The symbols of signature marks

I’ve written before about what sort of information we can learn from studying signature marks, and Goran wrote recently about the use of Latin abbreviations to indicate the gathering. So I thought the time has come to look at some of the other types of marks we find in signature marks.

What comes before A?

title page of Foure Sermons of Maister John Calvin

title page of Foure Sermons of Maister John Calvin

This 1579 translation of Jean Calvin’s Quatre sermons avec exposition du Pseaume 87 (STC 4439) begins with a dedicatory epistle from the translator John Field and a letter to the reader from Calvin. The sermons themselves follow, beginning on A1r and continuing through H3v. But if the main text starts with A, how are the preliminaries signed? With symbols, obviously!

signing the opening leaves of Calvin's Four Sermons

signing the opening leaves of Calvin’s Foure Sermons

Although English books typically start the main text with gathering B, leaving A for the prelims, printers in other regions used a number of different symbols for preliminary materials, most commonly the asterisk, but also daggers, crosses, parentheses, and pilcrows. In my post on “Deciphering signature marks,” I explained that R. A. Sayce’s study demonstrated that the format of signature marks could indicate where a book was printed. The use of different symbols for the prelims one of the factors associated with different locales and periods, although according to R. A. Sayce’s study, the two symbols used here—the fist for the first gathering and the asterism for the second—are too uncommon for Sayce to draw any conclusions about their patterns of usage.1

Fists are not only for the front of the book

As books get longer, there needs to be a greater number of ways to indicate which gathering is which.

title page of John Jewel's 1609 Works

title page of John Jewel’s 1609 Works

The works of the very learned and reuerend father in God Iohn Ievvell, not long since Bishop of Sarisburie. Newly set forth with some amendment of diuers quotations: and a briefe discourse of his life. (STC 14579) is one such book. Published in 1609, it comes in at 798 leaves, divided into multiple sections. Immediately following the title page are the preliminaries, signed with a pilcrow for the first gathering of 6 leaves (a dedicatory letter to King James), two pilcrows for the second gathering (Fealty’s life of Jewel), and then an asterisked alphabet series running *a through *i (various of Jewel’s sermons and letters, concluding with a table and an errata list):

signature marks for the prelims

signature marks for the opening of Jewel’s Works

We then move on to what is in effect the second book of the Works, starting with Jewel’s lengthy A defence of the Apologie of the Church of England, signed in the standard fashion running in gatherings of 6 leaves from A through GGG.2 With the end of the Defence we move on to the next of Jewel’s texts, A replie unto M. Hardings Answer—set off with its own title page—but before the main text begins, we again have some preliminaries. If the first set of prelims was signed with pilcrows, how will this second set be signed? With (pilcrows), of course. And if the Defence took us halfway through three runs of the alphabet, how will the Reply be signed? With more parentheses!

using parenthesis to sign the Reply

using parenthesis to sign the Reply

It’s a clever trick, since it differentiates the gatherings of the Defence from those of the Reply without the awkwardness of gatherings that look like AAAAA.

But we’re not done yet (Jewel was a prolific and important man). After the Reply concludes comes the final series of texts, again set off with their own title page. Having already used an asterisk for the first series, increasing numbers of letters for the second, parentheses to set off the third, how will this fourth series of gatherings be differentiated? With fists!

using fists in signature marks

using fists in signature marks

Can signature marks be decorative elements?

The standard line on signature marks, and the letters or symbols that are used to indicate gatherings, is that they are functional: printers use them to keep the text in order, scholars use them to find clues to where and how a book was printed. But sometimes there are marks that suggest printers incorporated them into decorative elements of a book.

title page

title page

Let’s look at what happens in Heir followeth the coppie of the ressoning which was betuix the Abbote of Crosraguell [Q. Kennedy] and John Knox, in Mayboill concerning the masse, in the yeare of God, a thousand fiue hundreth thre scoir and two yeares. (STC 15074). This book, like our others, starts with some preliminary material. The first is a letter from John Knox to the reader, and it is signed with a fist. (Although the second leaf, as shown below, is signed with a fleuron—the first isn’t signed because it’s the title page—the third and fourth leaves are both signed with fists; it will become clear why I think the fists are correct rather than the fleuron.)

signing the first gathering

signing the first gathering

At the end of Knox’s letter, the text comes to a taper with the admonition, “Read and then judge” with a series of printers ornaments forming a decorative line below:

Read and then judge (fol. [fist]4v)

Read and then judge (fol. [fist]4v)

The next leaf begins a new gathering and a new text, “The abbottes first letter,” kicking off an exchange of letters between the Abbot of Crossraguel and Knox, signed with a cross for the second gathering and a fist for the third:

signing the second and third gatherings

signing the second and third gatherings

At the end of these exchanges, and before the main text starts, is a brief account that led to the debate between Knox and the Abbott. What I’m in interested in, however, is the line of ornaments that again decorates the bottom of the taper:

more decorative ornaments

more decorative ornaments (fol. 2[fist]4v)

Does the series of fist–cross–fist seem familiar? It might be a question of simply having those dingbats at hand—if you have fists and crosses at the ready for signature marks, why not use those to create your decoration. But it also opens up the possibility that sometimes the symbols in signature marks can be part of a larger aesthetic pattern.

