Book Clasps

Introduction

Book clasps were used to hold the covers of a book tightly, together to keep it closed and the pages flat.

There are two main types of medieval book clasp. One fitted over a peg on the opposite cover, and has a pierced terminal, probably to hold a cord to help pull it off the peg. The other type has a hook, which clipped over a bar or hooked into a slot on the opposite cover.

We know of examples that fitted over pegs from at least the 12th century onwards. These would have been used at the end of a strap fixed to one cover, and they are pierced with a hole which fitted over a peg on the opposite cover. A projecting terminal was pierced sideways, probably to hold a cord to help in pulling the clasp off the peg.

Objects that look like over-the-peg clasps, with pierced terminals but with rectangular or T-shaped slots instead of central circular holes, are from boxes (or caskets, coffrets, chasses etc). See DENO-392CC4 for an example.

The hooked type of book clasp is generally flatter and flimsier than the pierced type. We know of examples in place on books of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the decoration suggests that they begin in the late medieval period but perhaps become more popular in the 16th century.

Every clasp has to engage with another fitting on the opposite cover to keep the book closed, but both pegs and catchplates are rare.

A recent PhD by Charlotte Howsam (2016) covers both medieval book clasps and book mounts, and is downloadable free here. It gives a clear typology of both clasps and mounts, is copiously illustrated, and has lots of background information.

Howsam’s types A.1, A.2, A.7, A.9 and A.10 fit over pegs; A.3, A.4 and A.5 have hooks.

Type A.8, which is defined as being made from folded sheet metal, comes in both pierced and hooked forms.

Every clasp has to engage with another fitting on the opposite cover to keep the book closed. Pegs and their baseplates form Howsam’s type A.11; catchplates for use with hooked clasps form type A.6.

Howsam’s typology is derived from a catalogue of book fittings excavated from monastic sites. She comments that further excavation and more PAS finds are likely to expand the typology (Howsam 2016, 23), and indeed we have already recorded clasps of types not included; see below.

PAS object type(s) to be used

‘Book clasp’ is not included in the mda thesaurus, so we use BOOK FITTING instead, with ‘clasp’ in the classification field.

PAS object classifications and sub-classifications to be used

The Howsam type (Howsam 2016, 30-42) should be put in the sub-classification field, in the following format: Howsam type A.9.2

A note on dating

There are several ways of dating book clasps, unfortunately with different results.

Book clasps still in place on books can be of the same date as the rest of the binding, but because the leather straps tend to wear they are often repaired or replaced. When this happened, new clasps could be added to old books or old and precious clasps re-used on new books. Despite the uncertainty, clasps in place on books are very useful. There is a Howsam type A.5.2 on a late 16th-century binding illustrated  in Margeson (1993, 74).

Book clasps found in archaeological contexts seem to cluster in the late 14th and 15th centuries in London (Egan 1998, 277-80) and in early to mid 16th-century contexts elsewhere (Howsam 2016, 24-26). Howsam points out that many old books were destroyed at the Reformation, leading many old book fittings to be found in 16th-century contexts. The date of the context is not the same as the date of manufacture of the book fitting.

Art-historical parallels can also be used to date book clasps. Limoges-style enamel has been found on SWYOR-D9A074 and HESH-7ACEC5, suggesting a date between 1150 and 1300 AD. Stamped annulets have been found on many clasps of type A.1.1, perhaps suggesting a date in the late 12th or 13th century. Going further back in time, BERK-151457, LVPL-CDD0D0 and SUSS-5AF9E0 can all be dated to the 11th century on the basis of their (very different) art styles.

A famous late 12th-century statue from St Mary’s Abbey, York, shows an apostle holding a book closed by a clasp and peg (Ottaway and Rogers 2002, fig. 1505). And finally, a simple rectangular hooked clasp (LEIC-F82DD1) bears the initials EE and the date 1717.

See the individual types below for precise dating.

Medieval and early post-medieval book clasps

Clasps that fit over pegs

Howsam type A.1

This type has a solid cast element with a bar for a hinged plate. The solid cast element can be domed and pierced (A.1.1), or domed with a blind hole on the underside (A.1.2) or flat and pierced (A.1.3). All have a terminal in the form of a stylised animal head, pierced from side to side to hold the cord, and a plate, normally hinged around a bar.

