Printers’ Ornaments in Renaissance Books

I can admit already that this piece will be a little on the pedantic side and that it lacks a definitive conclusion; it’s meant to be provocative in that sense. But along the way I’ll make reference to a few unusual instances in the history of Renaissance books, and speculate about the commercial properties of title-pages and the ornaments, or woodcut illustrations, that often decorated them. I do this mainly to play out a passing curiosity.

Form affects meaning. This simple, yet powerful phrase echoes through the work of bibliographer and book historian D. F. McKenzie. In his essay “Typography and Meaning: The Case of William Congreve,” McKenzie investigates this principle as it pertains to early printed books, and emphasizes the vast range of choices open to printers, textual content notwithstanding:

The printer-designer’s own vocabulary developed into an extraordinarily flexible one of types in their different designs as well as different sizes of the same face, paper in diverse weights, colour, quality and size, ink weak and strong, red and black, format, title page, frontispiece, illustrations diagrammatic, hieroglyphic and figurative, bulk, the structural divisions of volumes, ‘books,’ sections, section titles, chapters, paragraphs, verses, verse numbering, line measure, columns, interlinear, marginal and footnotes, running titles, pagination roman and arabic, headings, initial letters, head- and tailpieces, braces, rules, indentations, fleurons, epitomes, indexes, and, most important of all, blank white space. (217)

Here, McKenzie outlines many (although certainly not all!) possibilities available to early printers as they crafted a text into a consumable package for reading audiences. Often, the author played no part at all in this process. To put it very simply, copyright functioned differently during the early modern era, and intellectual property remained commonly with the printer rather than the author. This is not to say at all, however, that authors were never a part of the decision making process, and in some cases, we have records of the planning that went on between printers and authors.

One such case is the collaboration between Sir John Harington and his printer Richard Field during the production of Harington’s translation of Ludovico Ariosto’s immensely popular Italian epic, Orlando Furioso (1591). In a document that is now known as British Museum Additional 18920, Harington relays instructions to Field regarding the material delivery of his text (and this kind of thing is unusual):

Mr. Feeld I dowt this will not come in in the last page, and thearfore I wowld have immedyatly in the next page after the fynyshinge of this last booke, with some pretty knotte to set down the tytle, and a peece of the Allegory as followeth in this next page — I wowld hav the allegory (as allso in the appollogy and all the prose that ys to come except the table in the same printe that Putnams book ys. (quoted. in Galbraith, 29)

Harington clearly understands the importance of typeface for his translation, and moreover, he urges Field to use a certain type from another book familiar to him. Also, as Stephen Galbraith has recently commented, the “pretty knotte” refers to the a large printer’s ornament that separates the end of canto 46 and the title of the following section. You can see the final result in the image to the right, which is not an artifact I’ve examined but rather a scanned image of the Huntington copy available in Early English Books Online (EEBO).

So what does this mean? Well, first of all, we can deduce from Harington’s meticulous directions to Field that the design and arrangement of textual features, including but not limited to typefaces and printers’ ornaments, could constitute a critical part of the book-production process for Renaissance printers and authors alike. Whether it fell to the printer or was carefully decided by the author, the typographic arrangement of elements in printed books, and not just the text, resulted in something meaningful to readers.  The “pretty knotte” to the right is grotesque in its weave of vines, and it features a horned satyr-like figure in the center. At the end of Ariosto’s famous Italian epic, readers could quite possibly associate this ornament with something grotesque, continental, and Italianate. (Since this could stand for depravity to certain Englishmen, Harington defends his translation as morally acceptable.)

An experiment about printers’ ornamentsEdwardII(1594)After recently reading Jeffrey Masten’s article that recounts his discovery of an unknown copy of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II in the Universitätsbibliotek Erlangen-Nürnburg (this kind of thing is also unusual), I’ve been thinking about the title page of this book. It was published in 1594 by Richard Robinson (who left his name off the title page), and it features a kind of printer’s “pretty knotte” on the title page.

The photo to the left is not a reproduction of the copy Masten found, but rather the already-known copy (thought to be unique) in the Zentralbibliothek of Zurich, Switzerland (microfilmed, and available in EEBO). I want to call attention to the ornament featured on the title page. It looked strangely familiar to me and led me to conduct a hasty search for the book where I thought I’d seen it before. Sure enough, after a little while, I found what seemed to be the same ornament in two books published in 1588. Both were issued from the English press of John Wolfe, a printer notorious for his rebellious habits and surreptitious printing of controversial Italian texts (often, for continental readers at the Frankfurt Book Fair). Wolfe had studied presswork on the continent, and was often accused of disorderly printing once he returned to England. A very annoyed Christopher Barker urged Wolfe in 1582 to “[l]eave your Machevillian devices, & conceit of your forreine wit, which you have gained by gadding from country to country, and tell me plainly, if you meane to deale like an honest man” (quoted in Hoppe, 246). Always the rebel, Wolfe didn’t care and kept on illegally printing books that Barker held under privilege.

