‘And we read from pleasant Bibles that are bound in blood and skin
That the wilderness is gathering
All its children back again.’
Thus Leonard Cohen at perhaps his most lyrical in ‘Last Year’s Man’.
To be bound in blood and skin, to be fashioned from a living and breathing creature, to turn powder and feathers into art and meaning is to be a medieval book, the fragile yet hardy instrument of human knowledge and European cultural transmission.
The medieval parchment book was the first sign of a modern Europe committed to self-discovery, communication and flourishing. The modern book, in print or digital, traces its genealogy not to the ancient Greek or Roman papyrus sheet or scroll, but to the medieval parchment book.
The modern printed book is a long elaboration on the pleasant medieval Bibles bound in blood and skin, the pleasant Virgil, Divine Comedy, Roman de la Rose, Reynard the Fox, Canterbury Tales, written on and bound in calfskin by a largely unknown mass of scribes, reluctant and committed, frail and strong, bathing in the sunny Mediterranean and surviving the wintery North.