A.1.1 clasps normally have hinge loops holding a separate bar, but occasionally can have a rectangular slot separating the loop from an integral bar (e.g. NMS-B9A166).

There is a group of A.1.1 clasps from late 14th- or early 15th-century contexts in London (Egan and Pritchard 1991, ; Egan 1998, ) but others with stamped annulet decoration (e.g. YORYM-2BBE37) are more likely on art-historical grounds to belong to the 12th or early 13th century.

There is only one example of an A.1.2 clasp recorded on the PAS database so far, BUC-B7EF37

Book clasps of Howsam type A.1.1. Left: SWYOR-0B8297. Right: YORYM-2BBE37.
Book clasps of Howsam type A.1.1. Left: SWYOR-0B8297. Right: YORYM-2BBE37, with annulet stamps.

There is a growing number of A.1.3 clasps on the PAS database. These are more various in shape and decoration than other A.1 clasps and can include openwork, stamped and Limoges-style examples. Some have decoration which can be dated as early as the late 11th century (e.g. BERK-151457); others can have Limoges-style enamel (e.g. GLO-EB53B3) and still others can resemble clasps of the standard A.1.1 type; the date-range therefore probably runs from 1050 or 1100 to at least 1450 AD.

Book clasps of Howsam type A.1.3, showing the diversity of shape and decoration. Left, top to bottom: NMS-F85129, NMS-5A7B07, NMS-42D9C5. Centre left, top to bottom: NMS-D590D7, GLO-EB53B3. Centre right, top to bottom: NMS-A664F2, SF-743945, BERK-B866CA. Right, top to bottom: BERK-151457, SUR-764574.
Book clasps of Howsam type A.1.3, showing the diversity of shape and decoration. Left, top to bottom: NMS-F85129, NMS-5A7B07, NMS-42D9C5. Centre left, top to bottom: NMS-D590D7, GLO-EB53B3. Centre right, top to bottom: NMS-A664F2, SF-743945 (note the orientation of the terminal), BERK-B866CA. Right, top to bottom: BERK-151457, SUR-764574.

Note that the simplest of all (e.g. NMS-42D9C5) could potentially be mis-identified as buckles.

Howsam type A.2

This is similar to type A.1, but with the plate made from an integral forked spacer. This is clearly related to buckles and strap-ends with forked spacers (the ‘composite’ type) which can be reliably dated to the 14th or early 15th century.

Book clasps of Howsam type A.2, one over twice the size of the other. Left: FAKL-5A14D0. Right: ESS-608C92.
Book clasps of Howsam type A.2, one over twice the size of the other. Left: FAKL-5A14D0. Right: ESS-608C92, retaining one of the plates soldered to the forked spacer.

Howsam type A.7

A simple type of pierced clasp has sometimes in the past been published as a belt mount.  This is formed of two rectangular plates attached to each other generally by two or four rivets and both perforated centrally to fit over the peg.  Howsam notes that they are often decorated along their edges with cusps, notches and apertures (Howsam 2016, 37). 

Many such fasteners are known from ecclesiastical sites such as Battle Abbey (Geddes in Hare 1985, 159; fig. 50), or Carmarthen Greyfriars (Brennan 2001, 66-67), but also from urban reports such as those for London (Egan and Pritchard 1991, 225; fig. 141) or Norwich (Margeson 1993, 39; fig. 22). Many from older reports are recorded as dress accessories.

Book clasps of Howsam type A.7. Left to right: SOM-47EC37, SWYOR-5A57B5, SF5386.
Probable book clasps, of Howsam type A.7. Left to right: SOM-47EC37, SWYOR-5A57B5, SF5386.

We do not yet know if the commonest type of rectangular mount – with a central hole, with a reserved lozenge surrounded by rocker-arm engraving (e.g. Egan and Pritchard 1991, no. 1054 and Margeson 1993, no. 264) – is a dress accessory or a book clasp. Examples on the PAS database include IOW-9357A4, LON-DCA744 and NMS-28FA14. At present we think they are not from books, as they have just one plate rather than two.

