Medieval manuscript quires

Quires, or gatherings, are the little "booklets" that are joined together to make a whole book.

And our mission this week is to practise building quires for our manuscript.

Let's take a look at some examples of the features of quires!

sources of inspiration

It's quite a treasure hunt digging through manuscripts and/or their descriptions to find some of the features of quires, but I found these examples:

First, two stubs of a bifolium just visible between the leaves:

stubs by page gutter

Basel, Universitätsbibliothek, R IV 2, f. 22v – Astrological, philosophical and medical miscellany (

A thread tacket, used to hold a quire together, can be seen under the bottom of the page:

thread tackets hanging from pages

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 745, f. 39 – Johannes de Deo: Liber iudicum · Bonus Johannes: Ordo iudiciarius · Manfredus de Arriago: Tabula decretalium · Dinus de Mugello: Super regulis iuris Libri Sexti (

Here's an example of quire signatures, which in this case consist of letters and numbers denoting the order of the quires. There's bi - telling us that this is the second quire, b, and the first folio, Roman numeral i:

quire signature

And the second quire again with the second folio, bii:

quire signature

Source: Freeska landriucht (1486). Drukker van het Freeska Landriucht

And lastly, here is an example of a catchword. The last word of the previous page of the quire refers to the first word of the text on the first page of the next quire:

Source: Trinity College Cambridge, R.3.60 ff.20v-21r

building quires

The bifolium

The basic building unit of a quire is the bifolium (plural, bifolia.)

This is simply a sheet folded in half once - just like a birthday card, for example:


The bifolium thus has two leaves (hence, bi+folium) and each of these leaves has two sides, making for four pages.

I have shaded one  side of my "parchment" to show the hair side; the lighter side is the flesh side of the skin of the animal.

*** I'm saving my coffee-painted parchment for a little later as I don't have enough of it to make all the examples here and I want to see how the process works before I start to chop it into sheets :) ***

The quaternio

The quaternio is a quire that has eight leaves (or folia) and sixteen pages.

Below, we will see how to make a quaternio

  • using four sheets, each folded once - using four bifolia, in other words, which was the most common way of constructing quires
  • with two sheets, each folded twice
  • with one sheet, folded three times!

How to build a quaternio using four sheets, folded once

Method 1: You can simply stack four unfolded sheets on top of each other and fold the stack in half:

sheets stacked
stack folded once

Notice how you have to arrange the darker hair sides and the lighter flesh sides so that if the hair side is the first page of the quire, for example, then two flesh pages will be facing you when you open the quire:

darker side of skin outside
two pages with lighter skin inside

This pattern, hair to hair and flesh to flesh, is known as Gregory's law, named after Caspar René Gregory who is credited with spotting this phenomenon.

Method 2: Alternatively, fold each sheet once and insert one into the other:

four sheets folded once

Building a quaternio with two sheets, folded twice

Method 1: Fold each individual sheet in half once separately - hair side outside on one, flesh side outside on the other:

two sheets folded once

Insert one into the other; fold once more:

two sheets folded together

I numbered the pages - quite tricky:

numbering quire pages

Open out the centre sheet and you can see the numbering of pages and the direction of the text that needs to be the same way up as the numbers:

order and direction of imposing the text

Method 2: Fold each individual sheet twice separately - both have hair sides outside:

two sheets each folded twice

Insert one into the other:

two sheets assembled together

I have cut the top folds and added a tacket of thread to keep the pages together:

thread tacket

Let's imagine this will be the 7th quire of the manuscript.

I have added a signature to the centre of the lower margin of the last page of the quire:

roman numeral signature on last page of quire

Method 3: Put one sheet on top of the other - hair side facing top and bottom, flesh sides together on the inside.

Fold in half; then fold in half again:

two sheets folded together twice

Here is another example of ordering the quires: a catchword - the first word of the next quire is written on the lower margin of the last page of the previous quire, and I have used the same word that was used in the example near the top of the page:


Building a quaternio with one sheet, folded three times

Two possibilities here - fold the sheet either widthwise or lengthwise:

widthwise fold and lengthwise fold

Fold in half two more times, to make eight leaves and sixteen pages. These quires are known as being in octavo format as they consist of one leaf folded three times to make our quaternio of eight leaves and sixteen pages:

quires - in octavo format

As you can see, the different folding methods have produced differently formed quires.

Let's number the pages of one of our quires so as to prepare its pages to see their order and the direction of writing:

numbering quire pages
third page of quire

Opening out the sheet shows order and direction of pages and text respectively:

hair side of sheet with order and direction of pages for imposing text
order of flesh side of sheet

The page order of the other quire is different, having been folded in a different manner.

When folding with one sheet, Gregory's Law is always adhered to automatically, so that's one less thing to worry about :)

I am going to cut the folds of my other quire and secure its pages with a tacket:

quire with tacket

irregular quires

Of course, not every manuscript was made up of identically built, regular quires; sometimes a page - or a few extra pages - needed to be added.

Example 1: The double sewing quire

This is a quire that has another quire popped inside it, a quire-within-a-quire if you like.

There might even be two quires added to the original quire. The added quires would normally be quite thin, though, using one bifolium or two.

Here's an open quire:

quire with extended pages

There is a bifolium that needs to be added to the quire - it will be slotted in between the pages:

extra bifolium in quire

Here is the view of the quire with the added bifolium:

top view of quire with extra bifolium

Example 2: The stub guard

Another way to add an extra leaf or leaves to the quire was by sewing a long, narrow piece called a stub guard onto the quire; here is my quire at the bottom, with the narrow stub guard and extra leaf at the top:

stub guard, quire, extra leaf

After the stub guard and quire are sewn, the extra leaf is sewn or glued onto the stub guard:

leaf glued onto stub guard

my quires

Having worked through making some test quires, I chopped my large sheets of card into eight A4 sized sheets:

eight sheets of parchment

I made four quires, which are A6 size.

Each quire was made with two sheets. Each sheet was folded twice, then one sheet was inserted into the other, as described above.

four quires

I then cut the folds at the top of the quires. I added a tacket to the first quire:

tacketed quire

Well! I'm sure this was only the tip of the iceberg as far as quires are concerned, but it was certainly a good workout for the brain :)

Thanks for reading, and see you next time when we will be preparing our pages for writing!