  1. For a full account of the different methods of signing gatherings, see R. A. Sayce, “Compositorial Practices and the Localization of Printed Books 1530-1800″ The Library, Fifth Series, 21 (March 1966), 1-45. Reprinted, with corrections and additions, by the Oxford Bibliographical Society, Oxford, 1977. []
  2. That is, a complete 23-gathering run from A to Z, then a run from AA to ZZ, then AAA through GGG). It’s a 23-letter series, of course, since as is typical, J, V, and W are omitted only one letter of the I/J and U/V pairs was used and since W was not part of the Latin alphabet. []

Author: Sarah Werner

SARAH WERNER is Digital Media Strategist at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Editor of The Collation, and formerly the Library's Undergraduate Program Director. 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. I believe the correct term is ‘manicule’

    See the Keith Houston’s Shady Characters quiz :

    • While I—and others at the Folger—do use the term “manicule” to refer to hand-drawn fists like the ones found in the margins of books, printers and catalogers refer to these as fists, especially when they are printed, rather than manuscript. See, for instance, its entry on RBMS’s controlled vocabulary list. But as William H. Sherman (who is responsible for the term’s popularity now) explores, the vocabulary for describing these marks is indeed unstable. (He’s got a chapter on the subject in his book Used Hands and there’s a pdf of an early version that he gave as a talk at the Center for Editing Lives and Letters that makes for a good read on the subject.)

      • More evidence that the term is unstable: there’s a pending change request to replace “fists” with “manicules” waiting to be reviewed by the RBMS Controlled Vocabularies subcommittee. See for details.

      • Many thanks Sarah for your enlightened answer and, of course, I bow to RBMS controlled vocabulary. However I am delighted to learn from Erin that there are moves afoot to replace what is, as you must surely agree, an unwieldy and unstable, piece of, in Sherman’s words, ‘printer’s slang’. Let us hope that the proposal is adopted in order that I will never again be guilty of breaking the rules, by locally implementing the term ‘manicule’, for the sake of a more accessible, more presentable and certainly more stylish record.

      • Thanks for that update, Erin. I’ll confess I have mixed feelings about it—“fist” makes a lot of sense to me as a term referring to the printed marks, but I would love to see “manicule” adopted for the manuscript versions. (It confuses my students to no end to have the same word refer both to printed marginalia and manuscript marginalia—marginalia being another term that tends to throw them off….)

  2. You say in your second footnote: ” since as is typical, J, V, and W are omitted.” This is the second time,in as many days, that I have read this in scholarly writing and it is not quite accurate. In the Latin alphabet J and I, and U and V were treated as the same letter and, at least in English, their use was determined by position in a word. So a printer could use J or he could use I for signing, but not both–same for U and V. I am pained to say, given my name, that W was not a letter in the Latin alphabet so it was not omitted, it just was not there.

    • You are entirely correct. I was being more lazy than I should have been in writing that footnote. I’ll update it with a better explanation!

  3. For those of you wondering how you can find more examples of books using symbols in signature marks, Erin and I wrote a post with some search tips: “So how do you find symbols in signature marks?”

  4. We need to organize! When I learned in 2009 that the OED has no entry for “manicule,” I wrote to correct this omission. They replied that it is not yet used enough. Here’s where having been an activist in college in the late 1960s kicked in. I wrote back,
    “The May 21 TLS uses ‘manicule’ in a review by James Carley. I use it myself as often as I can: manicule, manicule, manicule… I am planning to organize a rally on behalf of this word. Press releases will be distributed.”

    I successfully recruited Ohio University’s Beth Quitslund as a fellow manicule supporter. She suggested manicule placards for the rally. I replied,
    “Yes, a manicule placard sounds fine. But we have to be prepared for the more radical elements that are drawn to any rally. We really have to take some preemptive action, so they don’t replace the index finger we’re championing with a middle finger. That will only bring disrepute to our cause.”

    A month later, I wrote again to the OED,
    “I see ‘maniculae,’ the plural, appeared in Fred Shurink’s article in the February 2008 issue of Review of English Studies. It’s definitely catching on! Maybe the rally won’t be needed. I don’t really care for confrontations.”

    So, don’t just wait for the OED– lobby them! (Do professional lobbyists ever lobby the OED? There’s a scary thought.)

  5. Pingback: Cabinet of Curiosities, vol. ix

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