Tuesday, April 21, 2009

David and Goliath, redux

I know what you're thinking. Gee, this looks familiar:

And it ought to. Compare it to this:

The first is a Book of Psalms from the British Library's collection, with an embroidered binding depicting David and his slingshot on the front panel and David with Goliath's head on the back. The second is our friend from my last posting, a Book of Psalms from the Folger, with an embroidered binding depicting David with Goliath's head and, yes, David and his slingshot.

I'll wait while you compare the two (clicking on each image should bring you to an enlargeable picture).

That's right--they're the same! Of course, they're not exactly the same. The BL binding reveals that what I took as a cheesy grin from Goliath is actually a mustache, the Folger David holding Goliath's head has a unibrow that the BL David does not, and the Folger binding has a much more soothing color scheme of blues. And I like that the BL copy reverses what was, to my sense, a weirdly backwards chronology of encountering the beheaded Goliath before you meet David with his slingshot. Those tiny differences aside, these are two bindings obviously done from the same pattern for two different psalters.

I stumbled across the BL book when I was scouting out a response to a comment on my last post. Lycimnius wondered about the date of the binding because he was struck by the approaching date of Charles I's beheading. The Folger's catalogue identifies the binding as approximately 1639, a date obviously taken from the publication of the text. The BL book is a 1640 copy, which makes me suspect that the embroidery was done closer to the publication date than 10 years on.

In any case, I was browsing through the British Library's database of bookbindings looking to see what examples of embroidered books they had, when lo and behold, there was my David! There are lots of other examples in their database (do a quick search for "embroidered" to see for yourself). For those of you wanting to learn more about embroidered bindings, there's a brief research guide provided by the BL's Philippa Marks, Curator of Bookbindings, Early Printed Collections. The key points to know are that such bindings were typically done by professionals, often from pattern books or other sources. Religious works, such as the Books of Psalms that I've been using as examples, are the most frequent texts bound this way. Embroidered bindings reached their height of popularity during the seventeenth century, and largely disappeared after the Civil War.

I don't have any answer for Lycimnius about the relative popularity or lack thereof for depicting the slaying of Goliath on psalters--images of David are popular, of course, given his status as author of the Psalms, but they tend to depict him with his harp (see this or this as examples). But I was pretty thrilled to find another example of the same pattern, thus answering a question I hadn't even realized I was asking.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

David and Goliath

It has been nearly a month since I last posted, for which I can only apologize. Although that might be an eternity in blog-days, in real-life days, the time has just flown by, what with the excitement of college basketball and grading and Passover and the annual Shakespeare Association of America conference. Oddly, there were very few obvious points in common among those events, but there I was, nonetheless.

I can, I think, actually find a common thread among some of them with this picture:

What is this, you ask? It's The whole booke of Psalmes: collected into English meter by Tho. Sternhold, Jo. Hopkins, W. Whittingham, and others, conferred with the Hebrew, with apt notes to sing them withall. Newly set forth, and allowed to bee sung in all churches, of course, printed in 1639 and here with a stunningly gorgeous embroidered binding. And who is that on the binding, you wonder? David and Goliath! To be more precise, that's David and his slingshot on the left (aka the back cover) and David with Goliath's head on the right (the front cover). To me, it looks like David is in the act calling out, "Hey, you great big lug, over here!" and like Goliath is still stupidly smiling even after his head has been cut off. But that might be my take on the story. Regardless of your take, it's a fabulous binding. (catalog entry/zoomable image)

And so how does that connect to the big events that have kept me preoccupied? The religious connection to the recent holidays should be obvious. And my students have been writing papers on the individual histories of their books, including what the bindings might signal about a book's use and provenance. The Shakespeare link is more tenuous, but I've been doing a lot of thinking recently about Shakespeare's plays as books and how their appearance as such shapes our use of them (more on that in future posts).

And college basketball? Let's just say that in the championship, I was rooting for the David that almost slew Goliath but instead never got the slingshot ready to go. A crushing defeat for those of us who are State fans, but there are always books as consolation!

Here, for your perusal, are some more psalters in our collection with embroidered bindings. Make sure you look at this lovely dos-a-dos combination of New Testament and Book of Psalms, a great testament to the ways in which we adopt books to our uses. And I'll be back up to speed and my regular slow pace of posting soon--thanks for sticking around!

UPDATE: I've fixed the broken links for the zoomable images, so they should now work--but don't forget that you need to have your browser set to allow pop-up images!