The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Abbreviations and signatures

As Sjoerd Levelt guessed in the comments, this month’s crocodile image featured an abbreviation, rather than a letter, in the signature mark:

sig. 2[ter]2
sig. 2[ter]2
Here’s a longer look at what this character is and how it ended up being used in the signature. 1

First, the book in question is a “Book of Summer Sermons” (Santius de Porta, Sermones estiuales de tempore venerabilis Santij porta sacri ordinis predicatorum) printed in Lyon in 1513. 

title page
title page

That our crocodile dealt with signatures on the second leaf of a gathering was not difficult to guess—the roman figures “ij” clearly indicate this. But the exact identification of the signature itself is a little harder. What from a distance might look like the letter “f” with a strange serif at the foot, printed twice, is not an “f.” But which letter is it then?

Let’s first have a look at the colophon of this sixteenth-century edition, which reveals the author, title, printer and year of production, and under which appear the instructions for the binder:

Colophon (fol. 2[ter]6 verso) followed by binder’s instructions
Colophon (fol. 2[ter]6 verso) followed by binder’s instructions
Binder’s instructions (also known as the register) appear frequently in books from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but they are not that common in seventeenth- or eighteenth-century books. Usually they consist of a series of signatures—giving names to gatherings—and an indication of how many leaves those gatherings consist. In this example, we learn that the book consists of 27 gatherings. Each of them receives a name which consists of doubled letters of the alphabet: “aa,” “bb,” “cc,” etc. The reason for the doubling of the letters probably is that we are dealing here with a second part (the Summer part) of the Sermons by Santius de Porta—according to that reasoning, we would expect the first part to bear single letters as signatures (“a,” “b,” “c,” etc.). 2

Very early on, it became a custom to use the letters of the alphabet to indicate the names of the subsequent gatherings. This alphabet consists not of 26, but of 23 letters: the letters “j,” “u,” and “w” are usually omitted because they did not show in the Latin alphabet which served as the canvas for this system.

These binder’s instructions also indicate the number of leaves per gathering: “Omnes quaterniones [sunt],” which can be paraphrased as “all [gatherings are] in four.” But there are two exceptions, which are “terniones” or gatherings in three. The “quaterniones” and “terniones” do not refer to pages nor to leaves, but to pairs of conjugate leaves, what we usually call a bifolium. This means that each of the 25 gatherings (“aa,” “bb,” “cc,” etc.) consists of four bifoliums or eight leaves (16 pages). The final two gatherings consist of three bifoliums, or six leaves (12 pages).

This book consists of 27 gatherings, of which the printer used the doubled letters of the alphabet for the first 23 gatherings. But what are these letters of symbols used on the last four gatherings, amongst which is this month’s crocodile? The signatures for gatherings 24, 25, and 26 are easily recognizable as abbreviations because they appear more often in printed texts.

signatures for the final gatherings, as shown in the register
the signatures for the final gatherings, as shown in the register

The first one is the easiest one. It signifies “et” and is therefore comparable with our symbol “&.” The second one, which looks a little bit like an “o” with an open left side and what seems to be an accent under the letter, is an abbreviation which, depending on its position, can mean “com” or “con” at the beginning of a word, or “us” or “is” at the end of a word. The oddly formed “p”-like abbreviation is found at the end of a word and replaces “rum.” Our crocodile, finally, is in fact a letter “t” with a titulus above it, and stands for “tre” (at the beginning of a word) or “ter” (at the end of a word).

In this book the compositor used, as you an see on the following image, quite a few abbreviations.

Fol. LXXVIII recto of Santius de Porta, Sermones estiuales de tempore venerabilis Santij porta sacri ordinis predicatorum
Fol. LXXVIII recto of Santius de Porta’s Sermones 

Their meaning can be found in the priceless Lexicon abbreviaturarum, compiled in 1929 by Adriano Cappelli. (You can also see a list of the most common abbreviations found in the earliest printed Latin texts in this resource from Japan’s National Diet Library exhibition on incunabula.)

Although the use of abbreviations led to shorter words and fewer lines and pages, consequently helping to reduce the amount of paper used, with time they slowly but surely disappeared from printed books. For each of the individual abbreviations punchcutters had to provide a separate punch, and the more were needed, the higher the investment (a trained punchcutter needs about a day to cut one punch). Gutenberg, for example, used for his Bible not less than 299 different letters and abbreviations, which must have enormously complicated compositing this work. 3 Gradually, the number of abbreviations was reduced—probably much to the relief of the boys in the printing shops who were responsible for the distribution of the type in their cases.

  1. I would like to thank Ron Bogdan, who brought this example to my attention.
  2. We have not yet traced this hypothetical first volume. The Winter Sermons by Santius de Porta, or Sancho Porta, were also printed by the Lyon printer Joannes Clein in 1514. The Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich provides a fully digitized copy here:
  3. See Christoph Reske, “De invloed van techniek op het uiterlijk van letters in boeken”, in Jaarboek voor Nederlandse boekgeschiedenis 19 (2012), pp. 87–100, here 89.

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