Binding the Tailors

on Monday, 28 October 2019. Posted in Archives, Conservation, History Centre

Quite often I come across interesting things as I go about my business in the strong rooms at the WSHC. Today was no exception when I discovered this rather odd-looking book. On first glance it appears that someone has rather hurriedly wedged a large book into a small bag but on closer inspection I discovered I was looking at a medieval chemise binding.




The binding contains an Act and Memoranda Book for the Tailors’ Guild of Salisbury including byelaws, admissions of freemen and apprenticeship indentures, dating from 1444-1838 and gives us a wealth of information regarding their organisation and activities.

It is big and extremely heavy and has a particularly large piece of leather skirting along the tail edge (lower edge). It has visible sewing stitches along the edges and two metal clasps on the foredge (front edge) that attach to corresponding slits in the cover. The book dates from 1444 so is most likely an original medieval binding, although more recent sewing repairs are visible around the edges. The text block pages are made from parchment and contain varying manuscripts, some with illuminations.

Above: Examples of parchment pages from the book

Chemise Bindings

Chemise bindings became popular in medieval times as a way of protecting a book and its text block. A Chemise is an additional cover of either leather or textile with a skirt of extra material around the edges. These varied in style from embellished status symbols to very plain, practical, protective covers. Over time many of these bindings were trimmed down so that they could be stored on shelves.

One particular style of chemise binding was known as the girdle book. This consisted of a leather or textile cover with a long tail that would be tied at the end with a knot to a belt of girdle. This was mainly used by women, although not exclusively, and often encased a bible or religious text that the person could lift and read. For women in the 15th century these became symbols of status, wealth and learning.

The image below shows an original girdle book held at Yale University 

Yale University Library, New Haven, Ms. 84 public domain 

In this painting by Hieronymus Bosch, St Anthony is depicted with a girdle book attached to his belt:

Anthony with monsters, Hieronymus Bosch (between 1500 and 1525) Follower of Hieronymus Bosch public domain

Here, Van Eyck shows the Madonna holds a book with a textile chemise cover:

Hubert van Eyck public domain

Salisbury Cathedral holds another excellent example of a medieval chemise covering which is thought to have originally been worn as a girdle book before the leather was trimmed down along the tail edge (lower edge).

MS 175 - Ordinal, 14c. Salisbury Cathedral The above images are reproduced by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury Cathedral

Plain chemise covers, free from decorative details and luxurious fabrics, were often used to cover administrative records and library books like the Tailors’ Guild volume that we hold here at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre (G23/1/250).

The Salisbury Tailors’ Guild

The Tailors’ Guild was formed in the first half of the 15th century and received its charter in 1447. Guilds and companies had two main functions, social and religious, and commercial and professional. Guilds could control who and how many people could set up in business in a particular craft, they could control the training of apprentices, set standards and prices, and ensure the business of particular crafts were adequately distinguished from each other.

In 1479 the Tailors introduced regulations that no apprentice should serve fewer than seven years, no stranger should be taken as an apprentice, and no member can establish their business in the city without the sanction of the guild’s wardens. They later also sought legal advice about charging entry fines for strangers who wished to set up business. In 1566 they made an agreement with the skinners that anyone who undertook skinning or furring of garments would be given a fine. A certain Anthony Lambert was seemingly notorious amongst the skinners for this offence because he is mentioned specifically as incurring a 40 shilling fine if he did so!

Guilds also imposed rules of conduct on their members, and could expel those that did not live up to them. In 1575 Richard Stevenson was ousted from the Tailors’ Guild for his ‘great and notorious obstinacie and disobedience in refusing to come to wardens at their commandment, and for gevinge fowle and naughtie words to the officers, to the discredite of the authorite of the Wardens, and the charter of the companie’.

Perhaps the aspects of the Tailors’ Guild you will be most familiar with are the Salisbury Giant and Hob-Nob which were a feature of festivals of the city. The Tailors’ Guild was one of the only guilds wealthy or important enough to present their own festival pageants. By 1444 the guild was taking part in the midsummer festival on the eve of the Nativity St John the Baptist feast day (the patron saint of tailors). Other professions were fined in 1447 for non-attendance, so it seems participation became compulsory. However, due to an outbreak of plague in 1627, the mayor forbad the Tailors from holding a usual feast; six members went ahead, and five were dead within a week.

P56697 Salisbury Giant

As a feature of the Tailors’ pageant, the giant is not mentioned until 1570 when an allowance was made for the repair and resewing of the ‘Gyant’s coat’ suggesting it must have been in use for some time already. Hob-nob, the accompanying hobby horse would clear the way for the giant procession, chasing and snapping at the crowd with his hob-nail teeth. He would also chase apprentices into the open water channels which flowed through the streets of Salisbury until the mid-19th century.

The giant is currently held in the Salisbury Museum having been purchased from the Tailors’ Company in 1873 for 30 shillings (about £1.50), and the last time it was promenaded was when the museum moved from St Ann’s Street to Cathedral Close in 1981. Previous to that he was brought out for the 1977 commemorations of the 750th anniversary of the granting of Salisbury’s first charter, and in celebration the Queen’s silver jubilee.

The oldest part of the giant is his head, although its exact date is unknown. The leather baldric which sits over his shoulder bears the Tailors’ coat of arms in brass, which was enamelled by Frank Highman, a lithographer, in the later part of the 19th century.

The book will be on display in our labs at our forthcoming WSHC open day.

Sophie Coles, Conservator (Archives)
Naomi Sackett, Archivist


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