Howsam type A.8

Type A.8 clasps are made of a single piece of sheet metal folded in half. Most have a gap at the fold which forms the side-to-side perforation, and holes to fit over the peg. Type A.8.1 resembles Type A.7 above, but has the addition of the loop at the fold. Type A.8.4 has a rounded lobe with a dome over the perforation.

Book clasps of Howsam type A.8. On the left are two examples of type A.8.1 (IOW-2BF565 and SUR-FCC344). On the right are two examples of type A.8.4 (BH-0DDF66 and NMS-9BD911).
Book clasps of Howsam type A.8. On the left are two examples of type A.8.1 (IOW-2BF565 and SUR-FCC344). On the right are two examples of type A.8.4 (BH-0DDF66 and NMS-9BD911).

Type A.8.2 is as A.8.1, but has a dome which is also perforated. Type A.8.3 is shaped into a flat perforated roundel. Types A.8.2 and A.8.3 have not yet been recorded on the PAS database. Type A.8.5 is different in that it tapers to a hooked end and has no perforation, so is considered below under Clasps with Hooks.

Howsam type A.9

This type has an integral hollow attachment plate. Howsam sub-divides it into two types; A.9.1 with a dome over the perforation, and A.9.2 with a lozenge.

The hollow attachment ends can be compared with those on ‘lyre-shaped’ buckles and similar strap-ends, which are dated from effigies and brasses and on art-historical grounds to the very late 14th and 15th centuries.

Although these appear to be cast in one piece, it is possible that some examples were made in several pieces, carefully soldered together.

The transversely pierced terminal on A.9.2 clasps often contains a metal ring and, as with the buckles and strap-ends, the hollow end can have a separate backplate.

Book clasps of Howsam type A.9.2. Left to right: IOW-7D75B7, NMS-91A927, WAW-0592C0.
Book clasps of Howsam type A.9.2. Left to right: IOW-7D75B7, NMS-91A927, WAW-0592C0. Note the wear on the hole of NMS-91A927.

Howsam type A.10

Type A.10 is cast in one piece, with a hole to fit over the peg and a terminal pierced from side to side. Howsam only included one example in her catalogue (SWYOR-D9A074, illustrated below), but there are several other disparate one-piece book clasps that can also perhaps be allocated to this type.

As the group is quite heterogeneous, including different shapes and decoration, the date-range of Type A.10 is wide. More precise dates may be possible on the basis of the decoration.

One-piece book clasps which can perhaps be allocated to Howsam type A.10. Top row, left to right: SWYOR-D9A074, SUSS-0D63D3, WMID5232. Second row, left to right: HAMP2800, GLO-8F1C22, GLO-5B1D88. Bottom row, left to right: BERK-ED9750, LVPL-CDD0D0
One-piece book clasps which can perhaps be allocated to Howsam type A.10. Top row, left to right: SWYOR-D9A074, SUSS-0D63D3, WMID5232. Second row, left to right: HAMP2800, GLO-8F1C22, GLO-5B1D88. Bottom row, left to right: BERK-ED9750, LVPL-CDD0D0.

Type A.10 does not include all one-piece book clasps; it is a catch-all for those which do not fall into other types. Those made from a folded sheet belong to A.8, and those with hollow plates belong to A.9. 

Pegs – Howsam type A.11

The pegs over which these clasps fitted are very rarely found (or recognised). The only certain example on the PAS database is NMS-935146, with a square quatrefoil base-plate. No certain example of a detached base-plate for a peg has yet been recorded.

Occasionally pegs survive in place within a clasp’s perforation. Examples include WMID-3DC2A5 and WAW-C67F20.

Clasps with hooks

Clasps with hooks form Howsam types A.3, A.4 and A.5, and type A.8.5 also has a hook. Type A.3 has a flared attachment end, type A.4 is rectangular. Type A.5 has a hinge opposite the hook for attachment to a second plate. Catch-pieces for use with hooked clasps form type A.6.

Hooked book clasps are usually made from flat copper-alloy sheet. Hook-pieces have a central hook in one short end, and the hook is usually relatively wide and flat.  The catch-piece can either have a slot cut in it, or can have two projections rolled over a bar. The hook would have been clipped into the slot or over the bar to close the book.

