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?
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!
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.
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):
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!
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!
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.
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.)
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:
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:
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:
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.
- 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.
- 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 omittedonly one letter of the I/J and U/V pairs was used and since W was not part of the Latin alphabet.