to abstract as individual texts or bytes of information from the rich historical context of his creation.

For example, if I were to view the first page of William Prynne’s 1644 A true and full relation of the prosecution, arraignment, tryall, and condemnation of Nathaniel Fiennes… (an excerpt of which heads this post) in a photocopied form, then I would be less likely to abstract the text from the document. This means that, because of the feel of the paper and the heft of the book, I would be reminded of the tactile and visual experience of the original. Conversely, if I were to view this same page online, Dr. Peacey argues, then I would be more likely to think of the document as lines of text which I could cut-and-paste without ever thinking about the original book from which it came.

On one hand, Peacey is absolutely correct that the missing annotations from Thomason’s Tracts are an example of how digital archives can lead less-than-critical historians astray. The act of flipping through bound copies of his collection within the hallowed halls of the British Library is a completely different experience from me, alone, in my tiny studio apartment on a huge computer monitor. Much of Thomason’s original structure and the sensorial experience cannot be recreated.

Following this logic, on the other hand, leads me to question his two conclusions. First, if one is looking to replicate the experience of using the Thomason’s Tracts, how can photocopies be any better than the digitized version? Abstraction takes place the moment a document is inscribed into a new medium—copies will always be copies, no matter if they are photocopied, scanned, or some super cool future technology. The moment the smell of the paper or the feel of the page is missing, the scholar using the material has to be cognizant of recreating that aspect of her document. (My antiquarianism is showing a bit, no?)

Second, I am unconvinced that the missing annotations tell us anything about the failures of technologically recreated archives. Instead, I see one poorly digitized set of documents. Scholars are versed (though not explicitly instructed) in the culture of physical archives. They know how to use the materials, move around in the space, and conduct the “work of the archive.” Digital archives require the same literacy. Only since postmodernism forced us to confront the hidden systems of power inherent the archives, have we been conscious of how scholars can perpetuate these power systems or negate them. Perhaps this should carry over into our use of online archives—interrogate the silences, recreate the materiality, and be proactive on both of those fronts.

To their credit, EEBO has written many of the illegible annotations into the catalog records. Though not perfect, in doing so EEBO is acknowledging a shortcoming and correcting it. Yes, it is not like reading Thomason’s original annotation as he wrote it, but it is a start.

I think this is what scholars need to do when it comes to using online archival information more broadly: be aware of the selection bias and limitations of digitized technology, make sure you know the materiality of the original document by effectively employing the catalog information, and use these items with as much intellectual rigor as you would any other source.

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.

Of Vodka Lines and Books

Of Vodka Lines and Books

Three of my favorite anti-alcohol posters from Soviet Russia.
Three of my favorite anti-alcohol posters from Soviet Russia.

Winding their way through city centers, suburban spaces, and rural outposts, the ubiquitous vodka line simultaneously personified a long-standing history of Russian alcohol abuse, Gorbachev’s perestroika of the late 1980s, and the role of culture in defining what is and is not a commodity. Vodka was one of the earliest and most important units of exchange in Russia. From serf wedding negotiations to the rations paid to soldiers, it represented Russian manhood and was the cornerstone of the Russian working day.

I wonder what one of these men in line would say if you asked him about the value of their vodka. Is it the price of the vodka, which was cheap, that they would mention? Or, as Arjun Appadurai argues, commodities carry a cultural value along with their economic one, so the men would forefront vodka’s cultural value in their lives? According to Appadurai’s definition of a commodity, one which accords with Igor Kopytoff’s and Sidney Mintz’s, value is particular: in this case it was the judgment made about vodka by its makers and drinkers at that particular moment.

The existence of these lines, lines which men would spend hours in each day, is an example how vodka’s value was not as a thing, but as a relationship between the thing and the context. The price of the vodka was cheap, the demand was perpetually high, but its availability was strictly controlled. Its value is not only reflected in the price these men paid, but in their time, the social experience of the line, the state’s exercise of supply control, etc. This illuminates a far more complicated evolution of commodities (commodification?) which correlates to a concurrent evolution of meanings—meanings which are almost too numerous to adequately define, but incorporate both society’s relationship to the thing and the thing’s relationship to society (or culture in Kopytoff and Mintz).

Vodka in this context and sugar in Mintz’s share one meaning: a commodity which gradually became a necessity. Life without vodka or sugar was no longer livable, something evident in the presence of the vodka lines. This almost sacred relationship not only shifts the value of object to its individual consumer, but also to the larger system of value exchange. Just as sugar proved that the British colonial system worked, vodka lines in Russia did not bode well for the health of the Soviet economy.

The meaning of these commodities has thus far been literally consumable; however, what does this process look like when applied to another commodity—the book. The book, and the other print material this represents, is not always a commodity. Appadurai and Kopytoff argue that all objects are potential commodities, but are not necessarily always commodities. When a librarian cannot bear to cut the unbroken pages of the library book, when my sister organizes her library by color, and when I refuse to touch my illustrated Animal Farm with a pin, the book is no longer a commodity (though it might be a fetish). It is resingularized or a potential commodity in those moments, but its value comes from the culture not the economy.

