Don’t judge a medieval book by its cover

What follows is the scratching of an itch that has been bugging me for months, if not years – the risible quality of the cover design of many medieval text books. Granted, it’s hardly a subject of profound importance, but I’m not a person who can outline a solution to global warming or the Syrian civil war in the course of a few paragraphs. More to the point, ugly covers hardly encourage people who are new to medieval history or archaeology to pick up books and develop an interest in the subject.

A few months ago I leapt at the chance to buy for a reasonable price a copy of the Martin Carver-edited collection The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe, AD 300-1300. Going through Amazon Marketplace, everything went swimmingly  up to the point where I opened the cover and found that it enclosed not a collection of essays on late antique and early medieval religion, rather the entirety of an oncological textbook, Lipid Nanocarriers in Cancer Diagnosis and Therapy. An email to the seller, REWBS Books, only added to the mystery as I was informed the book’s publishers don’t do medical titles (the plot thickened still further when I found a stamp from the University of Siena at the back of the book – that’s one institution off the Surrey Medieval Christmas card list). Steven at REWBS Books was a real champ and gave a full refund along with the advice to destroy the book lest the same thing happen again. I still haven’t done this because (1) I can sell the book for what it is and make a tidy profit and (2) I first wanted to write about its truly hideous front cover…

The Cross Goes North

It turns out that the designer of the cover is a medieval archaeology lecturer, Dr Aleks Pluskowski (perhaps a product of his interest in “Hyper-real, virtual and digital representations of the past“). Still, I’m not sure how it could have gained the thumbs-up  from any editor/publisher of such a prestigious collection of papers (although much the same could be said of the record label that released Muse’s 1999 debut album, Sunburn, whose much-derided sleeve design music fans bears a faint resemblance to the front cover of The Cross Goes North).

Unfortunately, the aforementioned book is not the only major medieval title published in the past few years that has been disfigured by such an eyesore of a front cover. Two particularly hideous examples spring to mind. The first – and arguably the worst of the lot – is the milestone 2010 collection Signals of Belief in Early England, published by Oxbow Books but whose designer is, for better or worse, not credited as far as I can see.

Or in this case signalling my disbelief...

Or in this case signalling my disbelief…

Sure, I get it, fire was important in Anglo-Saxon society (boy, have I been thankful for central heating these past few days!) but why’s the skeleton on fire? Is this the belated cremation of what looks to be a long-interred inhumation burial? Shouldn’t someone save that whacking great shield boss before it melts? As for the animal motifs prancing this way and that, not to mention the bracteate sneaking in at the foot of the cover, what are they all about? All in all, it looks like an early mock-up of the cover for a book to accompany Meet The Ancestors, the BBC’s largely forgotten first stab at TV archaeology, current re-runs of which have meant it has re-embedded itself as a favourite thanks to Julian Richards‘ almost sotto voce narration being perfect fodder for lazy Saturday mornings (the real-life series book cover wasn’t much better but, seeing as how it was produced in the 1990s, that can be forgiven).

My second horror show has, for the time being at least, the advantage of being printed on a removable dust jacket. It’s the cover to the gargantuan (we’re talking 1,078 numbered pages) 2011-published The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology. As with Signals of Belief…, it will undoubtedly prove to be a go-to volume for many aspects of its titular subject for many years to come, yet the first thing readers will encounter when picking up the book is this awkward composition:

The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology

I hadn’t seen the little fella featured on the cover before (he’s a “silver-gilt pendant in the form of a partly clothed male figure” found at Carlton Colville in Suffolk). Even so, I question whether showing his Action Man-style lower portions no fewer than three times was the best possible composition the cover’s designer could have come up with.

It must be stressed at this point that the majority of books about medieval history, archaeology etc. are perfectly acceptable. A trawl through my bookshelves revealed they fall into two main groups (three if you count those with plain covers save for the book’s key details – the Royal Historical Society / British Academy Anglo-Saxon Charters series is an example of this style done well). The first are book covers featuring an image that is a literal representation of the subject matter of the book. Thus the following are riffs on the theme of landscape (all three are excellent books – keen-eyed readers may recognise the church in the first picture as Surrey’s own St Martha’s-on-the-Hill):

Churches in the Landscape

The Landscape of Place-Names

Landscape The Richest Historical Record

The second group comprises titles which, like the above-mentioned Oxford Handbook…, feature notable artefacts from the titular period. I’ll spare you the innumerable book covers featuring one or more of the treasures from the Sutton Hoo ship burial (doubtless to be rivalled before long by the biggest and best pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard) and cite a brace of books, one featuring one of the most gaudy early medieval artefacts I have seen and the other my favourite, the Brandon plaque:

Pestell & Ulmschneider and Foot

Let’s take a step back for a minute. Am I unfairly bashing medieval studies here? Do other subjects enjoy uniformly superlative book design? The only way to find out was to assemble a control sample – but what to choose? Of course, the answer was obvious. Having been spurred into action by an oncology textbook masquerading as a medieval essay collection (whose real-life cover is about as bland as they come), one Sunday afternoon I descended into the depths of Waterstones’ Gower Street branch (the largest academic bookshop in Europe, apparently) to peruse its medical textbooks and take photographs when the security guard wasn’t around. What I found was fairly predictable; a few nice covers (with extra points going to the first of the books below for its use of Irish artist Niamh Merc’s artwork)…

Good medical textbook covers

…but no shortage of abysmal ones too (you’d think that if people ate baby corns then maybe they wouldn’t become obese – or perhaps it’s a case of quantity over quality):

Bad medical book covers

In short, medicine and medieval history are equally cursed and blessed by the design of their covers. Of course, this is not to say a book must be lumbered with the cover it was first published with if it is reprinted in new editions. A great example of this is Sarah Zaluckyj’s Mercia: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Central England. When it was first published in 2001, it had a cover that was eye-watering for both its clunky layout and acid colour scheme. Ten years later and its reprinted edition boasts a front cover that is a model of refined simplicity. I know which one I prefer…

After no little negativity in the preceding paragraphs, it’s only right to conclude by celebrating some of the best examples of medieval book design, ones that offer possible templates for others to follow. My personal favourites are covers featuring bold geometric forms, usually arising from their statistical subject matter. In truth, they’re rarely medieval-only books and date from the period when processual archaeology remained in the ascendancy. Examples include Ranking, resource and exchange: Aspects of the archaeology of early European society (first published in 1982) and, best of all, the Christaller hexagon-morphing 1986 collection Central Places, Archaeology and History (currently available on Amazon at a sickeningly-low price compared to what I paid for my copy a couple of years back):

Central_places_and_archaeology 001

However, in terms of purely medieval-themed books, to my mind the best are those which embody the principle of less is more; simple abstractions of medieval forms are used to great effect in the following books…

Peter Hunter Blair, 'An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England' (also available in red)

Peter Hunter Blair, ‘An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England’ (also available in red)

Peter Brown, ‘The Cult of Saints’ (extra credit for the gold)

Various, 'Danish Medieval History New Currents' (trust the Danes to get it right)

Various, ‘Danish Medieval History New Currents’ (trust the Danes to get it right)

So what does the above tell us? To be honest, probably nothing of profound importance. On the other hand, perhaps there are advantages to be gained by not completely ignoring cover design and concentrating purely on the contents of a book. While none of the above, nor any titles of the same ilk published in the future, are likely to break into the bestseller lists or be recommended by Richard & Judy, it could make a small difference in terms of how the book sells and how it is regarded in the longer term. After all, what harm can a well-designed cover do?

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About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Archaeology, Art, Books, Design, Documents, History, Publishing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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