The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Time writing

Telescopium Uranicum, 1666. Folger 269- 460q item 5

Chronograms—literally, “time writing”—are dates embedded within text. As such, they are a form of hidden writing called steganography: the encoded characters maintain their own value, but are hidden within a larger text. Easily calculable to those who know what they’re looking for, they still excite the thrill of uncovering secret meaning.

That thrill was experienced by this cataloger when, for the first time ever, she came across a chronogram that had been previously unremarked. (We catalogers take our thrills where we can get them.)

Chronograms can be found in Hebrew and other non-roman scripts, and even on buildings. We will focus here on how they appear in books of the Folger’s collection: as roman numeral dates.

Characters making up the chronogram are necessarily visually distinct from the other characters in the text, and are calculated by identifying these characters and adding up their values.

The printer of this almanac (the very one giving the cataloger a frisson of delight) used roman type for the chronogrammatic characters and italic for the rest of the quotation.

Folger 269- 460q item 5. Detail of title page showing chronogram. Photo by DJ Leslie

Extracting the letters in roman type from MIrabILIs est DeVs In SanCtIs sVIs, Psal. 68.36, we get MIILIDVICIVI. Rearrange them from higher value to lower—MDCLVVIIIIII—and we get 1000 + 500 + 100 + 50 + 5 + 5 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1, or 1666. (You can also add them up in the order they appear, but rearranging makes it easier to calculate.)

 

Check your chronogrammatic skills with this chronogram that includes the publication year as well in the imprint.

Folger H3129 title page. Photo by DJ Leslie

 

Embedding chronograms in title page quotations are common, but they are found in other types of text too. Here’s a Dutch colophon, also contrasting roman and italic type. Hollandsche naklank is a poem in honor of William of Orange’s ascension to the throne of England, France, and Ireland. The chronogram works out to, well, exactly what you would expect!

Folger 262- 433q. Colophon. Photo by DJ Leslie

In this English translation of Grotius’ play, the translator’s name provides the source of the chronogram, formulated with roman type only. I don’t have the eye to determine whether the chronogrammatic characters are larger than the other upper-case characters; even if not, there is no mistaking them, since roman numeral chronograms are comprised of the characters MDCLXVI and no other.

Folger G2125 title page. Photo by DJ Leslie

This clever colophon in this epithalamium spells out the name of the bride in verse followed by a chronogram of the year of the wedding.

Folger 215- 381q. Colophon with acrostic and chronogram. Photo by DJ Leslie

As for the image at the top of our post, it’s from this title page and is a chronogram truly “fitted for the meanest capacity”; in case we don’t get it, it tells us right out loud that it’s a chronogram.

Sigh for the pitchers. Folger W3190 title page. Photo by DJ Leslie

4 Comments


  • Thank you for the kind words, Maureen. I’ll take this opportunity to apologize for the poor quality of some of the photos. Still, if they were good enough for the purpose, I’m content.

    • Back to you, Deborah, appreciate your posted reply.
      Really, all of the images in your recent Collation post did, indeed, serve the purpose ~ so, yes, be content. We are grateful here!
      Touching your acknowledged obsession with the W letter-form (in early printed text, I gather):
      As I wrote in my first edition of the rare ‘Ephelia’ texts (NY, 1992; second printing, 1993), p.9, some uppercased (bold) Ws in the poet’s “Female Poems …” (London: Wm Downing for James Courtney [Courtenay], 1679, 1682), do appear to carry special meaning. And now, with further developments in the case, I must examine both issues of the book for some possible variants of Ws as, possibly, double Vs, thus serving as a typographical reference to the surname of the book’s dedicatee (and possible author): Mary Villiers, later Stuart, Duchess of Richmond & Lennox, a red-haired beauty & favorite of Van Dyck, celebrated for talents in court intrigue and practical jokes, such as forging the horoscope of Charles II (a criminal offense), for which her brother, George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham, was charged & imprisoned in the tower, but shortly released when Charles promptly recognized the script as that of his ‘sister’, Lady Mary. So all o’ that is possibly useful new information for you on your intriguing Ws. (Shall keep in touch on the matter.)
      In the spirit, wishing ‘ee well,
      MEM.
      ____


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