AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Book and Paper Session, May 10: “Deceptive Covers: Armenian Bindings of 18th-Century Imprints from Constantinople” by Yasmeen Khan and Tamara Ohanyan

Yasmeen Khan and Tamara Ohanyan undertook a survey to better document the bindings found on Armenian printed books, especially those printed in Constantinople during the 18th century. Armenian manuscripts and their bindings have been well-documented, but previous reports claim that most Armenian printed books were bound in Western Europe. These assumptions were based on cover decoration that more closely resembles a Western European aesthetic rather than traditional Armenian style. While treating an early Armenian printed book at the Library of Congress, Khan and Ohanyan noted an interesting headband that appeared to be a hybrid structure of a traditional Armenian endband and a Western European front-bead endband. This discovery piqued their interest to know more about the history of the production of printed books for the Armenian diaspora communities.

The authors surveyed Armenian printed books in collections at the Library of Congress and in the Matenadaran Collection in Yerevan, Armenia, focusing on volumes in poor condition in order to examine the binding structure. Examination of the sewing, spine linings, boards, board attachment, endbands, edge decoration, doublures, and cover decoration suggest the books were bound by Armenian binders. Most of the structural elements examined appear to be based on traditional Armenian binding methods, with a general shift towards simplification and a Western aesthetic over the course of the 18th century.

Traditional Armenian bindings included thin wooden boards with the grain of the wood positioned perpendicular to the spine.  The survey showed that this practice continued well into the 18th century, with pasteboard appearing only towards the end of the 18th century.

Khan and Ohanyan believe the hybrid Armenian-Western endband may be unique to bindings from Constantinople, and may help to localize and date the bindings on Armenian printed books. Towards the beginning of the century, a traditional Armenian endband is common. For this endband, a primary endband structure is sewn through each section and through holes in the board; thus the endband extends past the textblock and onto the top edge of each of the boards. A secondary endband is sewn over this structure to create a decorative chevron pattern. Khan and Ohanyan report that hybrid-style endbands began to appear on books from Constantinople in the early 18th century. Several evolutions of the hybrid endbands were noted, including a simple front-bead endband in the Western style that extends onto the boards in a similar manner to the traditional Armenian endband. Finally, towards the end of the 18th century, simple Western-style front-bead endbands were most common.

In the future, Khan and Ohanyan hope to further their study of Armenian printed books through examination and documentation of tooling patterns in the decoration of leather covers. Their hope is that, as for the hybrid endband, documentation of an evolution of styles will aid in the dating and localization of bindings.

Although the evolution of binding styles is interesting in itself and as an aid to dating bindings, it also reveals shifting attitudes in the production and use of books by Armenian communities.