multivalent print, or, learning to love ambiguity in three easy lessons

Below are the slides for and the approximate text of a talk I gave at the 2013 MLA convention as part of a panel on “Convergent Histories of the Book: From Manuscript to Digital” organized by Alex Mueller and Mike Johnston. I spoke ex tempore, so my text here won’t precisely line up with what I said at the MLA, but the gist should be the same. I’ve indicated where the slide changes are and after each change have inserted a footnote linking to source and, where available, a link to the image. I’ve also indicated my indebtedness to other scholars, particularly Jeffrey Todd Knight and Adam Smyth, in the notes.

I want to talk today about how early print complicates any trajectory from manuscript to digital, focusing on some common mistaken assumptions that are made about early print. The first assumption we make is that print replaced manuscript, that once the printing press was invented, writing by hand withered away. [slide 2] But print is not the opposite of manuscript. Indeed, we might understand print as having spurred on an increase in handwriting. When people think of the first printed work, they usually think of the Gutenberg bible. [slide 3] But Gutenberg’s first printed work was an indulgence, printed in 1454 and, as you can see, filled out by hand on 27 February 1455. Gutenberg wasn’t the only early printer to print indulgences. [slide 4] This is an indulgence printed in 1498 by Wynken de Worde. It hasn’t been filled out; in fact, it wasn’t ever cut into individual indulgences to be sold. What you’re looking at is a sheet of indulgences and the only reason it survived is because it was used as part of the binding of a book. Other categories of printed forms were popular aside from indulgences. [slide 5] This is a legal document, a summons from the Exchequer filled out on 1 August 1622. [slide 6] And this legal document from 1677 makes Francis Read of Giggleswick Bailiff of the Wapentake of Ewecross.

All of these documents were designed for the insertion of handwriting. But writing flourished on texts even when the print wasn’t inviting it. [slide 7] In this copy of Polychronicon, printed by Caxton in 1482, an early user has supplied the missing final leaves with his own manuscript copy. Is that book manuscript or print? It seems pretty clearly print: the bulk of the volume is print and the manuscript provides access to missing print. [slide 8] This copy of Aristotle’s Ethics was so  heavily annotated by its owner that the margins of the pages were not enough: he added in blank leaves to give himself more room for his notes. Is this book print or manuscript? We value it for the manuscript additions, for the dialogue between print and hand.

[slide 9] As these books make clear, print is not closed, finished, done at the moment of printing. [slide 10] We all know that print wasn’t fixed; books were printed with errors all the time, and errata notes calling attention to them. This 1624 example is one of my favorites: “There are many other errors, which being but small, I entreat the courteous reader to correct as he findes them.” [slide 11] In this 1673 book, a user has gone through and made the corrections the errata list invites him to, here crossing out “company” and writing in “presence.”

But not all marginalia responds in the way that a book invites. [slide 12] In this copy of Caxton’s 1483 printing of Confessio Amatis, a mid-sixteenth-century owner has gone through and crossed out “pope” and, in this instance, cleverly substituted “abominable” for “honourable.” But not all of the marginalia in this book responds to the text, or even works against the text. [slide 13] In the blank space on this leaf is recorded the date of the writer’s marriage: “Chrystofer Swallowe was marryed the 12th day of July in the yere of oure lorde 1553 whiche was the seventhe yere of the Reigne of kinge Edward the Sixth …. and in the firste year of the Reigne of our most Excellent and worthie princes Queyne marie the fyrst.” [slide 14] And across the bottom margins of another opening is a deed of land involving Swallowe and “Dorithe his wife.”

[slide 15] Early readers also used print for their own purposes in other ways, taking books apart and reassembling them to make their own meaning. A famous example are the Little Giddings bible concordances (here showing one at Harvard). The Little Giddings community wove together the four different gospels to produce one narrative of Christ’s life, cutting words out of the gospels and pasting them together in their harmonies. If you look closely at this image (or follow this link to see other pages from Harvard’s copy), you’ll see the small slips of paper that have been carefully rearranged and glued to make a new text.

