Archives for category: Book printing

I’ve just been reading a couple of books by University Printers. The first is by Brooke Crutchley who was Printer to the University of Cambridge from 1946 to 1974. To be a printer, his memoir, was published in 1980. The second, Vivian Ridler’s Diary of a Master Printer: A year in the life of the Printer to the University, Oxford, has just been published. Ridler was University Printer at Oxford from 1958 till 1978.

Brooke Crutchley started out at the Press in 1930 as Assistant to the then Printer, Walter Lewis, a giant of Cambridge printing history. It was Lewis had who retained the services of Stanley Morison, the driver of the revolution in print quality in Britain, a revolution spearheaded in Cambridge and focussed on Monotype and letterpress. Much of the book is about these two heroes, Lewis and Morison. We actually get very little feel for what Crutchley’s job was like: at his interview Lewis told him he wanted an Assistant who knew nothing about printing. The young Brooke, a rather literary type while at university and at the time employed by The Yorkshire Post, fit the bill. Of course he learned quickly — it’s not rocket science after all — but was always more interested in the aesthetic than the business side of printing. We do learn about the introduction of an incentive payment scheme at the Press, which seems to have occurred smoothly and successfully according to its prime mover. Back then relations between labor and management were a good deal more aggressive than they are now, so this was a notable achievement, getting the local unions to admit that increased output might be a good thing, as long as the worker was directly remunerated.

The book, typeset and printed at the University Press of course, is a modest little demy octavo (5½” x 8½”) volume. It’s set in Bembo with no running heads and with the folios enclosed in parentheses centered at the foot. A clean straightforward design, the least successful feature of which is the decision to pick up of those horizontal parens featured on the jacket above and below the title. They become a bit too much when they reappear on the title page and in every chapter title — there are fourteen of them within the 187 pages of the text. The binding is sewn in a case made of a pale green Linson over boards. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before, but this shade of Linson (a paper-based binding material) is fading with age and you can see a distinct paleness along the top of the case, which has been living peacefully on a bookshelf for the last forty years.

Thirty years later the Press would no doubt not have published a book of this type. The book was in fact published in Britain by The Bodley Head. The Cambridge University Press copy I have is only the US edition.

Nor would OUP publish such a volume: Mr Ridler’s book does not come from that source. Compared to Mr Crutchley’s book this one tells you much more about the job of running a print works, unsurprisingly since it is a diary of a year’s working life. There’s quite a bit of agonizing about computerization and film typesetting, which in Ridler’s case takes the form of sensible study proposals and tests — OUP already had a film setting operation in place — rather than Crutchley’s more handwringing reaction. Concern about the volume of work features largely: there were after all 900 employees to keep busy. A university printing house must always be in a strained relationship with the publishing wing: the printing house exists primarily to serve the publishing business but the publishing business is free to place work elsewhere, and forward loading is always a source of tension. (The year covered by the diary, 1970-1, was a particularly difficult year for publishers and thus book manufacturers.) Both men were toward the end of the line of a long list of Printers to the University, and status concerns were unavoidable. Bear in mind that the University originally had a printing business which, after a century or two, developed a publishing department, whereas now in everyone’s eye, they had a publishing business with a printing department attached.

The Printer, who started his working life as a designer, is often found worrying about the quality of the litho† illustrations printed for a Dante Gabriel Rossetti book. The Printer’s job involved visiting a surprising number of sick workers in hospital; and attending the funerals of not a few; signing indentures for many apprentices; and general morale boosting tours of the plant. And of course there were endless meetings of committees to study this that and the other — more of them industry-wide rather than local.

There are lots of visits to the theatre in Oxford, in London, in Stratford and elsewhere — the Ridlers were an artistic lot. The Diary contains many of walk-on appearances, by on one occasion a couple of my bosses from Cambridge. There are quite a few unbuttoned comments on personalities. Jack S., my boss from New York, is described, as “not very attractive” — though one wonders what that means, or amounts to. Sir Frank Lee, Chairman of the Cambridge Syndicate, is portrayed cocking his leg over the arm of his chair in Ridler’s office. Mr Ridler claims Dick David, Secretary to the Syndics, looked askance, but I suspect it’s only the more tightly-buttoned Oxonian who thought anything about such casual address. Indiscreetly‡ Mr Ridler provides the salaries of the top executives at OUP in 1970.

