Modern Book Sizes Are Based on Sheep

Most printed books come in certain standard sizes which have been used for hundreds of years. Even the dimensions of Kindles and other eReaders are derived from these norms of printing. And where did these standards come from? According to medieval scholar Carl Pyrdum, they're based on the size of a sheep:

The question then becomes, I guess, why were medieval books the size they were? And the answer to that is simple: medieval books were the size they were because medieval sheep were the size they were. Remember, paper wasn't the original medium for page-creation. Medieval books were constructed of parchment, which is a fancy word for sheep or goat skin (and primarily sheep skin, because there were a lot more of them around).

The whole sheepskin, flattened out and folded in half, is one common size. Fold it again, and it's another size. All of these sizes and dimensions are still being used by printing houses in the 21st century. The Kindle, for example, is the size of a sheepskin folded over three times. Pyrdum provides further examples and concludes:

Next time you're squinting at your mass-market copy of Dan Brown's latest wishing the pages were just a smidge roomier, blame the medievals for not having bigger sheep.

Link via Wired | Photo by Flickr user David Masters used under Creative Commons license

Newest 5
Newest 5 Comments

Completely untrue; Carl's wrong. The "common size" you're talking about is format-the number of times a sheet is folded to make one gathering. Folio is one fold (2 leaves, 4 pages), quarto is two folds (4 leaves, eight pages), and so one. But format does not determine the size of a book! The size of the paper sheet also matters, and sheet sizes have varied throughout time. The kindle is not a sheepskin folded over three times (which would be called an "octavo.") "Octavo" may mean something specific in contemporary book parlance, but it has absolutely nothing to do with medieval vellum.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Sounds similar to the old legend of railroad tracks being related to Roman chariots.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Login to comment.

Email This Post to a Friend
"Modern Book Sizes Are Based on Sheep"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More