The Harmonies are a particularly famous example of this reworking of texts, and are often discussed by later readers as shocking: Can you imagine cutting apart your bible and remaking it? [slide 16] But there are other examples of what Adam Smyth calls “reading with scissors” in this period. John Gibson’s commonplace book, put together while he was imprisoned in the 1650s, cuts out and repurposes print material with his manuscript additions. [slide 17] Gibson is not the only one to remix works. This copy of Mary Sidney’s translation of Philippe de Mornay’s A Discourse of Life and Death (1600) has been supplemented an early user with images cut from Richard Day’s A booke of Christian prayers, hand colored and pasted in, and with manuscript couplets.

It didn’t always take wielding scissors to remake texts. [slide 18] Since many early books were not sold bound, buyers could choose how and when to bind them, sometimes bringing together multiple works within one binding. In this case, a seventeenth-century reader created a compilation of verse works, ranging from narrative poetry to love lyrics and epigrams and binding together five printed works and one manuscript. As the work done by Paul Needham on Caxton and Jeffrey Todd Knight on Renaissance sammelbände shows, sometimes the books early modern readers created are surprisingly different from what we expect.

One of the reasons for our surprise is that we don’t often encounter early modern works in the same manner in which early modern readers would have. [slide 19] Our notion of what is important, of the difference between print and manuscript, of what readers do with texts, has been shaped by the assumptions and practices of collectors and curators in the nineteenth century. The questions that I asked about whether we consider a specific work print or manuscript are not questions without important implications for researchers. In most libraries, print and manuscript are cataloged separately, often with different curators in charge and with different policies and grants in place. Early modern readers might not have differentiated between print and manuscript, but nineteenth-century caretakers of those books did, and often remade them according to their notions of what was appropriate, assumptions that continue to govern how we treat and encounter early books.

[slide 20] As we just saw, binding together different works into a single volume was one way early readers made and encountered their books. It was a particularly handy way of treating plays, which were slim works that didn’t always need to be bound individually. This list shows the contents of one such volume, a collection of thirteen plays and interludes housed in one binding. But this is no longer how we encounter this volume. [slide 21] In 1961, these plays were separated from each other and rebound individually. The binder’s note in the back of each play records what it once was; the original table of contents remains with the first play in the collection. But the sense of the plays as a gathering is gone. [slide 22]  What we see are slim, tidy playbooks, not the heterogenous collection they once were.

[slide 23] Sometimes we are lucky and we catch a glimpse of what was. [slide 24] But more often we encounter early works through the interventions of later assumptions about what they were, our view of the seventeenth century shaped by nineteenth-century lenses. What we think we know about early print—that it is distinct from manuscript, that it is fixed and stable—are mistaken lessons that obscure the ambiguities and complexities of what print was and can be.


pretty picture penance

It’s been much longer since I’ve written a proper post here than I meant for it to be. In my defense, I’ve been pretty busy over at The Collation, running the show and writing my own contributions. There’s lots of good stuff over there, including a whole world of manuscript exploration that I don’t do here; check out Heather Wolfe’s and Nadia Seiler’s interesting posts if you like that sort of thing (and if you don’t think you do, browse anyway and you’ll learn that you do!). And if you’re looking for advice on using Folger digital resources, like searching Luna and the power of permanent URLs and Mike Poston’s new tool, Impos[i]tor, the tooltips series is for you.

In any case, this post isn’t meant to be an advertisement, but to do a pretty picture penance: sharing some great book images, even if I don’t have the time to talk in any detail about them. So . . .

Voila! This is a lovely blue and red penwork initial letter from an edition of Peter Lombard’s Sententiarum libri IV, printed in Basel in 1482. (Here’s your catalog record; all photos, through cell-phone crapola, can be clicked and embiggened.)

Here’s another initial, where you can see how delicate the penwork is. I love how the details drape down the column of text:

Not all the initials in the text are so fancy. Here’s a nice, albeit plain, red one:

But that’s not the most interesting detail in this photo. Look again. And then look at this one:

And this one:

You know what I’m talking about, right? They’re the impressions left behind by the finding tabs that were once there! If you look again at the three photos, you can see how they line up, each new section marked slightly below the previous one, so that the tabs stick out, all easy to find and to use to jump to the beginning of a section. Here’s a detail from the first tab:

And here’s the verso of that leaf:

You all know how I like it when I see details of physical features of books that are normally hidden:

Because the front board is loose, you can see some of the knots of the sewing structure holding the binding and the book together.

