Judging a book by its covers

bnf_latin_9393_upper cover.jpg
A 10th-century treasure binding of a Gospel Book, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 9393

Don’t judge a book by its covers, they say. The inside is what counts, they say. The advertising community is not so sure. The cover design is said to increase the marketability of a book by 50%, by a conservative estimate, and by as much as 80% in some cases. Which means that while we profess that a book is not about the covers, we behave otherwise. We may not judge a books by its covers, but we fall for books with cool covers.

The consolation from this distressing truth is that we’re not the first to be cover-gullible. The medieval Christian missionaries understood this over a millenium before any creative director. The treasure book bindings of some early medieval manuscripts illustrate the ‘marketing’ strategy of those who, in the centuries before the year 1000, brought the Gospel to the pagan West. For them, the Word of God was to be judged by the covers. Many manuscript covers adorned with ivory work, gold and precious stones were designed for what can only be called the Holy Elevator Pitch. Such books were displayed in churches and other places where the early missionaries encountered a pagan audience: crowds of faith customers sensitive who, like us, were sensitive to the charm of book covers.

The modern assumption of cover design marketing is that if the covers are appealing, the book must also be attractive. The corresponding medieval assumption was that if the covers are like nothing you’ve ever seen, then the book must be from another world and the truth contained in it must be trustworthy. Many were won to/sold the new faith through the fascination aroused when in contact with these books.

The practice of producing deluxe bindings didn’t end with the evangelising project. The marketing strategy continued throughout the Middle Ages in those churches which could afford such costly items. Their charm renewed the faithful’s devotion when they saw them on the altar, and by this the congregation were constantly being ‘sold’ the books, even though few read them and even fewer could afford to purchase anything like them.

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