Hook-pieces seem to be much more common than catch-pieces, perhaps because they are more easily recognised.  They were attached to leather straps with rivets and backplates which do not usually survive.

Howsam type A.3

Type A.3 is the commonest type of medieval book clasp. It is made from a long thin strip of copper-alloy sheet, with one end flared and shaped and the other end hooked. The metal appears brassy and has often corroded to a reddish brown. They are often decorated with longitudinal grooves, circular perforations, stamps and ring-and-dot motifs.

A selection of book clasps of type A.3. Left to right: FAKL-9EC55F, SWYOR-A411C7, KENT-E363E8, ESS-C923A9, WILT-CB74F6.
A selection of book clasps of type A.3. Left to right: FAKL-9EC55F, SWYOR-A411C7, KENT-E363E8, ESS-C923A9, WILT-CB74F6.

Type A.3 book clasps are difficult to date accurately. They appear to be later than over-the-peg book clasps, but the two types may overlap. Decoration that may help to assign a start date for the type includes rocker-arm, as on KENT-E363E8 above; and double lines of stamps (sometimes known as rouletting or interrupted rocker-arm), as on WILT-CB74F6 above. Evidence for the continued manufacture of this type into the early post-medieval period might include the colour of the metal and the presence on books. We tend to date them to the 15th and 16th centuries unless there is strong evidence for a date outside this range.

A good example of a late 15th-century book with its A.3 clasps in place was published at Cologne in 1493 and is now in the library of Michigan State University (KJA 1925 .N52 A36 149). The clasps are riveted to short straps and the catch-pieces are nailed directly to the opposite cover. Another in the same library, remarkably similar, dates from 1574 (QK 41 .D6 1574).

Howsam type A.4

This type appears to be the earliest type of hooked book clasp, perhaps dating to the 14th or 15th centuries. A.4.1 is a simple rectangular plate, but A.4.2 retains a small separately made pierced lug on the top. This would probably have been used with a cord or ring, to help in removing the clasp and opening the book.

Type A.4 clasps are not always strictly rectangular, as several flare slightly to the attachment end (and see NMS-52C783 for an oval example). Even if they have flared ends, the dividing line between A.3 and A.4 clasps is generally clear.

Decoration on the plates of type A.4.2 tends to be distinctively medieval, perhaps 14th or 15th century. Examples include SUR-6DA691 (rouletting), BERK-2C8241 (grooved aperture) and NMS-280856 (rocker-arm).

Clasps of type A.4.1 are rare, and some (such as NLM-0A25E8) may be incomplete examples of type A.4.2. There are a few examples which clearly never had the pierced lug, though, and these include SF3887.

Book clasps of Howsam type A.4. Left, type A.4.2 (SUR-6DA691 and NMS-280856). Centre left, type A.4.2 (BERK-2C8241). Centre right, type A.4.2 (BH-87AE0C). Right, type A.4.2 (SF-12E8D6) and type A.4.1 (NLM-0A25E8, SF3887).
Five book clasps of Howsam type A.4.2. Left, top to bottom: SUR-6DA691 and NMS-280856. Centre left: BERK-2C8241. Centre: BH-87AE0C. Centre right, top: SF-12E8D6. Below is a type A.4.1 which may in fact be an incomplete type A.4.2 (NLM-0A25E8). Right, a definite example of a type A.4.1 (SF3887).

Howsam type A.5

These are defined as having a hinge at the end opposite the hook, showing that they articulated with another metal plate (an anchor plate) rather than a strap. An example in place on a late 16th-century book is shown by Margeson (1993, 74).

Howsam divides these into three types, A.5.1 with a central hinge loop, A.5.2 with two hinge loops, and A.5.3 with a central hinge loop and separate pierced lug on top. So far only type A.5.1 has been recorded on the PAS database.

Book clasps of Howsam type A.5.1 (KENT-9565A3 and HAMP-4EF407).
Book clasps of Howsam type A.5.1 (KENT-9565A3 and HAMP-4EF407).

The date of type A.5 clasps is at present uncertain. They resemble A.3 clasps, so should probably be similarly dated, to the 15th or 16th centuries AD. Later post-medieval book clasps are also normally hinged to an anchor plate, but these later clasps are not included in Howsam’s classification.