OUP and CUP were then, and remain, rather different from one another. In the early part of the twentieth century OUP’s London office had picked up the ball and run with it: they started publishing books on their own say-so. Under the guidance of Humphrey Milford OUP London fairly soon built up a publishing program which dwarfed that coming out of Oxford. The Oxford bit, referred to as the Clarendon Press, still got all its books accepted for publication by the Delegates (the Oxford equivalent of Cambridge’s Syndicate, a committee of academics appointed by the University to run the Press) and most of the OUP academic publishing came through the Clarendon Press. Cambridge never relaxed this Syndical control. Oxford’s London office output contained most of what the general book-reading public would come to regard as Oxford’s publishing: The Oxford Book of This and That, The Oxford Companion to Whatever, a serious poetry list, and series like The World’s Classics. The London office went on to establish offices around the world which were enabled themselves to publish books without reference to Oxford. To some this might seem a risky policy, but it worked out brilliantly, mainly I suppose because the people hired were able to find success while maintaining discipline. Soon non-Clarendon sales represented the vast majority of Oxford’s revenue. As a consequence OUP grew to be much bigger than CUP, which may partly have motivated the febrile and somewhat desperate efforts around the 450th anniversary of CUP’s royal charter to “prove” that Cambridge was the oldest continuously-operating Press in the world — and obviously the best.

Mr Ridler’s book is published under the imprint of the Perpetua Press which is a revival of a private press which Ridler and his friend David Bland had established before World War II. It is effectively published privately by its editor, Colin Ridler, son of the author. They’ve gone all out to create a handsome volume. Printed in two colors (excessive to my mind to have running head and folios (at the foot) printed throughout in a second color, red), they’ve used a nice paper, tricked the book out with a ribbon marker, and sewn it and casebound it in a red paper-based material over substantial boards, with printed endpapers showing original handwritten pages from the diary. The book was printed in Wales by Gomer Press of Llandysul in Ceredigion. Its trim size is 6⅛” x 9¼”, an unusual size for UK book printing: a US standard. The publishers have added two eight-page inserts of plates, one spread printed in four colors, and topped the book off with nice head (and tail) bands. The jacket is a dark blue contrast.

The typesetting would have raised eyebrows at the University Press (like Cambridge’s, Oxford University’s printing history ended a few years ago). We readers have become used to more than a word space following a period or comma and getting rid of that extra space doesn’t help any. Space before an opening quote is kind of important too. And Mr Ridler would never have allowed a heading to fall at the foot of a verso page to be followed by the consequent text at the top of the next page. Conventions in typesetting exist for good strong comprehension reasons, and designers shouldn’t be encouraged to mess around with them. The book’s imprint page tells us it’s set in Caslon and Gill Sans. Though I’ve spent quite a bit of time searching for a single character in sans serif type, I’ve failed to find one. Editorial issues include the decision to refer to people by initials although no listing of initials is provided. Obviously Ridler had no problem recognizing RR as his deputy, but the reader often struggles with characters who appear less frequently.

This is an oddly fascinating book which makes you rather envious of the job holder. Most of the work of the University Printer was relatively undemanding and rather pleasant, though he had to be constantly ready to make some hugely consequential decisions. Having written the piece, the only year he wrote a work diary, Mr Ridler did nothing with it. Luckily his sons Colin and Ben have now brought it out. Thanks to Gordon Johnson for bringing it to my attention.


* Odd that such august educational institutions would describe themselves in dog Latin. Oxoniensis, Cantabrigiensis — it’s all a bit pathetic. What happened to the ford the oxen used, and wasn’t there a Latin word for bridge that I was taught when I was nine?