And what else do I love? Details that show something about the printing process:

At first glance, that looks simply like ink bleeding through from the other side of the leaf. But did you notice any bleedthrough on any of the other pages? That’s some heavy-duty paper. No, that isn’t bleedthrough, it’s offset! In the words of John Carter, offset is

The accidental transfer of ink from a printed page or illustration to an adjacent page. This may be caused either from the sheets having been folded, or the book bound, before the ink was properly dry, or from the book being subsequently exposed to damp. Offset from engraved or other plates on to text, and from text on to plates, is commoner, and also much more disfiguring, than offset from text on to text. Text offset occasionally provides valuable bibliographical evidence, since it usually derives from the very earliest stage in the assembly of the printed sheets into a book. And some of the neatest deductions have been made from the offset, not from one page to another of an individual copy, but from the offset on a page of one book from printed sheets belonging to another which happened to be stacked with it at the printer’s.

So there you go, a whole bunch of my favorite things, all in one book!

myriad marginalia

This week in class I showed my students (too briefly) one of my favorite books in the Folger’s collections, a 1483 printing by William Caxton of John Gower’s long poem Confessio amantis, written some hundred years earlier. I do not love this book because of its text—if I confess that I’ve never read the poem, will you hold it against me?—nor because of its author. I think it’s pretty cool that it was printed by Caxton, the man who established printing in England, and of course, there’s always kind of a thrill to any incunabula, but that’s not it either. No, I love this book because of the traces of its later owners, traces that interact with the text, traces that are all about the book but not the text, and traces that seem to have nothing to do with anything.

Here’s one set of marks that are fabulous:

leaf g1r

It’s a little hard to see what’s going on, so here’s a detail:

getting rid of the pope

Do you see what the reader has done? The ink’s faded, but he or she has scribbled out “pope” everywhere it appears! Even better is the verso of this leaf:

honourable or abominable?

Not only has the reader crossed out “pope”, but he’s struck through “honourable” and replaced it with “abominable.” That’s some thought-out substitution—it keeps the rhyme and the meter (I’m assuming you’d elide the “i” to get four syllables). The final “e” on that “abominable” looks like the sort of two-stroke “e” that you see in mid-sixteenth century secretary hand. Though there isn’t enough for me to be able to date the annotation, you’ll see more in a moment that might give further clues.

Not all the marginalia in this book is so attuned to the text. Other instances simply take the advantage of blank spaces in which to doodle:

a blank space needs to be filled

As you know, I like blank spaces, and I like that page in the Gower because it shows how doodlers will need to use that space. I’m inclined to agree: if you’re not going to include nice initial letters or anything else deliberate in those spaces, really, something should be added.

Blank margins at the bottom of the page are pretty tempting, too:

he's lost his head!

I suppose it’s possible that the bottom edge got trimmed during rebinding and that’s why this man has no head (or torso), but I’m not sure that’s what happened. Check out this guy:

decapitated or deliberate?

There’s clearly some text that’s been trimmed, but I’m not convinced that even before trimming this guy had a head, poor thing.

In any case, all that doodling is pretty great, I think, but the blank spaces of the book have also been used much more intentionally:

recording Swallowe's marriage

That’s just one piece of a series of notes giving information about Christofer Swallowe, this one dating his marriage, and others naming his children. But as fabulous as that is, it’s not my favorite bit of marginalia. This is:

a deed recording the transfer of land

It’s hard to read, so here’s a close-up of each page:

detail leaf i3v

detail of leaf i4r

And here’s an attempt at a transcription:

Ottley      Leonard England haithe in the absence of the court surrendered into the handes of the lord of the said manner by the handes of Peter Baildon and Lawrence fflessher two c[o]stimary tennandes of the said manner being sworne All that one close callid Steren acre conteining by estimation one acar of Land & medowe with thappurte[…]es in Ottley aforesaid Now in the tenure of Christofer

And Dorithe his wife and their assigned for Duringe the naturall liffes of the said Christofer Swallowe & Dorithe his wife and the longer liuer of theme without any rentes or other duties yelding paieng or doinge therefore unto the said Leornard England his heires and assigned During the said terme /// The xii day of Marche 1[…] {lost to trimmed bottom edge}

