Fig 1. A single leaf held up vertically. Verso refers to the right side and recto to the left. The opposite is true of Arabic books however.

Fig 1. A single leaf held up vertically. Verso refers to the right side and recto to the left. The opposite is true of Arabic books however.

There is a danger lurking in the definition of leaves. As a loose term several sources (Suarez & Woudhuysen 22,  Carter 140, Glaister 100) agree that a leaf (fig 1), or leaves, refers to the  “double-sided piece of paper, parchment or similar material capable of being written or printed on, comprising two pages, recto and verso.” (Suarez & Woudhuysen 22) There is an issue with this, however, as it opens speculation that a leaf may predate both books and codex’s and be used to define double-sided scrolls. For a stricter, more fitting bibliographical definition it’s best to allude to the ABC for Book Collectors where they further define leaves as” abbreviated to l., ll., or f., ff. (from folio)” (Carter, 140) and fail to neglect that any leaf is part of the basic structural unit, the sheet. Here they highlight that crucial point: that a leaf must be, or have been, part of a sheet.

As a bibliographical term leaves are near everything. Not only do they hold the most crucial parts of any book, text, illustration, page numbers, watermarks etc., they also help in determining the size of a book and the number of sheets involved. As codices were introduced so came quires, a basic structural node of a book. Quite simply a quire was a folding of sheets, thus creating leaves. If a sheet was folded once it produced two leaves, a bifolium, of folio format. If folded twice it produced four leaves, two bifolia, of quarto format and if folded again it produced eight leaves, this time of an octavo format. Further folding can take place from there. (Morgan & Thomas, 75) The number of folds can be traced from a watermark where a keen bibliographer can calculate the size of the sheet involved and if any leaves are inserted or missing. (Tonra) Despite the folding process being standardised, as an good bookshelf will tell you sizes of sheets can vary. Some of the largest books in British antiquity, folios, have leaves that reach 500 – 600 x 350 – 425 mm or larger (fig 2)

Fig 2. The Carmelite Missal, one of Britain's oldest surviving books has leaves that have been measured as 639 x 425mm.

Fig 2. The Carmelite Missal, one of Britain’s oldest surviving books has leaves that have been measured as 639 x 425mm.

and were particularly common in rich religious texts, such as vestiges, where leaves were comprised of a rich material, often vellum. (Morgan & Thomas, 76) Smaller quarto format sheets with measurements nearing 250- 350 x 150 -250mm were more common for monastic books, while octavo’s were more popular for pocket bibles, where the leaves consisted of very thin parchment. ( Morgan & Thomas 76)

While the evolution of leaf material (papyrus, parchment, paper) is tied to the sheet, its role is not. Leafs play a such a diverse role in the layout of the book, not to mention text and illustrations, that title pages, blank leaf’s, binder’s blanks and various others are all now bibliographical terms of their own. As a result, there’s little anecdotal evidence involving leaves as a standalone topic, with most of their bibliographical cousins stealing the lime light. Despite this, it’s well documented that the counting of leaves isn’t a straight forward affair. In Britain, for example, though modern era quires generally hold eight leaves, prior to the 1400c twelve were more popular and, further afield, the Italians tended to favour ten. (Cambridge 81)  Even Shakespeare’s First Folios “folios of sixes” each generally consisting of three sheets, shows irregularities. (Blayney 9) One quire has eight leaves, while another has four, three more have two and two have four leaves separately. (Blayney 9) While most of these mishaps are consequences of printing mishaps, closer attention shows further insights. The title-page, for example, which holds Shakespeare’s portrait, was an intentional addition of a separate leaf, suggesting the portrait was printed elsewhere by a possible specialist, probably the engraver of the book. (Blayney 14)

Fig 3. illustrations on verso side of leaves.

Fig 3. illustrations on verso side of leaves.

Another concern for bibliographers, as hinted above, is that leaves may be inserted but torn out of books. In the latter case, if they are discarded through binding or later torn out, even if it does not incommode the reader and the text is not affected, it still may be bibliographically significant, as a book is technically not complete without them. (Carter 20 )This is particularly potent in regards to advertisements, which sprang up from the 16th century onwards. Inserted leaves, often in the form of publishers’ lists of catalogues, were common post-18th century and were often removed by the reader. Neither was it uncommon for wholesale distributors to provide binders with lists instructed to be inserted in specified books. If a binder did not possess such materials when starting the printing process, or ran out in-between, he would not halt the printing process. This causes numerous headaches over cataloguing leaves that complete books. (Carter 20).

It’s is hard to speculate the future of book leafs. As an essential part of a books materiality it’s likely they will become victim to ebooks. These days, single leaves of antiquity, can sell for large amount of money particularly if they have ornate designs and are comprised of expensive materials. It is hopeful that this will continue to be the case, and may even hold for modern day leaves, giving, even Celia Ahern, a chance at greatness.

Blayney, W. M. The First Folio of Shakespeare. Washington: Folger Library Productions, 1991.
Carter, J.  ABC For Book Collectors. Edited and with Introduction by Nicholas Barker. Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2006.
Glaister, Geoffrey Ashall. Encyclopedia of the Book. Second edition. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2001.
Morgan, N. Thomson, R. Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Suarez, Michael F., and H. W. Woudhuysen. The Oxford Companion to the Book. Oxford: OUP, 2010.

Contributed by Robert Soper.


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