The continuing excavations on the site of Jesus College, Cambridge are producing an abundance of artefacts which provide an insight into the daily lives of those who inhabited the medieval nunnery and the later post-medieval College. Post-excavation work is in its early stages, but a quick glance at the metalwork and small stone items has revealed a fine collection of objects associated with literacy and learning. They include numerous slate pencils and book clasps.
From the medieval period onwards, books were an integral part of religious life. From the 13th century, they became more popular and accessible to wealthier secular households when there was an increased interest in reading romances and poetry. By the 15th century commercial book production was on the rise, aimed at schools, universities and wealthy men and women who could be the owners of volumes such as the Books of Hours and vernacular literature. Reading courtly romances and Arthurian legends aloud was a form of entertainment in noble households.
Seven copper alloy book fittings have been retrieved from the site. They include four clasps with a distinctive ‘fishtail’ form, given this name due to their splayed attachment ends which would have been riveted onto a leather strap. On the back, the clasps have a sprung plate and a hook on the opposite end. The hooks would have slotted into a corresponding ‘eye’ plate that was attached directly onto the cover of the book. This would have kept the book closed and the pages within it flat. Ra 1002 is the finest example; it has minute amounts of silver gilt remaining within the incised grooves close to the hook, and between its front and back plates there are remains of organic material – possibly the leather strap.
Ra 1108 is the most grand and elaborate of the group; its rectangular plate is decorated with the ‘sacred trigram’ IHC, symbolising the first three letters of the Greek form of the name of Jesus (IHCOYC or IHΣOYΣ). Examples of this type are known in this country from religious establishments including Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. These religious emblems and the style of the fitting point to a 14th-15th century date, when the Cult of the Holy Name of Jesus gained widespread popularity in England.
Ruth Beveridge and Philippa Walton
Acknowledgement goes to the work of C.L Howsam who made an extensive study of book fittings for her PhD, which has provided a useful source of information for this article.