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  • Writer's pictureSilvia Hufnagel

Þorlákur and Cardboard

Happy Þorláksmessa, merry Christmas and a very festive season!

The 23rd December is known as Þorláksmessa, the Mass of St Þorlákur who is the patron saint of Iceland. His namesake, Bishop Þorlákur Skúlason, published a revised* edition of the Bible in 1644, called Þorláksbiblía (Þorlákur’s Bible, read about them and the Bible here).

Leather strap of a binding, with cardboard visible inside
Þorláksbiblía, Hólar 1644. This copy is in the National and University Library of Iceland, Reykjavík.

There are at least nine extant copies of the Þorláksbiblía, five of which are kept at the National and University Library of Iceland in Reykjavík (and I believe that the Erkes collection in the Cologne University Library has a tenth copy). Unfortunately, the carbon ink prevented a proper watermark analysis, however, the binding of one of the five copies turned out to be particularly interesting.

It is bound in brown leather with the initials “I.A.S.” embossed on the front and the year “1770” at the back. The binding has two leather straps. While the top leather strap looks fine from the outside, once opened, we can see that it is damaged. The leather is peeling away, revealing the inside, which seems to be cardboard.

During the handmade paper period, cardboard was very often made of laminated paper. Sheets of paper are laminated together until the required thickness and sturdiness was achieved. For this, any kind of wastepaper was used: unused paper of too low quality, printing proofs, printer’s waste, maculature from unsold copies, or any leaves with texts that were no longer needed. Such cardboard is often called laminate pasteboard. It was produced in Iran from the eleventh century (Bloom 2001, 62), and in Italy by the mid-fifteenth century. From there, it spread to the rest of Europe and had reached England by the early sixteenth century (Language of Bindings).

Cardboard could also be made of couched laminates: sheets of paper are couched “on top of the other straight from the papermaker's vat” (Language of Bindings) without sheets of felt in between. Hydrogen bonds and heavy pressing after couching hold the cardboard together. Such cardboard is often called couched laminate board or millboard, sometimes also cartonnage or waterleaf. It is found in Europe by the end of the fifteenth century and became more popular in the sixteenth century (Language of Bindings, “Boards and Their Attachments”).

If a corner or edge of a cardboard binding is damaged, it is often possible to distinguish between couched laminates and paste laminates. Hopefully, a closer inspection of the Þorláksbiblía’s leather strap will reveal which cardboard was used. Stay tuned for more information!

Many thanks to Vasarė Rastonis and Kristine Rose-Beers for their help with cardboard, and to Jökull Sævarsson for sharing his list of printed books with me.

* Due to the abundance of Danish loanwords and typos, this revised edition is often critized – a revision that is called a Verschlimmbesserung in German: a portmandeau of Verschlimmerung (worsening) and Verbesserung (improvement), a ‘reworsion’, perhaps?

Further reading:

Bloom, Jonathan, Paper before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

“Boards and Their Attachments”, (accessed 23 December 2022).

Language of Bindings, ; (accessed 23 December 2021).


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