Well of course that’s not the way it came about. Cantabrigiensis is a Medieval Latin coinage based on the Old English name for the town, Grantebrycge (Granta bridge). We just have to accept that the Gr migrated to C at some point before its Latinification — I suppose you can just about imagine that happening in an oral context. At some point the River Granta was renamed Cam, at least from Cambridge on downstream, though it still retains the name Granta for its upper reaches — think of Grantchester after all. It’s not the Roman name for the place: it’s later Latin. When the Romans had a fort on top of Castle Hill they named it Duroliponte — obviously the bridge was already there.

So Cantab has nothing to do with Canterbury. Maybe we should take it as a kind of insider joke based on the local knowledge that Granta = Cam.


† Oxford University Press had used lithography since the days when that implied using stones. Cambridge on the other hand was able to demonstrate the utter uselessness of lithography in the early 1970s by getting in a machine for a try-out and printing on it wantonly awful work, thus proving that letterpress would never die. OUP also had a collotype department — which was closed in 1968. And a paper mill. A bigger business altogether.


‡ Perhaps not that indiscreetly. In those days information about colleagues’ salaries was much more casually exchanged than nowadays. Indeed at dinner parties nobody would bat an eye at being asked by a relative stranger how much they earned, or how much they’d paid for their house. The information Ridler provides is entirely congruent with what I always say was the top level of pay in Cambridge when I was working there. That top level was only three to four times more than the bottom.

Maybe a slightly opaque word? One however we used to use constantly in book manufacturing in pre-computer days. When you print a book by offset lithography any extraneous marks which get incorporated into the film negatives have to be painted out with an opaque ink-like fluid. Anything on a negative which isn’t black will reproduce on the plate, where, when the light goes through the negative, everything black will become white and everything white black. The opaquing fluid tended to be a chestnut red liquid which the spotter would apply with a paint brush. When you looked at a flat (a bunch of negatives stripped up in imposition order) it was a rather colorful sight — black squares of film held by red tape on an orange carrier (which was called goldenrod), the whole dotted with chestnut colored splurges of opaquing fluid.

Behold a failure of opaquing:

Below the printer’s address there are two horizontal lines. These are shadows: clearly something was cut out here after the repro proof had been pulled, and was (presumably) replaced by a strip of plain white paper. When the repro was shot by the camera the lighting caught the edges of this strip and saw the resultant shadow as a line. Did we, the publisher, not check a set of blues? Looks like we didn’t — or if we did, we did it with our eyes shut! On the facing page we managed to miss another similar mess, where, presumably, the page numbers for the indexes weren’t known when the repro was pulled, and were subsequently cut in as repro corrections; then embarrassingly missed by the production department. Maybe volume two was running late and we had to rush it through to catch up with the first: can’t remember. Halliday Lithograph Company was certainly considered a good printer. — they were unfortunately one of the earlier of the northeastern book printers to exit the scene.

Perhaps we were making a silent comment on the inferiority of offset lithography to letterpress printing in a book all about the revolution in knowledge consequent upon the invention of letterpress printing from movable metal types!

Capacity constraints create opportunity. If it becomes difficult to get something done, then sooner or later someone’s going to move to sop up the excess demand slopping around in the marketplace.

Maple Press has just installed a new ink jet machine. Printing Impressions tells the story. Maple, of York, PA see their new HP PageWide Web Press T260 as enabling them to produce another 100,000 books a week in runs from 250 to 6,000 or so. They opine that this ink jet press can print as good a halftone as the best offset presses. Maple Press‘s overall annual capacity is 13 million hardback and paperback books.

If you don’t see a video here (from the Maple Press site) please click on the heading of this post in order to view it in your browser.

One swallow comes; another goes. In the same PI edition is a link to The Target Report‘s report on the state of the paper industry, another huge constraint on book manufacturing capacity. Here the picture remains troubling. Given that the industry was already redirecting capacity pre-pandemic in response to reduced book manufacturing demand, and that our intense supply-chain difficulties are largely a consequence of the boom in book demand in 2020 and 2021, allied to a bump in demand for packaging papers, it may turn out that when book paper demand reverts to long-term trend, our troubles will recede. 2022 book sales do seem to be down from the frenzied heights of the past two years, but are still strong as against 2019. The trouble is that while buying and installing a printing press takes a matter of months, rebuilding a paper machine takes years. While supply can be turned off fairly quickly for this or that type of paper, getting the supply up again is a slow process.

It is hard to avoid assuming that early printers had the same concern for accuracy as a modern book printer does and that this meant that the switchover from script to print suddenly ushered in a new era of accuracy. We often casually assert that once Gutenberg had invented movable metal types it was possible to record texts with an accuracy as was never achieved by scribes. This is just plain wrong though: on two sides. Firstly scribes did make mistakes, omitting a word here, spelling one wrong there, even leaving out a line of copy from time to time, but book dealers were alive to the problem, and spent quite a lot of effort trying to ensure that copies were all the same. So it’s true that inaccuracies abounded, but people were constantly trying to improve texts or at least not to make them any more degraded. Secondly we overlook the fact that early printers themselves made lots of mistakes. Many did so despite their best efforts, while others were happy to produce slapdash work as long as it made money.

It is almost inevitable that the first printers would struggle to achieve accuracy. If a sheet of 16 pages were being printed the first task would be to cast type. Once you had the bits of type you needed you could start to compose it: combine it into words, lines and pages. (Setting the type for Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible is estimated only to have started two or three years after the cutting of the types and their casting had begun! Cutting moulds probably started in 1449 or 1450, composing in 1452, and the printing probably wasn’t completed till 1455.) Most 15th century printers wouldn’t have had anything describable as a proofing press, so in order to pull a proof they’d put the forme of type onto the press and pull a couple of copies. Leaving the press set up but not in operation was hopelessly uneconomic, so such proofreading as was done would be done quickly. Any corrections called for would be made to the forme while it was on press — it’d be unlocked and a new bit of type inserted quickly (and of course occasionally wrongly).

(Still from “Inspired by Typography” video)

Then the run would continue. Because paper was rather expensive, the printer would not discard the early sheets run off before corrections, so that the pile of copies of the first sheet would contain some copies from the first (uncorrected) state, as well as copies from the second state and even from a third or fourth state. When the desired quantity had been run the type would be distributed and used for setting the next eight pages, which would go through the same sort of correction cycle(s). When the job was finished and it came to binding you might end up with one section from the first state, another from the second, and two from the third — they’d all be mixed up, so that some pages would be corrected while others were from the first uncorrected run with different mixtures on front and back. So, contrary to what we would like to believe, early printed books would not all be identical — they’d be bewilderingly different. The Folger Shakespeare Library owns eighty copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio — no two copies are identical!

It took centuries for printers to work out the routines which we now take for granted which enabled them to (almost) guarantee accurate reproduction of texts. This didn’t really start to be true till the 17th and 18th centuries. When we look back we cannot imagine a situation where proofing routines weren’t firmly established — it’s our imagination that’s at fault.

Now although this error-proneness was a quality shared with manuscripts, the printed version did have one huge advantage. There were multiple copies, so, even if there might be mistakes these were less significant than the fact that many people actually got to see the books, whereas in the past getting to see a manuscript was not an everyday experience. For example, as Elizabeth Eisenstein: tells us in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (pp. 580-1), Nicolaus Copernicus, who was born twenty years after Gutenberg had started composing his Bible, “as a student at Cracow in the 1480s . . . probably found it hard to get a look at a single copy of Ptolemy’s Almagest — even in a corrupted medieval Latin form. Before he died, he had three different editions at hand.”

“As the key figure around whom all arrangements revolved, the master printer himself bridged many worlds. He was responsible for the obtaining of money, supplies and labor, while developing complex production schedules, coping with strikes, trying to estimate book markets and lining up learned assistants. He had to keep on good terms with officials who provided protection and lucrative jobs, while cultivating and promoting talented authors and artists who might bring his firm profits or prestige. In those places where his enterprise prospered and he achieved a position of influence with fellow townsmen, his workshop became a veritable cultural center attracting local literati and celebrated foreigners; providing both a meeting place and a message center for an expanding cosmopolitan Commonwealth of Learning.”

“Some manuscript bookdealers, to be sure, had served rather similar functions before the advent of printing. That Italian humanists were grateful to Vespasiano da Bisticci for many of the same services that were later rendered by Aldus Manutius has already been noted. Nevertheless, the shop structure over which Aldus presided differed markedly from that known to Vespasiano. As the prototype of the early capitalist as well as the heir to Atticus and his successors, the printer embraced an even wider repertoire of roles. Aldus’ household in Venice, which contained some thirty members, has recently been described as an ‘almost incredible mixture of the sweat shop, the boarding house and the research institute.'”

“A scholar-printer himself might serve not only as publisher and bookseller but also as indexer-abridger-lexigographer-chronicler. Whatever roles he performed, decisions about standards to be adopted when processing texts for publication could not be avoided. Suitable type styles had to be selected and designed and house conventions — relating to orthography, punctuation, abbreviation and the like — had to be determined. Textual variants and the desirability of illustration or translations also had to be confronted. Insofar as such decisions entailed consultation with professors and physicians, print dealers, painters, translators, librarians and other learned men, it is not surprising that printers’ workshops served as cultural centers in several towns or that the most advanced work in scholarship and science during the sixteenth century seemed to gravitate away from older lecture halls and precincts.”

Elizabeth L. Eisenstein: The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, (CUP, 1979) pp.56-7, & p.87.

Sounds just like working in Cambridge fifty years ago!

Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady, Comprehending the most Important Concerns of Private Life and Particularly Showing the Distresses that may Attend the Misconduct both of Parents and Children in Relation to Marriage (Letter 261, about ⅔ of the way through)

At Ambient Literature Ian Gadd gives us a piece on The Printer’s Eye which examines Richardson’s innovative typesetting. He also shows the ebook version of such typographical play: about which one can say is at least a brave effort. His piece includes the invaluable information that because Penguin’s edition is such an immensity of oversize production, Ryanair once tried to prevent a student from taking the book onto one of their flights because they considered it to be a piece of hand baggage.

This part of Clarissa, designed to indicate Clarissa’s distress upon her “betrayal”, as well as being disjointedly written, is a sort of content mash-up of various quotations. It is contained as Paper X, an enclosure in Letter 261. Supposedly these “Papers” represent transcriptions of discarded scraps of paper torn up and thrown away by the distraught Clarissa. Paper X starts with four lines from Thomas Otway, Venice Preserved (Act 4, scene 2). Ms Harlowe’s quotations continue as follows

  • Lead me: Otway: Venice Preserved IV
  • Death only: Dryden & Lee Oedipus III
  • Oh! You have: Shakespeare Hamlet III
  • Then down: Cowley The Mistress
  • Oh my Miss Howe! The pangs: Otway Venice Preserved IV
  • When honours lost: Garth The Dispensary
  • I could a Tale: Shakespeare Hamlet I
  • For life can: Dryden Absalom and Architaphel

“By swift misfortunes”, vertically at the bottom left, appears to be Miss Harlowe herself. Why in her distress does she break into verse? Mr Lovelace, her suitor/rapist, is worried about her survival, and sees it as a good sign that she’s able to remember and quote all this verse so well! The conceit of course is of her writing at random in any open space on the paper, almost like a crossed letter.

In an offset world we might think it not altogether complicated to achieve a disrupted lineation like this: paste-up makes it a relative breeze. But in hot metal it would be quite an effort. Remember that all white space had to be established by bits of metal of less than type height so that the actual type could be held firm and in position to pick up the ink. Upside-down diagonal lines like the “I could a Tale tell” from Hamlet, would involve custom-cut metal (or maybe wood) all around, because most such spacer pieces were line-based thus strictly rectangular. See some big (shiny and linear) spaces here:

The classic instance of this sort of typographical frivolity is of course Tristram Shandy. Full of digressions it also displays typographical quirks — dashes of varying length, upto a full line, line diagrams showing narrative structure, an entire chapter which has been ripped out, blank pages, and famously a pair of marbled pages, which nowadays just get printed in black. In the first edition these marbled pages were different in every copy: they were genuinely marbled, and were tipped in after having the page numbers stamped on.

I’d no idea that I’d been involved in decades of paratext generation.

IGI, the publisher of Examining Paratextual Theory and its Applications in Digital Culture by Nadine Desrochers and Daniel Apollon, tells us “The paratext framework is now used in a variety of fields to assess, measure, analyze, and comprehend the elements that provide thresholds, allowing scholars to better understand digital objects. Researchers from many disciplines revisit paratextual theories in order to grasp what surrounds text in the digital age.” Amazing how easy it is to write simple stuff in a way nobody can understand!

Despite all the gobbledegook, paratext basically means all the stuff surrounding and supporting the text of a document, in the case of a book — the cover, title page, index etc.* There was a flurry on the SHARP listserv recently after someone asked for help locating studies of digital paratexts.

Books have those “paratextual” elements added to them by publishers because that’s what we’ve done to them for hundreds of years — and over hundreds of years such stuff has proved its use in navigating the book. People have come to expect it, and to some extent even to depend on it. Now, anyone working for a publishing company almost intuitively knows what bits need to be added to the author’s manuscript to make a proper (printed) book.

Then along comes the ebook. Just take the p-book and digitize it, and Bob’s your uncle. We’ve just taken the book and all its features over into the ebook format, even though there must be other, better things we might do. Trouble is it’s hard to imagine what these other things might be, and there’s just no money in rethinking the ebook format right now.

But it’s still early days. Eventually someone will discover the potential of the digital format to do this or that, and we’ll come up with a better way of dealing with this sort of material. These practices take a long time to establish — we didn’t even start to get page numbers on a regular basis until the end of the fifteenth century — so don’t go holding your breath in anticipation of any exciting change in the mechanics of the ebook. In fact, of course, the ebook as we know it is almost certain NOT going to be the format in which people access text in the future. We just haven’t come up with the better methodology yet — but of course we will I’m sure. Whatever traditionalists (like me) may think, paper will not be how most people access their reading material in a hundred years. (See also A different kettle of fish.) I am always struck by just how clunky and primitive the reading tablets in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series seem to have been, especially in comparison with the other technologies they’d been able to evolve. Surely we could do better with 20,000 or whatever years in which to try. Just takes imagination. Will Artificial Intelligence bail us out?

The Economist has an article on AI, which makes it all seem pretty ominous. Seems to me that it’s quite probable that we’ll develop an AI system that ends up being so much more “intelligent” than we are that humans will end up being disposable (if we survive global warming and nuclear war). AI already can take care of writing journalism and poetry: and it’s become a lot better at it than it was when I wrote about it four years ago. In a way there’s surely no essential difference between a “robot” called AI that paints a picture using the artificial aid of its programming, and an artist who paints a picture using the artificial aid of a paint brush. And why can’t we be excited about an expert AI tale-spinner rather than insisting on our stories being written by live authors with all the usual pains, problems and prejudices?

Of course, thinking like this just adds to the risks humankind faces — if we have an AI system that can do painting, novels and poetry better than humans, why should we expect Big AI to tolerate incompetents who have ignored global warming and nuclear arms build-ups. But still, it might actually work out pretty well: if we can continue to “exist” virtually, eliminating only our inefficient physical apparatus, could the world not be a better place? Program the system to steer clear of our bad habits and the world can keep on keeping on without the damage we humans have learnt to dump onto it. The sign will read “Last human to check out — do not interfere with Big AI’s programming, and leave the lights on.”

So, just what we might like to see “thresholding” our digital books is something some genius still needs to figure out. No doubt progress will be made in tiny fits and starts. As I say, part of the problem is that there’s no profit to be made in doing much to improve the ebook, so we just leave it as a straight conversion of a print book. It all ends up a bit chicken-and-eggy — until readers want better paratextual apparatus for ebooks we won’t be able to afford to create different paratexts. And until we make them, how’s anyone meant to be able to imagine what a better ebook might look like?

