In 1836 Sotheby’s in London auctioned a collection of books owned by the physician Georg Kloss from Frankfurt. Kloss was known as a collector of works important to the history of freemasonry and specimens of the earliest printed books. He had offered his early printed books to several German libraries, but they had been declined.
Lot number 4028 in the Sotheby’s catalogue consisted of a prayer book that had been printed around 1484 in Nuremberg by an anonymous printer. It was bought by a London antiquarian bookseller who sold it – for only six shillings – to Van Westreenen in July 1836.
The Kloss catalogue mentioned that the book was contained in its original binding, one ‘such as was used in schools at the time’. Did this special binding really have something to do with schools? No, for it was what is known as a girdle book. A girdle book (a term which, incidentally, only gained currency at the end of the 19th century) is a type of binding on which the leather covering of the book extends upwards and tapers off like a nozzle into a large knot or a metal hook. Girdle books were fashionable during the 14th and 15th centuries and accordingly they feature frequently in the visual art of the period. The girdle book was carried hanging from a belt or cord worn around the waist. The book was hung upside down, but could be conveniently consulted by swinging it upwards. This binding method was not only used for religious books, but also for law books and other kinds of reading matter.
When people increasingly adopted the practice of putting books on shelves, most girdle books were either rebound or stripped of their tails. Throughout the world only some twenty specimens have survived. The Meermanno copy is the only one in the Netherlands.