But what if this idea is flipped? It is clear that not all objects are commodities, but one of the major questions which remain is whether or not Appadurai thinks all commodities are objects. A book has value as an object, but it also has a value as a unit of knowledge. Whether or not this knowledge, this non-object can achieve the status of commodity carries profound implications for this shifting understanding of value, a question which Appadurai raises but does not answer.

Materials Referenced:

1) Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penquin Books, 1986.

2) Appadurai, Arjun. “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

The Archive: An Anthropological “Type”

The Archive: An Anthropological “Type”

Collage of images from "Resurrection of Christ," a 19th century anthropologist's photo of native women, and an image from an advertisement.
Collage of images from “Resurrection of Christ,” a 19th century anthropologist’s photo of native women, and an image from an advertisement.

Fully nude and dancing in the background of a recently restored Vatican fresco, scholars believe they have uncovered the first artistic representation of Native Americans in Europe.[1] At least fifty years before previously believed, Pinturicchio’s depiction of native people in the “Resurrection of Christ” (c. 1793) was one of, if not the, first example of portraying Native Americans as uncivilized, nude savages. This image placed their bodies within a preexisting, European epistemological system—their location is evocative, on the right shoulder of the returning Jesus.

“Unclothed, acutely aware of the camera,” writes Philippa Levine about the various native peoples photographed much later, during the nineteenth century, for scientific and anthropological reasons, they “were, in the language of the day, anthropological ‘types,’ not individuals but representatives.”[2] In her work, Levine’s naked natives share much in common with Pinturicchio’s. The act of capturing these images rendered these people’s bodies archetypes for their race, symbols for the stretch of the British Empire, and knowable in a way which soothed colonial anxieties. What she argues, and what the recently uncovered painting suggests, is that these sorts of cultural artifacts or archives must be read against the grain for they tell historians more about the system of power, the contexts of colonialism, and the ordering of the Empire than they do about the truth they purport to represent.

Mentioning the archive in this way may seem out of place; however, the archive has a duel meaning: as system of collecting and storing documents as well as the base of knowledge a group of people use to build their understanding of the world. It is this latter way which Levine means the term when she describes the anthropological images as the “body standardized by a precise uniform background, could be observed, measured, and classified.”[3]

Interestingly, this sentence could be said about the East India Company and the creation of its institutional repository as described by Betty Joseph—the Company’s record of observations, measurements, standardizations, and classifications of the Indian people. The Company’s archive was influenced by two forces. On one hand, the Company wished to increase profit through expansion, and, on the other, it had to consolidate its power over the places it already controlled. The archive itself was a way to achieve these goals through recording of precedence, codifying legal cases, to name but two examples.

Whereas Bernard Cohn sees the British exercising power over the Indians in the act of translating and learning Indian languages, Joseph sees it in the relatively few women who appear in the Company’s archive. She concludes that the presence of these women means that, though the archive suggests a male-centered, hegemonic-type control over the British colonial holdings, women were part of the political system. Occasional female subjectivities render the master narrative flawed and the archive incomplete. Although colonization, for Joseph, is clearly a process—from mercantilism, to colonialism, to cultural hegemony, to liberal paternalism—the creation of the archive was not. Instead, in Joseph’s formulation, the archive seems to be static. Although “the colonizer is also subject to the tyranny of his own representations,”[4] meaning they simultaneously create and are bound to their creations, this does not allow for an original representation or an evolution of representations, something Levine’s work also lacks.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues, in Silencing the Past, that there are three sites where power is exercised over the archive: 1) within the selection of the original material to form the archive, 2) within the maintenance of the archive itself, and 3) within the mind of the historian who examines the material. At each of these stages, individual voices and marginalized perspectives are literally silenced, stricken from the historical record. The first two are overtly addressed by Levine and Joseph, who are both interested in questions of creation and historical use of the archive; however, the (surprisingly) tacit argument being made is that historians and anthropologists have not only been miss-reading the archive, but willfully employing it incorrectly.

The archive for its creators was the accepted truth—the scientific objectivity of the anthropological photograph and the Company’s interest in proper imperial governance. Scholars take this truth at face value rather than interrogating its cultural, literary, and political foundations, falling victim to contemporary biases and perpetuating them in the historiography. For Cohn the historian and the anthropologist are active participants in the archive—they (we) create a new mental archive as we try to interpret the physical one. Dipesh Chakrabarty is also aware of this when he writes that a good history must “deliberately [make] visible, within the very structure of its narrative forms, its repressive strategies and practices, the part it plays in collusion” with the structures of power.[5]

At every stage of its development, the archive is representational, an anthropological “type” which is symbolic, a construction, and subjective—all of which must be kept in dynamic tension if historians are to understand the multiplicity of people and their various ways of being-in-the-world.

[1] To see the cleaned up image, see Elisabetta Povoledo, “Early Images of American Indians Found in a Vatican Fresco,” New York Times, May 6, 2013,

[2] Philippa Levine, “Naked Truths: Bodies, Knowledge, and the Erotics of Colonial Power,” The Journal of British Studies, 52, no. 1 (2013): 10.

[3] Levine, 9.

[4] Betty Joseph, Reading the East India Company, 1720-1840, ( Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 18.

[5] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 45.