Coming back to earth, I have of course written over the years about many (most?) paratextual elements, such as bar codes, bibliographies, blurb, book jacket, CIP, colophon, copyright page, table of contents, errata, figure, fly-title, half-title, indexes, ISBN, page numbering, running head, running feet, and tables.


*The Oxford English Dictionary adds subdivisions to the word paratext, breaking it down into “the peritext, e.g. front cover, introduction, footnotes, etc.” —the stuff attached to the book, which they contrast with external thresholding: “the epitext, e.g. reviews, advertisements, interviews, etc.”.

The note at the end of this subject index from this 1690 medical volume, Les remèdes choisis de l’herboriste d’Attigna by Antoine Golletti doesn’t waste time in apologies.

Quelques fautes” “Some errors” they tell us “have happened during printing, which is not at all unusual, but as they aren’t very important, we have thought that a reader, however little wit he might possess, would not be bothered by them, which reasonably dispenses with the need for us to indicate them here.”

This erratum notice comes from a tweet by Bruce McKittrick Rare Books. The book was printed in Lyons, chez Mathieu Desmares, in the rue des quatre chapeaux, at the sign of the golden anchor. Well done Mr Desmares — treat ’em rough.

Interesting to see that what we think of as the German sz, ß, was used in France to indicate the combination long s + short s. See the start of the second last line. Here’s a detail which gets rid of the red library stamp.

See also Erratum slips.

One day all books were manuscript books, mostly written on parchment/vellum, but with a growing number on paper; then the next day there were printed books too. We probably need to keep in mind that “book” meant something a little different from what you’re used to finding in a bookstore today. Printers and scribes produced pages, not books. Better-off customers would take their purchase to a bookbinder and have it put between covers. Often what went between the covers was not exactly the sort of thing we’d expect to see in a modern-day bookstore. Just see for instance the first “book” printed in Scotland which I wrote about the other day. Gifted in 1788 to The Advocate’s Library, the book contains seventeen different “books”. Many a “book” would in fact be what we’d think of as a pamphlet*. Take my program for the 1987 Braw Lads’ Gathering, an 80-page, wire-stitched booklet, mostly filled with ads. When did it become a book, if indeed it ever did? When I put it onto a shelf in a bookcase, thus treating it as an item to be saved? When it became a container of historical information rather than a program of events? Certainly if I had had it bound up with other items, it’d be an unambiguously bona fide book.

Whatever the product may have looked like, the addition of printing to the universe of book production increased output massively. Over the centuries scribes had tended to move out of the monasteries and into a world where more general work was available. Consider the pecia system: in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries university bookstores came up with the bright idea of renting to students four-page sections of “textbooks” which the students would copy, often in multiple copies, then return. Diligent students would end up with the entire book written in their own handwriting.

Paul M. Dover tells us in his The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press 2021, pp 167-8) “One set of estimates has put the number of manuscript books produced in Western Europe in the twelfth century at 769,000, rising to 1.761 million in the thirteenth, 2.746 million in the fourteenth, and 4.999 million in the fifteenth.”

“. . . the technology of the printing press meant a great many more books in circulation. An estimate of five million manuscripts produced in Western Europe in the fifteenth century, became 12.56 million printed books for the period 1454-1500, 215.9 million for the sixteenth century, and 518.64 million for the seventeenth century. The printing press was not the sole reason for this spectacular rate of increase — growing prosperity, urbanization, and literacy all played a role — but these numbers suggest, quite simply, an altogether different world of books.”

The location of these books also began to change with the availability of cheaper, printed versions. Whereas the majority of medieval manuscript books were destined for ecclesiastical settings, printed books became more broadly distributed. Professor Dover references research by Henri-Jean Martin who studied book ownership in Valencia from 1474 to 1550, and “found that nine out of ten ecclesiastics owned a book, three-quarters of all professionals, one-half of aristocrats, one-third of all merchants, one-seventh of textile workers, and one-tenth of manual workers”. This balance moved heavily away from the ecclesiastical end of the scale during subsequent years. Most impressive to me is that ten percent of manual workers owned at least one book. That, and the textile workers in the list too, put me in mind of the subscription library picture in a nineteenth-century wool town, which I wrote about recently.

