A 16th Century Book That Opens Six Different Ways, Revealing Six Different Books in One

Tech­nol­o­gy has come so far that we con­sid­er it no great achieve­ment when a device the size of a sin­gle paper book can con­tain hun­dreds, even thou­sands, of dif­fer­ent texts. But 21st-cen­tu­ry human­i­ty did­n’t come up with the idea of putting mul­ti­ple books in one, nor did we first bring that idea into being — not by a long shot. Medieval book his­to­ri­an Erik Kwakkel points, for exam­ple, to the “dos-à-dos” (back to back) bind­ing of the 16th and 17th cen­turies, which made for books “like Siamese twins in that they present two dif­fer­ent enti­ties joined at their backs: each part has one board for itself, while a third is shared between the two,” so “read­ing the one text you can flip the ‘book’ to con­sult the oth­er.”

Not long there­after, Kwakkel post­ed an arti­fact that blows the dos-à-dos out of the water: a 16th-cen­tu­ry book that con­tains no few­er than six dif­fer­ent books in a sin­gle bind­ing. “They are all devo­tion­al texts print­ed in Ger­many dur­ing the 1550s and 1570s (includ­ing Mar­tin Luther, Der kleine Cat­e­chis­mus) and each one is closed with its own tiny clasp,” he writes.

“While it may have been dif­fi­cult to keep track of a par­tic­u­lar text’s loca­tion, a book you can open in six dif­fer­ent ways is quite the dis­play of crafts­man­ship.” You can admire it — and try to fig­ure it out — from a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent angles at the Flickr account of the Nation­al Library of Swe­den, where it cur­rent­ly resides in the archives of the Roy­al Library.

Four or five cen­turies ago, a book like this would no doubt have impressed its behold­ers as much as or even more than the most advanced piece of hand­held con­sumer elec­tron­ics impress­es us today. But when the inter­net dis­cov­ered Kwakkel’s post, it became clear that this six-in-one devo­tion­al cap­ti­vates us in much the same way as a brand-new, nev­er-before-seen dig­i­tal device. “With a lit­er­a­cy rate hov­er­ing around an esti­mat­ed 5 to 10 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages, only a select few of soci­ety’s upper ech­e­lons and reli­gious castes had use for books,” Andrew Taran­to­la reminds us. “So who would have use for a sex­tu­plet of sto­ries bound by a sin­gle, mul­ti-hinged cov­er like this? Some seri­ous­ly busy schol­ar.” And he writes that not on a site for enthu­si­asts of old books, Medieval his­to­ry, or reli­gious schol­ar­ship, but at the tem­ple of tech wor­ship known as Giz­mo­do.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

Napoleon’s Kin­dle: See the Minia­tur­ized Trav­el­ing Library He Took on Mil­i­tary Cam­paigns

Wear­able Books: In Medieval Times, They Took Old Man­u­scripts & Turned Them into Clothes

Europe’s Old­est Intact Book Was Pre­served and Found in the Cof­fin of a Saint

Behold the “Book Wheel”: The Renais­sance Inven­tion Cre­at­ed to Make Books Portable & Help Schol­ars Study (1588)

The Assassin’s Cab­i­net: A Hol­lowed Out Book, Con­tain­ing Secret Cab­i­nets Full of Poi­son Plants, Made in 1682

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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