MS Annotations in a 17c Polyglot Dialogue Book

Frontispiece engraving, Colloqvia et Dictionariolvm octo Linguarum (Antwerp, 1662). Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, 413 D554, Northwestern University.

Thanks partly to a growing body of Protestant refugees in London, the sixteenth century in England witnessed a significant increase in the production of printed aids for vernacular language-learning. During the seventeenth century, it seems that trade and travel amplified the importance of these books. I’ve been assessing the development of this niche in the print marketplace across the Italian, Spanish, and French languages thus far, and I’m beginning to turn my attention to Dutch, German, and polyglot books as well, both in England and on the continent.

In fact, this past summer, I spent several weeks training around the Chicago/Central Illinois area to dig around in the archive to see what I could find. Institutions I visited included Northwestern University, Loyola University Chicago, the University of Chicago, the Newberry Library, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Overall, I looked at 76 books (50 for learning Italian, 12 for French, 7 for Spanish, and 7 polyglots). I’d already been keeping record of the physical dimensions of language-learning guides and dictionaries in other libraries, so I took measurements of each of these copies. I also looked at both sides of every leaf in every book. It was tedious work sometimes, but I found a number of very interesting manuscript inscriptions throughout these books, inscriptions that I view as material traces of early modern language study.

To give an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s one example from my home institution’s Special Collections library. This is a 1662 edition of the Antwerp language teacher Noel van Berlaimont’s Colloqvia et Dictionariolvm octo Linguarum. As the title suggests, this oblong octavo volume features seven dialogues in eight languages arranged horizontally and in different typefaces. It also includes guides to practical letter-writing, treatises on proper pronunciation and conjugation, and a brief dictionary in the back. First published in 1530, it was issued from the press of most major European cities and saw nearly 150 editions throughout the handpress period. Susan Phillips has called it an “international best seller” (see note below for this comment’s location).

As you can see in the image at the top of this post, this edition includes a frontispiece engraving in which two groups of four men converse with and greet each other. An art historian with a finer 17c fashion sense than me would be able to explicate the clothing of these individuals in light of the book’s eight languages/nationalities.Berlaimont02

The eight-language apparatus in the oblong octavo Colloqvia (with a handy snake). Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, 413 D554, Northwestern University.

If you open this book, you unfold an apparatus of eight languages printed long-ways upon octavo sheets. The printer deployed three typefaces here, perhaps not merely for the purposes of R.B. McKerrow’s “differentiation type,” but also to make use of the associations between typeface and language that are common in many other language-learning books. Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese appear in roman; French and Italian, in Latin; and “Neder-duyts,” “Hoogh-duyts,” and English are in black-letter.

A closer look at six leaves in the first dialogue, which concerns a banquet (“A dinder [sic] of ten persons”) reveals a significant amount of manuscript annotations in the Italian language column. The annotations are in French, and often underline and translate certain words or phrases, using the corresponding words in the French column on the opposing page.

Berlaimont03French annotations in the Italian column, first dialogue, Colloqvia, C8r. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, 413 D554, Northwestern University.

Beside “& poi per tutto,” the reader has inscribed “et puis per tout.” “Ici” is written beside the printed word “qui,” which is underlined, and a similar annotation for “qui” appears at the bottom of the column. In another line, “minestra” is accompanied by the manuscript annotation “pottage,” and the final annotation here glosses “mentre” as “tandis.” I’m really no expert in paleography, but the hand seems to me to date back to the late seventeenth century, or perhaps the early eighteenth.

As William Sherman and others have made clear, it is often impossible to derive stable conclusions about reading habits from marginalia in printed books. Indeed, we have no indication in this volume of who our annotator is, where he or she was from, or exactly what he or she needed the book for. However, this edition of the Berlaimont dialogues do showcase how readers could put their language-learning books to productive use through their own manuscript additions, and how the facing-page, polyglot apparatus could support a process of reading, copying, and marking in the interest of language study.


For further reading on books like this one, see Susan Phillips, “Schoolmasters, Seduction, and Slavery: Polyglot Dictionaries in Pre-Modern England,” Medievalia et Humanistica 34 (2009): 129-58; quoted at 130.

