Of endbands and bees: or of the troubles and limits of terminology in bookbinding descriptions

User menu

A drawing showing the anatomy of an Apis mellifera worker bee. From The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, by A.I. Root and E.R. Root. The A.I. Root Company: Medina, Ohio (1910) p. 54. (Image in public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

By Georgios Boudalis

Since 2010 I have been working on a book about endbands used in codices bound according to various bookbinding traditions of the eastern Mediterranean. As this work now approaches completion, I thought it might be interesting to present the problems I faced and some thoughts on how to overcome the ever present issue of terminology—an issue valid for the myriad natural and human-made things that surround us.

The term endband is used to designate two bands worked at the head and tail edges of the spine of a book for structural and decorative purposes. The techniques with which they are worked and the ways with which they are connected to a book-block vary greatly in time and space.

Terminology is part of the way we understand and organize the world, and as such it cannot be avoided.

Giving a name to things puts a tag on them, thus dragging them out of anonymity and the chaos which surrounds us, and puts them in a drawer which is then put into a specific place. A name is what identifies things in verbal terms, and if we believe Wittgenstein’s saying that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”1, things can exist only as long as they are named and documented. As the Swedish naturalist and physician Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) states in his 1751 published Philosophia Botanica, ” If you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost too.”2  Names allow us to communicate with other people and describe things in a verbal way, the main—but certainly not the only—way in which humans communicate.

Names are often descriptive, based on or describing one or more features of the thing that they refer to. These can be technical features (for example twined endbands, from the twining technique used to make them); structural features (for example primary and secondary endbands, from the sequence of their making and the structural importance of these two basic components of compound endbands); visual features (for example chevron endbands, named after the chevron pattern that is formed through their working); ethnic, cultural, chronological or geographic attributes (for example, Coptic, Armenian, Byzantine endbands); or a combination of any of the above. Such names can be borrowed from other contexts, or they can be newly invented for the specific needs of each occasion.

Although technical terms can be used colloquially for years, they need to be published in order to become part of our official technical vocabulary. Nowadays there is an intense effort to compile glossaries or thesauri of technical and art historical terms3. Among those specifically focused on bookbinding, we should mention the Language of Bindings thesaurus (LoB), a cross-institutional project hosted by Ligatus at the University of the Arts London. LoB is an online illustrated thesaurus which aims to elaborate on terminology and classification of bookbinding4.

In my research I have tried to use technical terms rather than terms referring to the tradition of origin although in the end I have realized one can live with both as long as one defines and describes them properly. An example is the Armenian endband; the technique used to make these elaborate and very decorative and distinct endbands is not specifically Armenian but is also commonly found and used in Syriac, Georgian and Byzantine bindings. In some of these traditions they were used before the earliest examples that we have from Armenian bindings. Therefore it is only logical and scientifically accurate to try and describe these endbands primarily in a more neutral way, for example in purely technical terms. They are all twined endbands and more specifically full-wrapped-on-multiple-additional-cores-rounded-twined-endbands. Nevertheless there are still features which can be used to distinguish between such a twined endband as used in an Armenian, a Syriac or a Byzantine binding. For example there are features such as the staggered endband tie-down holes on the boards or the size and distribution of the cores used which can make a full-wrapped-on-multiple-additional-cores-rounded-twined-endband an Armenian endband. As long as we are aware of these special features which can turn a full-wrapped-on-multiple-additional-cores-rounded-twined-endband specifically into an Armenian endband we could use both or either term without risk of confusion or inaccuracy.

Should this be considered a problem? Should we be worried about these different ways of naming bookbinding features: empirical on one hand and more elaborate and scrutinized on the other? I don’t think so. As long as we have a clear definition of what the features of such an endband are, in theory any name could work. Besides written definitions, visual definitions are extremely helpful as they directly illustrate the visual and structural qualities which distinguish these endbands and their varieties.
To take an example from the natural world, the commonly known bird, great tit or titmouse, has only one scientific name, Parus major, but as many as sixty common names in English alone5.  Despite the huge number of common names, there is no confusion as there is only one official name and an official description of the species behind the name. This description specifies its anatomy, physiology, behavior and all the other particularities which make this a distinct species.  

The name we give to things is the result of our understanding and our perception of them. The better we understand something the more likely it is that the name we give to it will be accurate and hopefully lasting. It certainly helps to consider things in a wider context—technological as well as cultural—as the same techniques are often used in different contexts, and therefore in some cases we don’t really need to invent new terms but need only adopt or adapt those already used. 

Since terminology reflects our understanding of things, we should accept that the process of naming is fluid and on-going.  This takes time, and it is a long process. In my struggle to name different endbands and different components or processes, I have been comforted by the fact that taxonomy of living creatures has been an ongoing process since antiquity . New species are named almost every day while others are renamed and/or reclassified. As taxonomic and evolutionary knowledge advances, this inevitably affects the way organisms are arranged in the taxonomic system. DNA analysis now seems to be the ultimate solution to the unequivocal classification of living organisms. Is there anything that could be used in a similar way in our field? Should we think of the artifacts we call books, in a way, as living things and therefore deal with them as evolutionary taxonomists deal with living creatures on earth?