Barker might mean something else by “devices,” but a number of researchers have identified and compiled the many woodcuts that adorn Wolfe’s title-pages. I list two instances of a particular example below, not from title-pages, but within two separate publications of 1588. On the left is the final recto of the dedication “al suo Monicchio” (to his monkey) in the first book of Pietro Aretino’s scandalous Ragionamenti, published in Italian by Wolfe. The book basically consists of sexualized dialogues between female speakers, and was considered extremely controversial among early English readers. Some have argued that it intensified English assumptions about Italy’s supposedly lascivious and luxurious culture. On the right is the end of A Caueat for France, vpon the present euils that it now suffereth, translated from the French by Edward Aggas. I know much less about this text but the title is indeed suggestive. Wolfe’s ornament is not identical to Robinson’s, and this is important to acknowledge. But it is certainly similar.

Wolfe Books

The reason why I thought at first that this similarity of printers’ ornaments might be significant is that Edward II raises the issue of Italian and French culture and their ambiguous – even dangerous – place in English society. Put very simply: on the one hand, the Continent stood for refined culture and aesthetic excellence, but on the other it suggested all kinds of devious sexual and political connotations. Gaveston, King Edward’s “favourite,” arrives from France in Act I and has a keen preference for Italian masques and courtly entertainment. (Curious readers at a London bookstall in 1594 would learn this only two pages into the play-text.) He later reveals his Italianate inclinations further in his clothing and in his speech. The envious English barons, wary of the intimacy between Gaveston and the King, call Gaveston “wicked” and a “peevish Frenchman.” By killing him, they silence the unruly sexual threat of the Continent in their effort to purify England and return it to order for the good of all English people. According to this interpretation, Marlowe thus affords a great deal of attention to French and Italian culture as a threat to the Barons’ Englishness in this play, and I wanted to find out if Robinson’s ornament, which somewhat resembles the one that appears in John Wolfe’s Aretino and the Caueat for France, could suggest the use of this “pretty knotte” as a kind of commercial adjunct to the play’s textual content. Even if it isn’t identical, I wondered if the similarity could suggest something important about the play’s initial reception on the book market.

A dead end? Not much is known about Robinson. Few records bearing his name survive, and he sometimes got in trouble for disorderly printing. After an admittedly hasty search through EEBO for this ornament accompanying Robinson’s publications, I found 13 that appear between 1587 and 1597. (It merits saying that this is among those texts that have survived.) This ornament was not one of Robinson’s usual printing-house ornaments. It seems he favored placing it at the end of a dedicatory epistle or preliminary address; only in four cases does it show up on a title page. Two in 1590, one in 1591, and one in 1594, the last of these being Marlowe’s play. Yet, the conclusions here are disappointing. There is arguably nothing special about Robinson’s use of the ornament in 1594, and nothing substantial to suggest that it represented anything continental or “Italianate” to a designer or reader. Moreover, as I said before, Robinson’s ornament is subtly, but importantly distinct from Wolfe’s, and Wolfe does not use it on his title pages (at least, not the ones I mention here). There is therefore no clear link between these ornaments or even these printers to speak of, and what we have is essentially a kind of negative result (at least at the moment). Printer’s ornaments were sometimes random, then, and often had the practical purpose of holding up paper on the press to avoid an uneven print-job. But I bring up the issue because I want to suggest that this kind of approach might not always finish with such a dead end.

We face some questions, some of which have surely been posed recently by Juliet Fleming in terms of flower-devices (in effect, she is revising some of her older thoughts), but I want to rehearse a few of them here. What did printers’ ornaments mean in reference to a book’s or a play’s text? Did they have commercial properties, or could they entice prospective buyers somehow with “visible codes?” If so, were some printers more demonstrably aware of the commercial properties of ornaments? Can we prove this? How does this relate to genre (Fleming discusses sonnets)? How did these ornaments exchange hands on the book market? What does an ornament on a title page mean, as opposed to one at the end of a dedication? How were these “pretty knottes” different from head- or tailpieces, initial blocks, “flowers,” “acorns,” and other ornaments that fit somewhere between “text” and “illustration”? The Text Creation Partnership (TCP) has already begun to make the full texts of microfilmed and digitized EEBO records searchable, but the images are more tricky to navigate. As it becomes easier to electronically catalog and search through the ornaments that appear in early modern books, we are opened up to a range of new questions and possibilities for the study of early books and their paratextual materials.

ASK

For (much) further reading:

Fleming, Juliet. “Changed Opinions as to Flowers.” In Renaissance Paratexts, ed. Helen Smith and Louise Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011. 48-64.

Galbraith, Steven K. “‘English’ Black-Letter Types and Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar.” Spenser Studies 23 (2008): 13-40.

Hoppe, Harry R. “John Wolfe, Printer and Stationer, 1579-1601.” The Library 4th ser. 14 (1933): 241-88.

Masten, Jeffrey. “Bound for Germany: Heresy, Sodomy, and a New Copy of Marlowe’s Edward II.” Times Literary Supplement 21 and 28 (2012): 17-19.

McKenzie, D. F. “Typography and Meaning: The Case of William Congreve.” 1981. Reprinted in Making Meaning: ‘Printers of the Mind’ and Other Essays. Ed. Peter D. McDonald and Michael F. Suarez, S.J. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2002. 198-236.

McKerrow, R. B., ed. A Dictionary of Printers and Booksellers in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of Foreign Printers of English Books 1557-1640. London: Bibliographical Society, 1910.

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