A 16c Italian Grammar Book owned by Robert Sackville

This entry is an extension of a guest post in Scope Notes, the University of Chicago Special Collections research blog.

Last month I tweeted about an early printed book I was examining at University of Chicago Special Collections. This was a third-edition copy of William Thomas’s Principal Rules of the Italian Grammer, published in 1567 by H. Wykes (STC 24022). First issued in 1550, Thomas’s manual in fact contains the first Italian grammar and lexicon in print for English readers. Provenance is of interest here, however, for it seems clear from an inscription on the title page that the U of Chicago copy once belonged to the sixteenth-century English politician and administrator Robert Sackville (1560/1-1609). The inscription reads:

“Robert Sackevill oweth / this book.”

Sackville’s name is perhaps most familiar to historians of early modern English politics. His father, Sir Thomas Sackville, First Baron Buckhurst and First Earl of Dorset (1536-1608), was cousin to Queen Elizabeth, as well as an accomplished poet and administrator. With Thomas Norton he was responsible for the courtly drama Gorboduc (1561). He also composed the “Induction” printed in William Baldwin’s second part of Mirror for Magistrates (1563) and a sonnet prefacing Sir Thomas Hoby’s English translation of Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier (1561). Sir Thomas Sackville traveled to France, Italy, and the Netherlands on royal business, and his son, Robert, surely benefited from his father’s highly visible political career.

In his youth, Robert also occupied a rather central position in a growing community of English educators and language teachers. At the behest of his grandfather, Richard Sackville, Robert received his early instruction alongside the son of the royal tutor Roger Ascham. In the preface to his posthumously published book The Scholemaster (1570), Ascham praised Robert’s grandfather as “That earnest fauorer and furtherer of Gods true Religion: That faithfull Seruitor to his Prince and Countrie: A louer of learning, & all learned men.” He continued, mourning the loss of Richard, but acknowledging Robert’s worthy place as recipient of his book:

I wishe also, with all my hart, that yong M. Rob. Sackuille, may take that fructe of this labor, that his worthie Grauntfather purposed he should haue done: And if any other do take, either proffet, or pleasure hereby, they haue cause to thanke M. Robert Sackuille, for whom speciallie this my Scholemaster was provided. (B4r)

Not only Ascham, but also the native French language instructor Claudius Hollyband (or, Claude Desainliens) published educational books with Robert Sackville in mind. During this time, modern languages were beginning to carry more weight in university curriculum, and as French tutor to Sackville, Hollyband dedicated both The French Schoolemaster (1573) and The Frenche Littelton (1576) to him. The title of the former book evidently sought to evoke Ascham’s Scholemaster, although Hollyband hardly desired to limit his work to elite, aristocratic readers. Arranged often in a bilingual, facing-page apparatus, these books were immensely influential in English communities of French language study during the sixteenth century, and saw a combined total of twelve editions through the final year of Sackville’s life. At least eight more would follow through the year 1640, to say nothing of Hollyband’s later Italian Schoolemaister.

Yet, like so many of his contemporaries, Hollyband sought to justify his work to the public with a dedication to a patron, in this case, “yonge Gentilman Maister Robert Sackuill, sonne and heyre to the honorable the Lorde Buckhurst.” At the time he composed The French Schoolemaster, Sackville was twelve or thirteen, and soon to embark on a university education, it seems. In the dedication, Hollyband offers praise to both Sackville and his father in both appearance and in soul. He then explains his reasons for publishing the book:

And so muche the more was I willyngly mooued therevnto because I knew my good Lord your father to bee so much delighted and to excell in the varietie of tongues: and beying good in many, yet hee may iustly complayne vpon the harde learning of the Frenche tongue, wishynge that some, whiche knew more then other, would take some payne therein. (A2v)

Positioning himself as a worthy and gifted native speaker, Hollyband presents this book as the first printed guide to the French language including instructions for both reading and pronunciation. Lauding Sackville as “a profitable patrõ, youge and notable, a Salomon in witte,” Hollyband provides further detail about his choice of dedicatee:

These causes haue allured mee to dedicate this simple worke vnto you, bycause you are not entred any thinge at all into the language, but are new to learne: not that you shuld leaue of your weightier, and worthier studies in the Uniuersitie, but when your minde is amazed, and dazeled with longe readinge, you may refresh and disport you in learning this toongue. (A3v)

Should the present work succeed, Hollyband promises to publish a more serious French language-learning manual, also to be dedicated to Sackville. This would be the Frenche Littelton of 1576, issued in 16mo “that it might be easier to be caried by any man about him.” The book includes also a complex system of typographical markings to clarify pronunciation. (The imprint reads “1566,” but, as A. W. Pollard has shown, this is a mistake, and the book was most likely issued in 1576.)

It is not clear exactly when Sackville acquired or inscribed the U of Chicago third-edition copy of Thomas’s Italian Grammer, which preceded Hollyband’s French Schoolemaster by six years. Nor can one find any marginal annotations in the book that preserve some sense of the ways in which he used it. However, it does offer us a sliver of material evidence concerning Sackville’s interest in vernacular language-learning and the circle of scholars and instructors with which he communicated. Significantly, it demonstrates his possession of an Italian grammar available before his tutor Hollyband embarked on printed Italian language pedagogy. Moreover, it shows that in addition to being a model student and patron in the view of both Ascham and Hollyband, Sackville had some interest in Italian that could have prepared him to study Castiglione in the original.


Jacob Burckhardt and the Crisis in Renaissance Humanities

There’s a crisis in the humanities today, they say. Read any article with the tagline “Just Don’t Go,” now a fixture among academic essays on the topic (perhaps the most famous examples come from William Pannapacker and Rebecca Schuman). The system is so broken, these scholars warn us, that it is better to avoid it altogether. After all, there are more than a few documented cases of adjunct instructors living from food stamps and laboring at multiple institutions for meager compensation. Additionally, scholars are often uprooted from their home regions today and led by the job market to small towns on the other side of the country. MOOCs and distance-learning modules are creeping into curricula, too. Commenting on related phenomena, Christopher Newfield has investigated some of the reasons for the decline of public higher education in Unmaking the Public University. He discovers that English departments are often betrayed financially in return for the low-overhead service and prestige they lend to the university in the first place. Most recently, this humanities crisis has been approached skeptically by Michael Bérubé (who has discussed enrollment) and optimistically by Wall Street Times writer Lee Siegel. The issue is undeniably real; the debate, heated.

Many of these writers have been at pains to emphasize, however, that today’s humanities crisis is not entirely new. The humanities, in truth, have often faced some kind of opposition at one time or another and have had to justify themselves to the public with vocabularies of utility and value. In fact, we can see this at work in the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt’s Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy). First published in 1860, it remains one of the most influential modern analyses of the Renaissance, and its theses about the emergence of the individual within the political and economic circumstances of c.14 and c.15 Italy remain important to historians and literary scholars today. Burckhardt’s book has been assessed and critiqued for over 150 years now, but its commentary upon the humanities crisis in the Renaissance are striking to the reader of today. (For the sake of ease, I’m going to provide quotations from S.G.C. Middlemore’s 1878 translation; my copy is 2nd ed., 9th imp.: London, 1928).

Buried in the middle of Burckhardt’s book is the chapter “Fall of the Humanists in the Sixteenth Century,” which offers a very bleak picture of the humanities indeed. The “poet-scholars” who revived antiquity and exercised great influence in the public and in aristocratic spheres of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were now struggling to explain their purpose. Often, they faced accusations of self-interest, dissipation, and atheism. “Why, it may be asked,” wonders Burckhardt, “were not these reproaches, whether true or false, heard sooner?'” The principal reasons, he answers, are deeply related to the printing industry:

[T]he spread of printed editions of the classics, and of large and well-arranged hand-books and dictionaries, went far to free the people from the necessity of personal intercourse with the humanists, and, as soon as they could be but partly dispensed with, the change in popular feeling became manifest. (272)

