The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Back-to-back reading

As commenters bruxer and Lydia Fletcher worked out,  January’s crocodile mystery showed a detail of the head of a dos-à-dos binding, with a covered board running down the middle separating two gauffred text blocks. The full picture makes it a bit clearer:

The head of a dos-à-dos binding
The head of a dos-à-dos binding

A dos-à-dos binding is one in which two books are bound together back-to-back (giving rise to the name), so that each has its own front cover, but a shared back board. If you’re looking down at the head of the book—the top edge of the binding, as shown above—you see the text block of each book and the s-shape of the binding curving from top board across spine to bottom board then across spine and then to top board again. If you were to look at the fore-edge of a dos-à-dos binding, as on the left below, you’d see both the fore-edge of one text block and the spine of the other.

left: fore-edge and spine; right: top board and spine
left: fore-edge and spine; right: top board and spine

The metallic look of the board running down the middle of the head is caused by the embroidered border of the binding (click on the images to enlarge them). This is a very decorated volume—it’s a little bit hard to see, but the edges of the pages of this book are gauffred and gilt (that is, they’ve been decorated by cutting designs into them and then gilded).

So, it’s pretty and all, but why would you want to have a book bound like that? For one thing, it’s a handy way of keeping together two books that you use in tandem. The typical dos-à-dos binding holds together a New Testament and a Book of Psalms—the Folger has 7 17th-century dos-à-dos bindings, 5 of which are NT/Psalms combinations. If you think about how these books would be used together in the period, moving back and forth between them, housing them in a single binding this way makes sense. It treats the books as a unit that can be easily navigated by quickly finding the beginning of each work. It’s the navigation factor that is part of this structure’s advantage over a sammelband, in which different works follow each other in sequence in a single binding. A sammelband is great for some things, but unless you have multiple bookmarks allowing you to rapidly find the beginning of each book, there’s no physical demarcation between them. Another structural advantage of dos-à-dos bindings is that they aren’t too fat to open—anyone who’s worked with a tightly bound book or with an overly hefty book knows how hard it can be to open the volume wide enough to read it comfortably. In a sammelband, the thickness of the spine is the cumulative thickness of all the books; in a dos-à-dos binding, the thickness of each spine is only as thick as an individual book.

So, if 5 of the 7 are of New Testaments and the Psalms, what are the other two dos-à-dos books in the Folger’s holdings? One is a 1631 edition of John Taylor’s Verbum sempiternum, a teeny-tiny book (64mo format! 45 mm height!), one half of which is a thumb bible of biblical paraphrases of the Old Testament and the other half of the New Testament. Although this isn’t exactly the same thing as joining together a New Testament with a Book of Psalms, it certainly makes sense to present the two parts of the thumb bible this way.

And the 6th book? That’s the one we’re looking at for our crocodile. It’s made up of two works: STC 2406The psalter or Psalmes of Dauid, after the translation of the great Bible, pointed as it shall be said or sung in churches: with the morning & euening praier, and certaine additions of collects, and other the ordinarie seruice, gathered out of the booke of Common praier. Also a briefe table declaring the true vse of euerie Psalme, made by Master Theod. Beza. Newlie printed in a final and portable volume or manuel, and STC 2544.2The whole booke of Psalmes: collected into English meeter by T. Sternhold, I. Hopkins, and others. In other words, if you open it from one side, you have the Psalms, and if you open it from the other side, you have . . . the Psalms.

So this is where I turn the mystery back to you again, dear Readers. Why would two books of the Psalms be bound together this way? Since the Folger’s copy is in a fragile embroidered binding, I haven’t tried to examine it myself. The Folger’s catalog doesn’t indicate that either of the two incomplete. And there’s not a copy of STC 2406 on EEBO to look at, nor does that version of the Psalms exist in another edition, so I’m not sure how it might differ from the Sternhold and Hopkins. So, any thoughts on what’s going on here?

As an advance thank-you for your thoughts, I’ll leave you with a couple of related goodies. First, although most dos-à-dos bindings are of two books, it is possible to have more than two bound together: see this example of a 5-fold 1736 binding from AbeBooks. Less pretty, perhaps, but more useful, is my second offering: if you’re looking for some help with the terminology used in this post and in other discussions of books, the 8th edition of John Carter and Nicholas Barker’s ABC for Book Collectors (2004) can be found online, thanks to Oak Knoll Press and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.