Isn’t that wonderful? A deed! Recorded in the margins of Gower’s Confessio amantis! It’s got nothing to do with the text and everything to do with the fact that this is a big book with white spaces to spare: there’s room for the information to be copied and security that the book isn’t going to be misplaced or accidentally thrown out with the rubbish. All these different types of writing in books and all in one book!

the serendipity of the unexpected, or, a copy is not an edition

My last post focused on my frustration with the assumption that digitization is primarily about access to text:

But access is not all that digitization can do for us. Why should we limit ourselves to thinking about digital facsimiles as being akin to photographs? Why should we think about these artifacts in terms only of the texts they transmit? Let’s instead think about digitization as a new tool that can do things for us that we wouldn’t be able to see without it. Let’s use digitization not only to access text but to explore the physical artifact.

I spent the remainder of that post brainstorming some suggestions about what digitization might enable other than access to text, and there were some great comments about the ramifications of textualizing the digital that I’m still mulling over. In this post I want to offer some examples of why we might want to look at books rather than digital surrogates as a way of approaching the relationship between digital and physical from another angle.

So why might we want to look at physical books rather than digital surrogates, other than a fetish of smell and a sense of the magical presence of the original? Here are a few examples that start to get at what physical books offer that digital surrogates miss.

The making of the book

One of the things that we learn from examining books is how they are made. There are all sorts of things you can see in physical books that reveal their making: watermarks and chain lines in the paper (which can help date a book, as Carter Hailey has shown ); sewing structures in bindings (which can reveal if pages have been cut out or added in later); and pasted-in cancels or errata slips (which show changes made due to correct errors or in response to censorship).

It’s true that some of these features could be incorporated into digital surrogates; as my photo above shows, it’s absolutely possible for digital images to reveal paste-ins such as this one. But it’s also true that most users of digital surrogates of early modern books rely on EEBO, in which the equivalent page appears thusly:

The text might be the same, but there is no indication in the EEBO reproduction that the text appears on a slip of paper that has been pasted onto the page (although a keen eye might notice that the lines are not quite square with the rest of the page). If all you care about is text, that’s fine, but you’re missing a key part of the book’s history. And what happens if you were looking at a copy that didn’t have the errata slip (not all copies did)? You might never know it was an option–see the later section, “a copy is not an edition” for more on that.

My larger point here is that while digitization could convey some aspects of this category of information, they generally do not.

The history of the book’s use

The best thing about old books, I think, is their longevity and the traces of the history that they carry with them. Inscriptions, marginalia, doodles, vandalism, erasures, cutting out images and leaves–none of those are captured if your focus is solely on the text, and all of them have something to tell us about how a book was used.

(This is an image of one of the Folger’s three copies of Sacro Bosco’s Sphaera Mundi; this one happens to be heavily marked up, with additional diagrams penned in and plenty of annotations, but the other two are significantly less annotated. It looks yellow, by the way, because I took the photo myself, sans flash, per Folger requirements. There’s not a whole lot of light in the Old Reading Room, and I did a sort of half-hearted job of color-correcting my picture.)

Here’s a detail from a blank leaf from the middle of a 1550 Chaucer Works that’s covered in marginalia. I count at least four hands in this picture, three sixteenth-century and one twentieth-century. There’s other marginalia in this book, too:

So add two more hands (this time a seventeenth-century and a twentieth-century one that is mistaken about the date) to the collection of readers who have left their traces in this book. And then there’s this, from the same volume:

So that’s one more inscriber (although he doesn’t appear to have been an owner of this book). There’s also the cover of the book, with two more names incorporated into the binding, eighteenth-century descendants of Frances Wolfreston. I’ve written about this book and this collector before, so I won’t go on further here. But this kind of passage through history tells us not only about one particular family and one particular book, but gives a window into different responses to and uses of Chaucer’s poetry.

I suppose it’s possible that digitizing could capture this; if I can take pictures of these inscriptions, there’s no reason a digitization project couldn’t. Oh, except time and money. This is a big book of more than 300 pages, and only one of two copies we have of this imprint, and one of five copies of this edition, and one of I-don’t-know-how-many mid-sixteenth-century copies of Chaucer’s Works. Are we talking about a project that will digitize all pages, cover to cover, of all these books? Who’s going to fund that? Is it worth funding that as opposed to, say, funding digitizing all the books that were once owned by Ben Jonson?