Possibly understood here as a means of “distance education,” printed books, especially hand-books and dictionaries, seemed to require less interaction between the public and humanists. I’m immediately reminded of titles including Roger Ascham’s The Scholemaster (1570), Claudius Hollyband’s The Italian Schoole-maister (1597), and Giovanni Torriano’s The Italian Tutor (1640), each of which seem to substitute a printed book for a classroom lesson. Rather than working together to overcome this technological challenge, however, Burckhardt’s poet-scholars attacked each other all the more viciously:

The first to make these charges were certainly the humanists themselves. Of all men who ever formed a class, they had the last sense of their common interests . . . . All means were held lawful, if one of them saw a change of supplanting another. From literary discussion they passed with astonishing suddenness to the fiercest and most groundless vituperation. Not satisfied with refuting, they sought to annihilate an opponent. (272-73)

Instead of collaborating, these scholars denigrated one another in a race for glory fueled in part by the vogue for bitter satire. More generally though, and more simply, Burckhardt says, the sixteenth century “had . . . grown tired of the type of the humanist” (273). The industry was, it seems, running out of steam. Although this may have been the case, and although anti-humanist complaints were justified in certain instances, Burckhardt presents three facts that

explain, and perhaps diminish, their [i.e. the humanists’] guilt: the overflowing excess of favour and fortune, when the luck was on their side: the uncertainty of the future, in which luxury or misery depended on the caprice of a patron or the malice of an enemy: and finally, the misleading influence of antiquity. (273-74)

To take up the life of a humanist in this era, Burckhardt continues, meant entering a career “of such a kind that only the strongest characters could pass through it unscathed” (274). Nevertheless, it still attracted precocious young men who were gifted learners and tempted them with the prospect of fame and fortune. The “life of the mind” or the “cult” of the humanities was just too good to resist. More common than fame or fortune for these students, however, was “a life of excitement and vicissitude . . . in which the most solid worth and learning were often pushed aside by superficial impudence” (274-75). Moreover, the humanist had little opportunity to settle down or to be at peace in a single place:

[T]he position of the humanist was almost incompatible with a fixed home, since it either made frequent changes of dwelling necessary for a livelihood, or so affected the mind of the individual that he could never be happy for long in one place. He grew tired of the people, and had no peace among the the enmities which he excited, while the people themselves in their turn demanded something new. (275)

In the remainder of the chapter, Burckhardt delivers specific examples of how these tendencies play out in the writings of Gyraldus, Piero Valeriano, Contarini, and Pomponius Laetus. Rather than recounting these anecdotal bits, I want to emphasize that Burckhardt’s account, composed during the mid-nineteenth century, delivers a picture of sixteenth-century Europe in which the humanist struggled to get by. The wide availability of printed books rendered his lectures and expertise less relevant or necessary. He faced opposition from the public, and was scorned as self-indulgent, extravagant, and atheistic. However, he also attacked and was attacked by other humanists in a heated race for influence and glory. Wandering up and down the country in search of stable income, the humanist ultimately found it difficult to settle in one place, and found himself disconnected from the public, which “demanded something new.” Burckhardt’s account is certainly too general to apply in all cases, of course. However, written at the beginning of modern institutional academic practice and addressing one of the most canonical periods in contemporary historical and literary scholarship, it merits a footnote today among the proliferating number of “Just Don’t Go’s” and essays on the “humanities crisis.”


Renaissance Dictionary Technologies

After a hiatus filled with reading and research, today I’m publishing an account of the early modern lexicographer John Minsheu and the extraordinary services he rendered to language-learners in print. The value of his work was intricately related to his collaboration with his printers, his knowledge of typography and the London book trade, and his sheer persistence in the face of financial adversity. In short, much of his success was contingent upon his manipulation of the communication technologies at his disposal – the technology of the Renaissance dictionary. (I’ll actually have more to say about this in July at the 2013 SHARP convention in Philadelphia, but for now, let’s take a look in the archive.


Here, you get an idea of the typographical intricacies of Minsheu’s Spanish-English bilingual dictionary and grammar. Bracket-pieces and a variety of typefaces assist readers through the “lesson.”  The use of black-letter type was diminishing at this time in English print, but Minsheu and others in the language-learning book business found a purpose for it. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections L 463 P428, Northwestern University.