Names or terms are conventional designations which work as long as members of a community agree on their meaning. In other words no matter what something is called, the important aspect is agreement on the term’s meaning. This is an important distinction to make and to understand because we seem to be focusing more on the terms we use rather than understanding and defining exactly what they mean. The latter is often a problem because we often don't really know much about the things we try to describe and designate. Understanding as deeply as we can the thing we want to name is of special importance for technical descriptions, and in that sense the definitions are more important than the names themselves. These definitions can and should be written but it is of huge help to have illustrated examples too, especially when describing processes. To continue with the analogy of classification from biology, the formal description of every species (of animal, plant etc.) includes detailed drawings which aim to define—as clearly and precisely as possible—the organism classified. Therefore by describing the process of production of an endband, we can provide a definition of the thing. As I have explained elsewhere, visual definitions have the huge advantage of being direct and can overcome language barriers.6

My definitions of the endbands I have identified, named and classified are based on a combination of visual and written descriptions of their production aiming to provide as much clarity as possible.

Until the 17th century, some authors called the honeybee “Apis pubescens, thorace subgriseo, abdomine fusco, pedibus posticis glabris utrinque margine cillatis”, which translates as “furry bee, grayish thorax, brownish abdomen, back legs smooth with hair on both sides”. It was only through Carl Linnaeus’ binomial system of classification that this became simply and elegantly Apis mellifera, meaning honey-bearing bee.7  These two words are now capable of identifying one single species of bee no matter how many common names this might have within different languages.8  The long descriptive name of the honey bee above reminded me of some of my endband names such as the full-wrapped-on-multiple-additional-cores- flat-and-vertical-twined-endband, the longest name of the over sixty endbands which I have catalogued and described.

In my quest for identifying, classifying and naming endbands, I have somehow ended up following the opposite process to that of the taxonomy of living organisms; my own scientific process of describing and naming has ended up with often long and composite names unlike the bipartite names of plants, insects and animals. What they do have in common is the awkwardness of some of these names and the difficulty in memorizing them.

There is no reason why these long names should not or will not be left aside in favor of common names which will be coined by the people making, studying, repairing and speaking about them. However, since they have been identified, classified, described, named and published, that long name will remain the official name to which other names will refer in order to avoid confusion and misunderstandings. 

Struggling with terminology myself for years, I’ve realized that we have to accept that it is a rather fluid, and to an extent, subjective thing.

We need to focus equally, or maybe mostly, on the definitions rather than the terms themselves. Inevitably definitions require research, study and close inspection of the things we name and define, and we must accept that the terms we propose are not carved in stone. More research will inevitably require adjustments and corrections to the terms we use, terms to which we have become accustomed—or even attached to—and therefore often resist changing them, even when we understand the reasons why such changes should be made. After all, old words—like old habits—die hard.

I am grateful to Athanasios Velios and Andrew Honey for reading this short article and making valuable comments and suggestions.

Interested in Georgios Boudalis’ research on ancient codices and his exquisite accompanying illustrations? Read Jane Eagan’s review of Georgios Boudalis’ book The Codex and Crafts in Late Antiquity found in the April-May 2021 “News in Conservation” Issue 71, p. 33-35.

1 Tractatus Logic-philosophicus 5.6.
2 Carl Linnaeus, Philosophia Botanica, 1751, Aphorism 210.
3 See for example the Getty vocabularies https://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabularies/
4 https://www.ligatus.org.uk/lob/
5 Michael Ohl, The Art of Naming. The MIT Press, 2019, pp. 32-33.
6 See Georgios Boudalis, ‘One Drawing is worth a thousand words’, Icon News July 2015 (11). 11-13.
7 There are five species of the genus Apis. Apis melifera, our honey bee has 30 subspecies. See http://www.atlashymenoptera.net/page.aspx?id=238
8 On the binomial nomenclature—that is, the denomination of each kind of plant by two words, the genus name and the species  name (thus ‘Apis’ is the name of the Genus and ‘melifera’ is the name of the species) see https://www.huntbotanical.org/OrderFromChaos/OFC-Pages/intro.shtml. See also https://biologydictionary.net/taxonomy/  and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxonomy_(biology

Georgios Boudalis is the head of the book and paper conservation laboratory at the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, Greece. His research interests focus on the techniques and evolution of bookbinding structures in the Eastern Mediterranean. He is the author of the book The Codex and Crafts in Late Antiquity published in 2018.

(Read the article and see Georgios' beauitiful illustrations in the October-November 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 86, p. 18-23)

Home Page Intro: 
Since 2010 I have been working on a book about endbands used in codices bound according to various bookbinding traditions of the eastern Mediterranean. As this work now approaches completion, I thought it might be interesting to present the problems I faced and some thoughts on how to overcome the ever present issue of terminology—an issue valid for the myriad natural and human-made things that surround us.
Home Page Suppress Text: