The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

V and U in 17th-century Flemish book imprints

In my last blog post I discussed the use of “V” and “U” in titles on title pages of 17th-century books published in Flanders. For this blog post I surveyed two extra elements which often appear on title pages as well: the place of publication and the name of the printer/publisher as they appear in the imprint. I wondered whether we would see the same trends when it comes to the use of “V” substituting for “U” as we had in titles.

Let us first look at the place of publication in imprints. For this exercise I selected all records in the Short Title Catalogue Flanders (STCV) with exactly one imprint on the title page which includes a year of publication. That resulted in a data set of 9,544 records of works dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. In 992 cases we are dealing with a place of publication featuring either a “u” or a “v”, including instances where a “v” is used in the place of a “u.” The places of publication include Bruges, Brussels, Coutrai (Dutch: Kortrijk), Ipris Flandrorum (Ypres), and Louvain (Dutch: Leuven). An example can explain this: to render the name of Bruges (Brugis, Brugge, Brughe, Brugghe, Brugae, etc.), the compositor could use either a “u” or a “v” and print the name as follows: “Brvgis,” “Brvgge,” “Brvghe,” “Brvgghe,” or “Brvgae.” The first graph below shows how the custom of using “u” or “v” changed during the 17th century. 1 

Graph 001

It is obvious what happens. If compositors have the option to print “Brvgis” (or its variants), this is what they do at the beginning of the 17th century, but from the 1630s onwards, the option “Brugis” (or variants) will appear more often than before. The v-variants constantly lose ground, and by the 1670s they have become very rare. Spelling variants featuring the “u” have become the norm. Since the STCV does not currently provide enough information about the situation in the 16th century, it is unclear what’s happening before this graph starts: was the practice of using “v” for “u” already at 90%? But it is clear in all 400 cases in the 18th century that the use of “v” as a substitute for “u” has been completely abandoned.

For my analysis of the statement of printers in the impressa on title pages, I applied the same method as for words in titles as explained in my previous blog post. A typical statement of the printer in an imprint reads like this: “apvd Iacobvm Mevrsivm” or “Hieronymus Verdussen.” In the former statement, the compositor used a “v” where we would expect a “u.” The 7,573 statements of printers from the 17th century consist in total of 24,135 individual words, of which 4,685 have at least one “v.” 2,083 words are from Dutch-language title pages and 2,294 words from Latin title pages, making a total of 4,377 for both languages combined. In 34% of the cases, the “v” substitutes a “u.” 2 As my second graph (below) indicates, the differences between Dutch and Latin are significant.

Graph 002 NEWUntil the 1670s, 50% or more of the Latin v-words use a “v” to substitute for a “u,” but this practice is almost completely abandoned within twenty years. In Dutch-language printer statements only a small portion (9%) of the v-words replace a “u” with a “v,” and this practice also fades away towards the end of the century. In the 18th century, this phenomenon has become very rare. 3

The third graph, below, combines the information about v-words in titles and v-words of the printer’s statements in the imprints.

Graph 003

On the face of it, the trends shown in both categories (words in titles, printers) and in both languages (Latin, Dutch) seem to be consistent, implying that compositors seem not have maintained different spelling practices for titles than for imprints on title pages. But this assumption is only partly true. On a statistical level, there is a significant difference between the compositing practice of titles on the one hand and of printer’s names on the other: the “u” is more often replaced in titles than in printer’s statements. 4 What exactly that means, however, is not clear to me.

Skeptical readers may wonder whether this kind of research is more than just occupational therapy. In addition to the fact that these graphs show a cultural transformation of spelling during the 17th century which gradually abandons the epigraphic spelling of the “u,” this knowledge has practical advantages as well.

The following two editions deal with the same text, namely an edict regarding goods, rights, or cash claimed by officers in the Southern Netherlands. According to the imprints, both editions were published in 1663, but the fingerprints clearly indicate that the type has been reset. We do not know which one served as the model for the other, but on the basis of the use of the V and U in the title and imprint, we can propose a hypothesis. 5

Title pages of two editions of the Edict perpetvel (1663). Folger 222256.22 (fol. A1r); Ghent University Library Meul.003973 (fol. A1r).
Title pages of two editions of Edict perpetvel (1663). On the left, Folger 222256.22; on the right, Ghent University Library Meul.003973.

The Folger edition 6 has more v-for-u words on the title page than the edition at Ghent University Library. 7 The first three lines are identical, but the fourth line of the Folger edition has “TOVCHANT” and “OV,” whereas the Ghent edition reads “TOUCHANT” and “OU.” The place of publication shows a similar difference: “BRVXELLES” versus “BRUXELLES.”

This suggests that the Folger edition is the older one, although both editions claim to have been printed in a period of transition, the 1660s, when the use of v-for-u words is in decline.

Another element on the title page seems to reinforce my tentative dating of the two editions. At the bottom of the page appears the indication “Avec Privilege.” On the Folger edition those words are laid out to the right hand side of the imprint, whereas it appears centered on the Ghent edition. It seems more logical to me that a compositor would move this element from the right to the center, and not from the center to the right—but of course, that is mere speculation. Although perhaps someone else has written a blog post about that phenomenon?

  1. Of the total number of 992 cases, 603 date from the 17th century. In 164 cases a “v” is used where we would expect a “v” in modern orthography.
  2. For Dutch imprints, 188 words in the statements of printers used a “v” where nowadays a “u” would be expected out of a total of 2,083 individual words. For Latin words in statements of printers, a “v” instead of a “u” was used in 1,310 cases out of a total of 2,294 words.
  3. The sample consists of 736 18th-century v-words, only 13 of which substitute a “u.”
  4. The numbers are the following: 1,255 v-for-u words out of a total of 9,655 v-words for Dutch title words (13%) versus 188 v-for-u words out of 2,083 v-words in Dutch-language printer’s statements (9%). The Z-score is 5.5, which means that both means are significantly different. That is also the case for Latin title words and words in Latin printer’s statements, respectively 4,995/8,125 (61%) and 1,310/2,294 (57%). The Z-score is 3.74, which means that both means are significantly different.
  5. Although the graphs I have produced only deal with Latin and Dutch-language books, I think that the same trends would apply for French books published in the same region. At this moment, the data for French-language books published in Flanders is limited.
  6. Folger 222256.22, STCV 12918664
  7. Ghent University Library Meul.003973, STCV 12912096


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