I became acquainted with Minsheu accidentally through my research on printed dictionaries and grammars for early modern English students of foreign languages (both Italian and Spanish, and soon French). In 1599, he was responsible for A Dictionarie in Spanish and English, pictured above, which can often be found in the archive bound and cataloged with A Spanish Grammar (I list them separately because they have distinct title pages). However, Minsheu’s most monumental effort was without question his 1617 eleven-language polyglot dictionary, Ductor in Linguas, which also goes by its English title Guide into tongues. It is a truly massive – and impressive – book. If you search Minsheu’s records in the ESTC, they seem fairly messy, with a number of imprint variants and a strange “Catalogue.”

It’s important for me to say that Minsheu’s “scholarly credibility” has faced some serious criticism. In 1973, Jurgen Schäfer published an article that admits Minsheu’s contribution to language learning as a compiler, but casts him otherwise as a “scholarly poseur.” Originality is the key issue in this debate. True enough, a vast number of entries in Minsheu’s Spanish dictionary were “lifted” from Richard Percivale’s quarto dictionary Biblioteca Hispanica (1591). And interestingly, modern library catalogs often still list Minsheu’s Dictionarie under Percivale’s name (this is the case at Northwestern and the Newberry, and it bothers me). Schäfer doesn’t go as far as the playwright Ben Jonson, who declared Minsheu a “rogue,” but he ends up showing how the lexicographer’s academic rigor was at best questionable.

Jonathan Warren has studied Minsheu’s work more recently. As he investigated Minsheu’s dictionaries for the Early Modern Dictionary Project at the University of Toronto (now the exceedingly useful Lexicons of Early Modern English, or LEME), Warren uncovered some of the strange methods that this compiler used to capture and document languages in print. Some of these methods are rather unusual from a twenty-first century perspective:

Indeed, many of these entries were in Percivale’s original. What Minsheu adds is all manner of variation to these entries: big goat, little goat, place of big goats, place  of little goats, a he goat, a she goat,  a place of he goats, a place of she goats, and so on. The practice  is the same for plant names and all other words.

It seems fairly clear just how committed Minsheu was in approaching the task of collecting a language in all its forms, locking it down in print, and setting it forth on the market. These compilation methods were certainly not “original” in the Romantic or modern sense of the word, but we can be sure that intellectual property functioned differently in 1599 or 1617 than it does today. Instead, if we focus on Minsheu’s work as a compiler with great interest and faith in the potential of print, we see an individual committed to providing an useful (if absurdly complete) tool to language students with the most intricate and thorough printed apparatuses imaginable.


Minsheu’s polyglot dictionary (regular-size iPod for size contrast). Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, L 423 M666, Northwestern University.

A massive folio volume, the Ductor in Linguas was no small project for Minsheu or his printers. It consists of nearly four hundred leaves (close to two hundred sheets) printed in the normal roman, italic, and black-letter faces but also including Greek, Anglo-Saxon and Hebrew type. A two-column dictionary features the eleven-language apparatus, and the final hundred or so leaves are Minsheu’s concurrent project, Vocabvlarivm Hispanico Latinum et Anglicum copiossissimum (Most copious Spanish, Latin, and English dictionary). The copy of this volume at Northwestern measures about 24 by 38 cm, so you have an idea of how massive this book is. The printers involved on the job included Melchisidec Bradwood at the Eliot’s Court Press, who had assisted the earlier and famous lexicographical efforts of John Florio. (Bradwood’s ECP colleague Edmund Bollifant had handled the 1599 printing of Minsheu’s Spanish dictionary.) For both the Ductor in Linguas and the second edition of Florio’s Italian-English dictionary, Bradwood shared printing labor with William Stansby, who undertook the important task of printing of Jonson’s Workes in 1616.


Minsheu’s “catalogue.” Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, L 423 M666, Northwestern University.

