Fore-edge clasps were a common and necessary element of the medieval book. Most manuscripts of that period were written on parchment, which tends to cockle and distort with changes in temperature and humidity. To keep the parchment leaves of the textblock flat, wooden boards with clasps to hold them firmly closed were essential aspects of the bindings. These fittings were so commonly associated with bookbindings that they continued to be used in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuies, even when paper textblocks made closures and clasps usually unnecessary. The clasp mechanism consists of several elements. Most commonly, the clasp is attached to a strap, which can be cut to the desired length for proper tension. The strap is anchored to one board with a small anchor plate or pin(s). The other board is fitted with the catch plate onto which the clasp attaches when the book is closed. Throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods, brass was the most common metal from which clasps were made. The array of shapes and decorative motifs is amazing. Some clasps may well have been made in the binding shop, but metalsmiths provided many to binders through the trade in binding supplies. The characteristic features of clasps and furniture, both in style and placement, differ by region. German bindings tend to have the catch plates on the upper (front) board, with the straps attached to the lower one. The opposite is generally true for bindings from England and Italy. Italian bindings often had single clasps at the head and tail, as well as at the fore-edge. The advent of pasteboards brought a decline in clasp use for book closures. The softer pasteboard did not provide a solid anchorage for the metal pins used to attach the clasps and other furniture. However, since pasteboards could be easily pierced, use of ribbons as fore edge ties became more common by the sixteenth century. Silver furniture was popular by the sixteenth century, especially for books of private devotion.
German, sixteenth century
Here the closing mechanism is not the more common clasp and catch plate; rather the clasp catches onto pins in the upper board. From the Scheide Library.
Author: Catholic Church
Title: Missale Maguntiu[m].
Published: Mainz: Johann Schoeffer, 1 Sept. 1507.
Location: Scheide Library (WHS)
Call number: Scheide 9.2.1
Spine height: 36 cm

Italian, sixteenth century
Binding with four catch plates on the lower board
Title: Epigrammata antiquae urbis.
Published: Rome: Jacobus Mazochius, 1521.
Location: Rare Books (Ex)
Call number: Oversize 10214.626q
Spine height: 31 cm

German, sixteenth century
Author: Reisch, Gregor, d. 1525
Title: Margarita philosophica.
Published: Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Johann Schott, 1503.
Location: Rare Books (Ex)
Call number: 6179.75.361

British, seventeenth century
Silverplate metalwork on a seventeeth-century Book of Common Prayer.
Author: Church of England
Title: The book of common prayer.
Published: Oxford: Printed by John Baskett, printer to the University, 1732.
Location: Rare Books (Ex)
Call number: 5942.254.17
Spine height: 25.5 cm

Silk ribbon ties on an eighteenth-century binding of parchment over pasteboards.
Author: Brandis, Christophorus.
Title: Gehennologia, das ist, Hellen-predigten.
Published: Schmalkalden, Germany: J.V. Fleischhauer, 1668.
Location: Rare Books (Ex)
Call number: 5798.206
Spine height: 20 cm