The serendipity of finding the unexpected

This sounds a lot like the sort of paean to open stacks and browsing that you hear from some book fetishists. But I’m talking about something a bit more complicated, I think. When you look at a digital surrogate, someone has already made the decision for you about what you want to see and how you are going to use it. There’s no reason you can’t use the surrogate differently, but every choice they’ve made impacts your ability to circumvent it. For instance, some of the biggest digitization projects out there don’t include blank leaves or pages in their digitization. ECCO is the chief culprit that comes to mind: they prioritize text, and so their surrogates start with the frontispiece or title page, then move to the dedication/preface/letter to the reader/start of the text. But you know what’s missing? The blank verso of the title page. Does that matter? I don’t know. It might. It depends on what you’re looking for. But you’ll never know that you might be looking for an answer that depends on that blank presence if you don’t know that it’s not there.

Jeffrey Todd Knight has written about this serendipity in his most recent article, “Invisible Ink: A Note on Ghost Images in Early Modern Printed Books”. His focus is on ghost images left behind when some of the Pavier Quartos were bound together in early collections with non-Shakespearean works, so that an image of the title page of Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness appears faintly on the verso of the last leaf of Henry V. Knight draws out some of the implications of what this means for the Pavier Quartos and our understanding of Shakespeare book history–go read the piece yourself–but he also makes a broader argument for the need to consider the invisible, reminding us that “it has been easy to forget that text reproduction technologies, at every level, carry biases”:

The onscreen interfaces that give us Shakespeare and Heywood’s plays today are not transparent windows onto the text themselves; they define and regulate a field of visibility, as do all forms of curation going back to the early copies, which also carried biases.

What I would emphasize is that we don’t know what we’re missing until it’s possible to see it. We can’t see the blank pages or the invisible ink if we’re experiencing a book through decisions that have already eliminated the possibility of seeing them.

A copy is not an edition

This is true for all books, but especially early modern books: no two copies are the same, whether through the process of how they were printed or their subsequent use by readers. The practice of stop-press changes being made at any stage of production, and at multiple stages of production, and the habit of mixing sheets so that “uncorrected” sheets can appear in the same copy as “corrected” sheets, means that any book that had changes made during the printing process will exist in different states. Nor are those states typically indicated on a book’s title page or (depending on how important a book is seen as being and how well cataloged it has been) in its bibliographic record. You can only find these variants by looking at multiple copies of a single edition–hence the brilliance of things like the Hinman collator, the Lindstrand Comparator, the McLeod Portable Collator, and Hailey’s Comet, all devices that allow their user to compare multiple copies of books without actually reading them. (Reading, as any copy editor will tell you, will only distract you from what you’re actually seeing on teh page; collators–or, as I like to think of them, the original textual/machine hacks–let you look instead of read.)

Why do we care about these textual variants? We might care because they tell us something about how the book was made, because it might say something about economic or societal pressures (if they were changes introduced in response to something other than correcting an error), or because the presence of and differences between states might help us understand the range of textual meaning available.

One example of the stop-press changes can be seen in the second quarto of Hamlet, in which Hamlet’s lines to Osric exist in three states, two of which can be compared in the Shakespeare Quartos Archive:

We are in no danger of missing the many textual variants of any of Shakespeare’s plays. But imagine if we were talking about, say, a Webster play, or a poem in praise of Queen Elizabeth. Those have not been as extensively, even fanatically, collated as Shakespeare’s works have. Nor have the funds been lavished on reproducing many digital surrogates of a single edition, as they have with Hamlet.

Remember above when I pointed out that some copies of The General History of Virginia have an errata slip, but others do not? If you encounter a digital surrogate of a copy that has the slip, you will treat that copy as if it represents the entire run of that edition, as if all copies of that edition of General History have errata slips. What is the characteristic of a single copy becomes a characteristic of the edition. But a copy is not an edition; what is unique to a copy is not common to the edition.