The plate to which a type A.5 clasp is hinged is known as an anchor plate. Anchor plates are not normally distinguishable from catchplates, which form the next type, A.6.

Catchplates and anchor-plates – Howsam type A.6

 Howsam separates these into types with slots (A.6.1 and A.6.3) and types with projections rolled over to hold a bar (A.6.2 and A.6.4). The precise type depends on whether the plate is rectangular or triangular, but as you can see below the shapes are more variable than this. It may be that all flaring plates should be interpreted as rectangular (A.6.1 and A.6.2) and plates tapering to a point should be interpreted as triangular (A.6.3 and A.6.4). Alternatively and more simply, as we have not recorded many, they can all be recorded simply as type A.6.

Catch-pieces of Howsam type A.6. Left to right: type A.6.1 (BERK-11236D), two examples of type A.6.2 (SWYOR-40B394, SUR-92DC8D), three examples of type A.6.4 (BERK-56D1C8, PUBLIC-1DABA9, NMS-551569).
Catch-pieces of Howsam type A.6. Left to right: type A.6.1 (BERK-11236D), two examples of type A.6.2 (SWYOR-40B394, SUR-92DC8D), three examples of type A.6.4 (BERK-56D1C8, PUBLIC-1DABA9, NMS-551569).

Anchor plates are virtually impossible to recognise if they are detached from the rest of the clasp, and in fact one of the items pictured above as a catch-piece (NMS-551569) has a very close parallel which is clearly an anchor-plate (YORYM-C84DCC). Anchor-plates are not common in the medieval period, and nor are the type A.5 clasps that they fit together with. Clasps hinged to anchor plates seem to be more common in the post-medieval period.

Silver book-clasp of Howsam type A.5.1, with anchor-plate (Howsam type A.6)
Silver book-clasp of Howsam type A.5.1, with anchor-plate of Howsam type A.6.4 (YORYM-C84DCC).

Later post-medieval book clasps

As printing came in, paper began to replace parchment (animal skins) and this process of change continued until well into the post-medieval period.

Paper lies flatter than parchment, so book clasps to keep the book shut would not be so necessary; and paper books often had pasteboard (layered paper) covers, which did not hold nails and rivets to fix clasps and mounts nearly as well as the earlier wooden covers.

Parchment was expensive, but also strong; it could cope with luxury pigments and gold leaf, and so was retained into the 18th century for luxury books, such as bibles (Howsam 2016, 142). Clasps became more common again in the later 19th century, probably as part of the Gothic revival popular at the time.

Clasps from these books will not be as common as those from earlier books, and have not yet received any formal study. Searches in 17th- or 18th-century library collections (such as Thomas Plume’s library in Maldon, Essex) may add to our knowledge of these in the future.

Items currently tentatively identified as later post-medieval book clasps are generally dated by their decoration. All so far identified fasten using hooks. Below is an eclectic collection of things that have been identified as 17th- to 19th-century book clasps.

Objects that have been suggested as later post-medieval book clasps (DENO-7678B3, SOM-909472, NLM-4F2825, LON-63D127, PUBLIC-D033C8, LEIC-F82DD1).
Objects that have been suggested as later post-medieval book clasps. Top left, DENO-7678B3; note the Gothic initials E W, which probably date it to the 19th century. Bottom left, SOM-909472. Centre left, NLM-4F2825. Centre right,  LON-63D127 (above), PUBLIC-D033C8 (below), which has the initials WN in a curving, 18th- or 19th-century script. Compare PUBLIC-D033C8 to LEIC-ACBA86, which is attached to a binding strip. Right, LEIC-F82DD1, which is dated 1717.

Several other items have been suggested as post-medieval book clasps in the past. A variety of small openwork hinged items have been recorded as book clasps (such as HAMP-8D6FC9), but it seems more likely that these were simply small hinges from furniture. Another object type which is sometimes recorded as a book clasp is cross-shaped, with a large blunt hook (such as IOW-17AAC2); these are not like any other book clasps, and may be dress hooks instead. Stock clasps (such as YORYM-DAA383) are also sometimes mis-recorded as post-medieval book clasps.

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Key references

Egan 1998

Howsam 2016