Such bulk came at a considerable cost, and scholars have indicated the unusual publication of this polyglot dictionary as an early instance of something like modern subscription. Although the Stationers’ Company refrained from supporting Minsheu in any way, individual booksellers and benefactors provided some support. In the archives, one can find a several issues of a “catalogue” that lists Minsheu’s financial backers (431 in total throughout all variant issues) as he sought to “sell” the dictionary in advance. The catalogue could be inserted into a volume, or it could hang somewhere to advertise the dictionary. This did not totally lighten the load for the compiler, however, who entered heavy debt to afford the services of his printers, even after petitioning Inns, societies, and wealthy individuals for gifts and loans. Despite the financial chaos of the dictionary that “hath cost me the hazard of my life,” in Minsheu’s words, the Ductor in Linguas eventually saw print after a period of two years. It was a labor of love. Because Minsheu mentions no price exactly, Franklin B. Williams believes that he simply asked the greatest sum he could in any given case; surviving copies appear with the prices of 30s. and 22s., which is rather high for the time but appropriate for such a massive and remarkable effort of lexicography and a noteworthy moment in early modern printing history.


For further reading on Minsheu’s work:

Schäfer, Jurgen. “John Minsheu: Scholar or Charlatan?” Renaissance Quarterly 26.1 (1973): 23-35.

Warren, Jonathan. “Reflections of an Electronic Scribe.” Early Modern Literary Studies [Special Issue] 1 (1997).

Williams, Franklin B. “Scholarly Publication in Shakespeare’s Day: A Leading Case.” Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. J. G. MacManaway et. al. Washington D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1948. 755-73.

Dramatic Speech Prefixes and “Distant Reading”

What do we talk about when we talk about Renaissance drama? Do we talk about the performances of plays like Othello or Volpone, or do we talk about their appearances in print? Do we talk about “audiences” or do we talk about “readers?” Is the “play” a performance, or is it a “book?” It’s not my plan to offer my own opinion here (even if my interests probably lean more in one direction than the other). But I will say something about a curious textual feature in printed play-texts that poses some interesting problems to either camp in this debate, especially when we submit the plays to some kind of digital textual analysis. It also calls us to pay close attention to discrepancies among modern editions of Renaissance plays.

Speech prefixes. In early dramatic play-texts, speech prefixes are the tags that appear throughout the text, usually down the left margin (but not always) and that indicate who is speaking. Here’s a good example from a particularly exciting scene in the 1592 edition of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (British Library copy, available in EEBO). The speech prefixes are clearly marked off in purple (by me, of course):

ST [3]

As a technology of printed drama, speech prefixes are undeniably useful, but at the same time they quite possibly interfere with the “continuous” kinds of reading that understand the play as an acted performance. They are, and are not, a part of the text (in some ways, they are like stage directions, although these bear their own distinct complexities).

I began thinking about this issue recently after reading Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. Curious about what the play’s text “looked like” from a distant perspective, I hastily pulled a version of the play’s text from Luminarium, dropped it into a simple text file, and then examined it through the digital text-analysis tool Voyant. Thus far I have found Voyant useful for its ability to bring forth commonly-used words in a given text or corpus, and to track the trends of words as they appear.

Here’s what Voyant showed for this Luminarium preparation of Kyd’s play. I should add that this text was transcribed in 2007 by Risa S. Bear, and before that it hails from J. Schick’s 1927 London edition. We might very well question Schick’s methods if we had time to investigate editorial history. But alas; once again, “hasty” is the word to describe what was really an experiment more than anything else. The results appear below:

ST [1]

Upon my first glance at these results, I noticed something, and was actually a little annoyed by it. The speech prefixes from the Schick-Bear text constituted a significant portion of the recurring words (these appear in the bottom-left window of the interface). You can also see this to be the case in the “Word Cloud” at the top-left, which visualizes words in a size according to their recurrence; although this feature normally strikes me as kitschy and not very useful, it also showed that “hier” (this edition’s prefix for “Hieronimo”) was the most frequently-used “word” in this text, with 141 appearances. A quick scroll down and I found other encroaching speech prefixes: “lor” (Lorenzo) 97 times, “bal” (Balthazar) 65 times, “bel” (Belimperia) 60 times. From one perspective, these prefixes are intruding upon the language of Kyd’s play, that is, the language that would have been spoken in some form or another upon the Renaissance stage (I should note that this play’s textual history is famously knotty and confusing).