This list of possibilities has gone on long enough. Nearly everything I write about on this blog dwells on what we discover from looking at one copy of one book. If you’re curious to see more examples of what you might find from looking at physical books rather than digital surrogates, try some of the following posts in addition to the ones I link to above about blanks and Frances Wolfreston: “an armorial binding mystery“, focusing on overlapping book stamps; “essayes of a prentise“, about the significance of the binding on a volume of James I’s writings; “David and Goliath, redux“, about finding the same pattern of embroidered bindings; and “bibles for historical occasions“, in which I think about, um, bibles used on historical occasions.

I would love to hear more thoughts from you on this subject, particularly of lucid examples of what we can learn from looking at physical books beyond the sort of intangibility of emotions that books can evoke.

O rare!

I’ve been looking at another book that a student was working on. It’s unprepossessing on the outside, just a small, worn brown leather binding, with the remains of ties that have long since disappeared. But the book is much more interesting on the inside. Take a gander at some of the photos I snapped (I did these with my cell phone, so they’re not super high quality, but they’re not too bad either):

The whole book is like this, covered with marginalia. There are manicules, trefoils, asterisks, notes more and less extensive. It’s a seriously used book.

And do you know who used this book so seriously? He inscribed his name right there on the title page:

O rare Ben Jonson! And while Jonson’s book when he used it might seem unprepossessing, later owners certainly valued it for its association and house it accordingly, in its own locked box.
There’s much more to be said about Jonson and his books but I wanted to get these pictures up before they burned a hole in my pocket. You can find the catalog record for this book here and I’ll try to follow this up with a bit more Jonsonia.
(Oh, I suppose many of you got the title of the blog post, but just for clarification’s sake: Jonson is buried in Westminster Abbey under a plaque that reads, “O rare Ben Johnson”–and yes, that’s how it’s spelled on the plaque, even though Jonson didn’t spell his name that way.)

pointing to Carnivalesque submissions

A quick but important announcement first: I am hosting the next early modern edition of Carnivalesque. Please nominate your favorite early modern blog posts by using the Carnivalesque nomination form, commenting here, or by emailing me directly (you can find my email address through my profile). The no-holds-barred Carnival fun and wisdom is scheduled for publication on March 21st, so get me pointed in the right direction now!


And that last bit is my not very subtle transition to the lovely pictures below. I promised my last commenter that I would follow up that great pointing forefinger (or Fonz’s thumb, depending on your tastes) with some more examples. So here’s another great set of pointing fingers, this time complete with fancy ruffles. This is from a 1475 commentary on Aristotle–again, more commentary on commentary, as we saw with the Boethius. Some genres of writing would seem to invite more pointing notes than others. Here we’ve got not only the fists, but annotations and brackets. In fact, nearly the entire text on this page is marked off with brackets. (Zoomable image; catalogue entry)



Can I just say again how much I love these elaborate drawings? The best place to learn more about what these pictures are doing is William H. Sherman’s Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (U Pennsylvania P, 2008). He’s got a whole chapter on the subject, “Toward a History of the Manicule,” that is fascinating reading and very fun to look at. (I’ve mentioned before that my source for all my blog images is the Folger’s Digital Image Collection, a collection that is assembled in part deliberately and in part piecemeal through staff and reader requests. The pictures of fists that I’ve pulled out of the collection are there thanks to Bill Sherman, who requested them for his book. So we should all pause for a shout-out to him for that, even before we get to reading his book.) 

I’ve been calling these images fists, which is how they tend to be identified in the Folger’s catalogue. But as Sherman discusses, there is no standardized language for this image, even as we tend to instinctively understand what it is that the pointing finger is doing:

I have now found no fewer than fifteen English names for what I prefer to follow the manuscript specialists in calling the manicule: hand, hand director, pointing hand, pointing finger, pointer, digit, fist, mutton fist, bishop’s fist, index, indicator, indicule, maniple, and pilcrow. 

I can’t do justice to his insights here, but it’s worth reading Sherman’s piece to think about the ways in which the very word that we use to describe this mark makes distinctions between origins in manuscript and print and suggests the various ways in which the mark is used to organize the text, the hierarchy of authorities governing it, and readers’ responses to it. Go forth and read!

In the meantime, I leave you with a less fanciful manicule, one that doesn’t provide a commentary on commentary, but that marks out a somber and beautiful passage from Spenser’s Faerie Queene (image; catalogue):


I look forward to seeing your blog post nominations, fanciful, somber, or otherwise.