Another problem with research into these sorts of issues is that the older the book, the more likely it is to have been lost to us. This would be especially true of cheaper books, less formal volumes such as almanacs, diaries, catalogs and so on: the sort of thing which might have been more likely to have been owned by a poorer person. David McKitterick’s research shows us that of all the sheet almanacs printed at Cambridge University before 1640 (and he estimates over 30,000 of them were printed in the years 1631-33 alone) only a single, partial copy survives. Having scribbled on them users would throw them away and move on to the next issue.†

The arrival of the printing press did not mean that people stopped writing out books — quite the contrary. Not only were there traditionalists, like the King of Hungary and the Duke of Urbino, who insisted on maintaining their libraries in print-free form and kept providing employment for (a few) scribes, but people would heavily annotate their printed (cheaper) books, treating them almost as a venue for a conversation between author and reader, often copying extensive alternative “chapters” into their copy of a book. Some types of book survive more in hand-written form than in their printed version — for example subversive political tracts from Stuart times. Galileo (1564-1642) sought to evade the censor by “publishing” some of his works in manuscript form, with multiple copies circulating simultaneously in a methodology reminiscent of the samizdat of Soviet times.

I myself own three in-progress manuscript books. My Book of Books, a Commonplace Book and my on-going illustrated version of Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts. La lutte continue.

From script to print always struck me as a really good book title. Henry Chaytor, Master of St Catharine’s College used it for his 1945 Introduction to Medical Literature. Through the joys of on-line access and print-on-demand the book is still available.


* Strange word for a booklet when you start to think about it. Derives from the 12th century Latin amatory poem or comedy Pamphilus de amore, a work which was often copied as a little booklet. According to The Oxford English Dictionary the word arrived in English via Middle French. Their earliest quote, from 1415 is this dedication by Thomas Hoccleve to his poem Balade to Edward, Duke of York, reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s “Go, dumb-born book”,

Go, litil pamfilet, and streight thee dresse
Vnto the noble rootid gentillesse
Of the myghty prince of famous honour,
My gracious lord of York, to whos noblesse
Me recommande with hertes humblesse,
As he þat haue his grace and his fauour
Fownden alway, for which I am dettour
For him to preye, and so shal my symplesse
Hertily do vnto my dethes hour.

† In a fit of entrepreneurial zeal I produced such a single sheet calendar for university use in the early ’70s. I did manage to persuade Heffers to take enough of them at a price which covered my costs, but no-one could regard the publication as a success of the 1630s variety.

Printed 31-Line Indulgence. Mainz: Johann Gutenberg 1455. The Morgan Library & Museum.

The theory was that an indulgence is “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and all of the saints”. Effectively it was a bit of paper recording your “purchase” of forgiveness for some sin or other.

The printing press was just made for the printing of indulgences. No longer did your poor pardoner have to spend time writing the damn things out — they could be bought in their thousands from the local printer with blank spaces left where the name of the “sinner” and the date could be filled in. Somewhat unsurprisingly this lead to a sharp increase in their use, and in consequence also of the revenue which would be raised by the “charitable gift” it had become conventional to make after receipt of your shriving.

Printing indulgences was a great job: set it up, one sheet only, one side only, and let it run for days. Of course you had to buy paper, but apart from that indulgences were pretty much pure profit. Gutenberg is said to have interrupted the printing of his Bible to knock off a few thousand of them. You’ve got to pay the rent after all.

Famously Martin Luther objected to the Catholic church’s indulgence business model. In another printing press success story, after he was painted by Lucas Cranach, versions of Luther’s portrait became one of the most widely circulated woodcuts, making his the most recognized European face up to that time, even though he rarely left Wittenberg.