correcting mistakes

In my last post, I wrote about my joy in finding printer’s errors and what we might learn from them about early modern printing. In this one, I want to look at some examples of what printers do to correct their errors. Mistakes happen, as I tell my kids; it’s what you do about your mistakes that matters.

So, what do you do when you make a mistake? You fix it! In most cases, you’d hope that the error came to light during a proof stage so that you can correct it before you start your print run. Sometimes, however, you find mistakes during a print run; in that case, you can stop the press to replace the incorrect type with correct type. (“Stop the presses!”) The petition I wrote about in the last post, where I was focused on the curious shadow-type, is also a good example of the different states a page can exist in when it’s been corrected. The key detail of the title page is the section describing who is being petitioned (“The Right Honourable the Knights, Citizens, and Burgesses of the Commons”) and who is doing the petitioning (“Subscribed with the names of above twenty thousand”): 

The corrected state of Wing C4343 (detail)

But there is a variant state of this title page:

variant state of Wing C4343 title page

This title page (from the Thomason Tract version now housed in the British Library and replicated on EEBO) shows that “Ciizens” are being petitioned by “about” twenty thousand subscribers. It’s clearly not correct, so it’s safe to assume that this is the uncorrected state, one that was discovered during the print run and changed to the correct one we see above.1

Some mistakes were deemed important enough that the uncorrected version wouldn’t be let to stand, so that correction slips were pasted in to replace the error with the right version. Here’s a rather important correction from the 1613 edition of what we now refer to as the King James Bible:

Matthew 26:36 with correction slip pasted in

If you look closely, you can see that “Jesus” is printed on a slip of paper that has then been pasted over the error. And what does the error being covered up say? Judas. That cancel slip is nice both because of the resonance of Judas being an error for Jesus, but also because the slip is pasted in slightly askew, so that you can see the hint of another J underneath it.

This cancel slip isn’t particularly revelatory in terms of its content, but is also lovely way for how it manages to both conceal and reveal. Here the end of the slip is lifting up from a page of Samuel Daniel’s 1602 Works (thanks to Holger Syme for finding this and taking the great photo):

a cancel slip coming unpasted

Peeking underneath it, you can see that the mistake being fixed is the misordering of the lines: the uncorrected text has the line ending “quite vanished and past” first and then the one ending “come to fall,” second, and the correction reverses the order. The Folger has three copies of this book; all three have the cancel slip pasted in, but only in this one can you catch a glimpse of the original mistake underneath it.

Sometimes the mistake that needs to be cancelled isn’t a word or a couple of lines, but enough text that the entire page must go. When this happens, the printer would print a new leaf (a “cancel”) to replace the original leaf (the “cancelland”). In many instances, you might never pay close enough attention to notice that a cancel has been inserted, although if you suspect such a switch has happened, you can look to find the stub onto which the new leaf has been attached (you obviously can’t have a free-floating leaf in the book—it needs to be attached to the gathering and sewn into the binding). In some cases, however, an owner never swaps out the cancelland for the cancel, but simply binds them both in together. Look at this sequence of pages from the Folger copy of Richard Flecknoe’s collection of epigrams (these images have been reproduced from the Book Reader view in the Luna Digital Image Collection as the best way of showing the experience of paging through the book, but it does mean that the joining of two images into one leaves an odd seam in the middle):

Leaf consisting of pages 79 and 80 appears twice, once with “On his dim Sight.” as the poem on the bottom of page 79 and the second time with “Of Mis’s and Mistresses.” as the poem on the bottom of the page. According to the catalog record, the first leaf is the cancelland, the one that should have been replaced. If that had happened, there would be only one page 79 and one page 80, but we’d also be missing an entire poem! I don’t know enough about this book, or about Flecknoe, to explain why this substitution was intended, or why this copy didn’t make that swap. But I like seeing how this owner resisted the change that the publisher was making.

In other places in this book, however, the reader wasn’t resistant to following the directions to make changes. At the end of the volume, as in many early modern printed books, there is an errata list identifying the mistakes that ought to be fixed:

errata list at the end of Flecknoe

And if you turn back to page 36, you will see that the reader has changed line 7′s “company” to “presence”:

the reader's correction of page 16, line 7

Oddly, however, the reader did not follow through on the errata list’s last change:

missing correction

Despite the errata list’s inclusion of two more lines that should be appended to this poem, the reader has not written them in. Perhaps he or she didn’t like them? Perhaps it just seemed too much of a bother? Either way, it’s another reminder that a printer and author can strive to correct their mistakes, but the reader won’t always obey.

  1. See the extended comment stream on the previous post about the different states of this work and the apparent differences between the different editions of it. It’s not clear to me from Wing how many of the copies of C4343 are in the variant state of “ciizens” or what the difference is between C4343 and C4343A. Apparently the Yale copy of C4343A is missing the imprint date on the title page, but the Newberry copy of C4343A, which is on EEBO, shows the imprint date, albeit one that has nearly been trimmed away. []

Author: Sarah Werner

SARAH WERNER is Digital Media Strategist at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Editor of The Collation. She blogs about books and reading, writes about modern performance and Renaissance drama, and is known in some corners of the web as @wynkenhimself.


  1. Thanks for these posts, it’s been enjoyable to read about various strategies that printers and publishers came up with to cope with the (inevitable) errata.

    The posts brought to mind that there are also many cases in which errata were not corrected for one reason or another, not least of which was the cost involved in either securing a patch or getting a new printing. The example that sprung to mind — and you may already be well aware of it — was the “Vinegar Bible,” a 1717 printing of the King James Version by John Baskett that is owned by Christ Church in Philadelphia. It is so named because of a mistaken labeling of the “Parable of the Vineyard” in the Gospel of St. Luke. Christ Church never fixed the problem because it could never afford to replace such an otherwise well-produced Book. Now it owns a curiosity (though the item is stored at the Library Company of Philadelphia, which is where I saw it).

  2. I suspect you noticed in the petition that the variant state with citizens lacking the t also mentioned ” the names of about twenty thousand”. That became “the names of above twenty thousand”. Were the presses stopped to correct the missing “t” or was it the arrival of additional subscribers names (perhaps with the opportunity to correct the spelling) that motivated the effort to change the type?

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