Yet, the inclusion of these speech prefixes in the distant reading tell us something about the very real presence of these tags among the speeches, soliloquies, and verbal banter that readers find so commonly in printed Renaissance drama. Textually, or even typographically speaking, this realization complicates the notion of the “play-text” as a comprehensible whole. Rather than resisting their frequency, we might press upon the issue further.

I’ll end with some derivative questions: What does the proportion of speech prefixes to “regular text” impress (pun possibly intended) upon the reader? How do these proportions change across plays in a playwright’s corpus, or over a period of time more generally? What can we make of prefixes that effectively double the name of a character, like “King” in The Spanish Tragedy, which appears 107 times, sometimes as a prefix, and sometimes within a particular character’s speech? What about prefixes that change and fluctuate at the mercy of print-shop compositors, or at the hands of modern editors? All within good time.


“Rare” Books in the Bookstacks?

This post is a follow-up to a photograph I tweeted a couple days ago, and will give me space to respond to a few comments. While browsing the stacks at Northwestern this weekend to get a sense of the editorial history of plays by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, I came across this item:


This book is more than 250 years old. It contains the first and second of ten volumes in The Works of Beaumont and Fletcher, edited by Lewis Theobald, Thomas Seward, and Thomas Sympson. Both were released in 1750 in London for Jacob and Richard Tonson as well as for S. Draper. The Tonson family was renowned for its London bookselling business during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and is especially famous for its relationships with Milton and Dryden. The first volume contains A King and No King, which some critics have pegged as a royalist play (along with the 1647 Beaumont and Fletcher folio more generally), so one might wonder about this editorial project’s appearance sixteen years before the American Revolution. That’s meant to be suggestive; with a few very noteworthy exceptions (Margreta De Grazia’s Shakespeare Verbatim perhaps foremost among these), the study of eighteenth-century editions of Renaissance dramatic texts has received relatively little study. As Jeffrey Masten stated recently in a seminar, it’s usually all about the first editions, and this attitude overlooks chances to study the various contexts in which texts are re-printed and re-read.

John Vincler wondered about the binding on this Beaumont and Fletcher. “It’s that they are often in 50 yo library bindings that is most unfortunate. I always wonder about prev. binding,” he tweeted. So do I. This volume fortunately does not have a library binding (by Heckman or any other similar company), and it’s worthwhile to note that the first two volumes of the series are bound together. The spine is fairly ornate and features some gold-tooled lettering.

100_2296 100_2293

The binding seems roughly contemporary with the leaves, and a clue on a flyleaf indicates who the binder is:


I’m occupied by another project right now, so I’m probably not going to follow through on this lead, although some hasty googling showed me that James MacKenzie was a London bookbinder working roughly in our period here.

Some take-aways. I’ve seen handpress-era books in the stacks before, so discovering this book this volume wasn’t a total surprise to me. I do think this is an unusual find, however, and it’s proof that you don’t always need to go to a Special Collections reading room to conduct research on specimens of early printing (it’s often essential, though, and I’m a dedicated advocate). I’m keeping the book at my open carrel for now. It’s not an emergency that a book this old is exposed to students’  sometimes-unruly reading habits (I’m reminded of an anecdote of William Empson, who had to purchase a new copy of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus for the London Library after smearing it with toast and jam while reading*). John Overholt, curator of early modern books and manuscripts at Harvard’s Houghton Library, tweeted that if he found a book like this in the stacks he would probably send it to remote storage, “but it’s probably fine in the stacks too.” Ben Pauley likewise recognized the space-“rarity” ratio in many Special Collections to be problematic. In his words, “Can’t save ’em all.” No, we can’t – but we should be keenly aware of the significant number of old books (in period bindings) in the stacks that are becoming older – and possibly “rarer” (?) – with each passing year. Of course, this means there’s a lot of work to do from literary scholars, historians, bibliographers, and librarians.


* In William Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: U of Penn. Press, 2008), 155.

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.


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.