  • Perhaps the second one in “English meter” is written in a rhythmic or rhyming translation, perhaps for singing, while the first written as the “great bible” is after the King James or Vulgate? I have a bible with different translations on facing pages, so the concept might be the same.

  • This is fascinating. Why indeed would two versions of the Psalms be bound back-to-back? The second one, The Whole Book of Psalms (WBP) was amazingly popular for more than 100 years. Beth Quitslund (who is preparing a new edition) says this translation went through 1,000 editions. It was then declared so clunky by modern scholars such as C.S. Lewis that its profound influence on Shakespeare has been overlooked.

    In Hannibal Hamlin’s important new book, The Bible in Shakespeare (OUP), he was kind enough to mention one of my articles that proposed the WBP was in fact the most significant Psalm translation in terms of intertextuality with Shakespeare’s plays and poems.

    I realize I haven’t answered the question as to why the two Psalm translations were bound together. Perhaps as a reminder to us that the WBP was the version sung in churches by the congregation after Queen Elizabeth asked them to participate in singing hymns. Unlike most other translations, it was of regular meter, lending itself more easily to being sung to music that was in regular meter.

  • This is a standard kit for taking to church in the period, although admittedly prettier than most. The prose psalms are the Great Bible version, read through monthly in matins and vespers. The Whole Book of Psalms is the hymnal–those metrical psalms and approximately 20 hymns were sung in essentially every English church from the 1560s through the early 18th century and in many places well into the 19th century. It was the best-selling book in England for at least a century and a half.

    • Thank you! I’m familiar with the Whole Book of Psalms, but hadn’t come across the other before–and, as I wrote, most of the dos-a-dos books I’ve seen combine the former with the New Testament. But I knew there would be a psalms scholar out there who would recognize and explain this!

      • I suspect that in slightly larger formats either a N.T. or the BCP (or both) were more commonly bound this way with The Whole Book of Psalms (though I’ve also seen private prayerbooks as well, I think even at the Folger). For the smallest formats (24mo like this one and 32mo) something really short like the Psalter seems to have been more common until the Restoration. A wholesale binding price list from 1619 (STC 16768.6) gives the cost of “Psalter and Psalmes 32” bound dos-a-dos with gilt stamping and edges (“crosse-gilt”) listed at 1s 4d.

      • And, of course, the Great Bible psalter editions (even the 32mo) usually include parts from the BCP, making especially clear that the context of their use is the Church of England liturgy. And the BCPs typically bound with quarto Bibles include the Great Bible psalter in full, too; these sammelbände are also usually accompanied with a copy of the Whole Booke of Psalmes, and are incredibly common. So, in many quarto Bibles you end up with three different psalters, each of which has a somewhat different use in the devotional lives of their owners (and often their families).

  • Wow, it’s fantastic to get to see the whole book! The embroidered binding is really fantastic, and the overall decoration and wear suggest to me that this was a well-loved book. Perhaps the owner who had it bound just really liked both these translations of the Psalms and wanted to keep them together to quickly switch between them?

  • I think Beth is right, that this is a book designed for use in church worship, where both versions of the Psalms were used, at different times. As she and Aaron both point out, various service books were often bound together for handy reference. I’ve not seen this particular combo before, but as Beth notes Sternhold and Hopkins was regularly bound in with the Book of Common Prayer or Bibles (whole or part). And the BCP itself often included or was bound with the Coverdale Psalter (from the Great Bible, though a little tinkered with over the decades). Aaron’s point is interesting, that the Coverdale Psalms, even when published on their own, often contained BCP bits. This book, with Coverdale and SH, is then just another variation. It’s interesting to me, though, that this book suggests how much at ease people were with multiple versions of the Psalms co-existing. In church services, there were actually at least three different translations available, since in addition to the Coverdale in the BCP, and the Sternhold Hopkins which were regularly sung, there were the translations in the official lectern Bibles — Bishops’ from 1568, KJV from 1611. It’s always fascinated me how hard it is to know precisely what went on in any actual church in a particular service. For congregational singing, it had to be SH, since that was what fit the tunes (though SH aren’t actually specified in the BCP rubrics). For reading, though, it could have been either the version in the BCP or the version on the lectern, who knows? Did congregations much care? I.e., discriminate between the (often) minute differences in translations?

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