An excerpt from the essay "The Leaf Book " by Christopher de Hamel, Donnelley Fellow Librarian, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, and Sandars Reader in Bibliography, 2004. The full essay is available in the exhibition's catalog.
There are two themes in the pre-history of leaf books. The first is the practice of cutting up one book so that its pieces might be used to ornament or improve another book. The second is relic collecting. Both practices go back into the Middle Ages. There are numerous examples of 15th and 16th century devotional manuscripts with decoration supplied by pasting or binding in cuttings from earlier illuminated manuscripts or from early printed books with woodcuts or engravings. By the late 16th century booksellers sometimes bought volumes of engravings, especially biblical scenes, and cut them up to supplement other books, mainly Bibles and prayer books, which were afterward resold as composite editions.
The trade in religious relics, genuine and spurious, goes far back into antiquity. It is a curious fact that manuscripts were seldom regarded as relics in the high Middle Ages, even if they had certainly belonged to known saints, but by the 17th century books with saintly provenances were sometimes cut up for distribution to faithful believers. The 18th century was an age of rationalism and the consequent self-righteous destruction of supposedly holy relics as superstitious and credulous vices. It is notable, then, that the period coincides exactly with the high point of the veneration of secular relics of historic heroes: fragments of Shakespeare’s mulberry tree or Nelson’s Victory, for example, or locks of hair of Washington, Mozart, or Byron. At these moments in history, for the first time, early printed books began to be cut up and distributed for no other reason than as collectible relics of great printers.
Individual or homemade leaf-book compilations were popularized by the Rev. James Granger (1723-1776), who gave social respectability to the recreational practice of interleaving reference books, sometimes published for this purpose, with original examples of relevant prints, drawings, or documents. The inserted additions were often garnered from earlier archives or publications. Creators of such extra-illustrated confections would have stressed the educational value of their labors but they would undoubtedly also have gained a collector’s pleasurable satisfaction in reading about some person or event in history and then, with the facts fresh in mind, confronting an actual tangible contemporary record or relic of the period. That, in essence, is the thrill of the leaf book.
With leaf books formed from dismembered pieces of private-press publications, we are beginning to move into the giddy realms of bibliographic incest because leaf books, for the most part, have themselves been limited edition productions of private presses. Cutting up a rare modern book in order to create a deliberately rare modern book confirms the worst fears of our partners and colleagues, to whom bibliophily is already certifiably dangerous insanity. This is, however, exactly what has happened, not once, but often.