The Reformation and the Opening of the Book (Part 1)

Here begins the first of, let’s hope, two posts regarding the designs, on the page and the reader, of title pages issued in the Reformation. In this post, I examine the opening pages of books in the later medieval period and the turn of the sixteenth century, concluding with a brief discussion of a volume by Martin Luther published in the 1520.

Prior to the last decades of the fifteenth century, medieval openers of bound bibles–whether written by hand or printed with movable type–would expect to find first pages like these:

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 10.01.03 AMScreen Shot 2016-04-14 at 10.01.47 AM

On the left, we see a “Paris bible,” a form of medieval “mass market” bible produced by professional scribes and distributed by lay booksellers in Paris beginning in the thirteenth century. On the right appears the opening page of a Gutenberg Bible. In each case, the first text that the lector encounters reads (something like): “Incipit epistola sancti ieronimi ad paulinum presbiterum de omnibus divine historie libris,” or, “Here begins the Epistle of Saint Jerome to Paulinus the priest concerning all of the books of the divine history.” A medieval custom for beginning bibles was thus to give credit where credit was due: Jerome had done the difficult work of translating the text into Latin, and so his word on the translated text came first. Gutenberg’s invention was, of course, revolutionary, but, as scholars have repeatedly observed, his design instincts were conservative. Thus, our reference to fifteenth-century printed books as incunabula, from the Latin for “swaddling clothes” or “cradle.”

Two qualities of these bibles are notable for present purposes:

  1. They lack–from a modern book-user’s perspective–a page or space budgeted to highlight the book’s title, author(s), publisher, place of publication–in short, all of the information one finds in the modern peritext.
  2. The very first text the reader meets is (instead) a commentary by a fifth-century saint.

Regarding #1, we must recognize that the “Incipit” (often, as here, presented in red ink) represented a convention for initiating medieval books. It announced not only that a text “here begins” but also, as in the present case, that text’s name and often author (if known) as well. It was often embellished, as we see here, with a decorated initial. Now, in this case, the first “incipit” centers on Jerome but also points forward to the book that his letter introduces. This letter was often used to inaugurate bibles; thus, a reader wouldn’t need a title page to recognize which book he or she was holding–in case its heft didn’t already clue the reader in. The Paris bible’s first page is also striking, as this post explains, for how its presumed owner, Antoine Duprat, used the borders to document his ownership and clerical rank, that of Cardinal. His title is thus prominently displayed. This is in keeping with the historian Laura Light’s observation (in an article housed in the collection¬†The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages) that Paris bibles should be understood as part of a new individualized experience of the bible in the thirteenth century–at least for readers wealthy enough to buy one.

Regarding #2, we should note that Jerome’s letter to Paulinus wasn’t always the first text to appear in medieval bibles. But this or some other Jerome commentary often did play the part of prologue, and that tells us some important things about what medieval bookmakers assumed about the proper protocols of Biblical reading and interpretation. The Bible, such inclusions suggest, is not a text that one simply picks up and reads (despite Augustine’s experience otherwise): one must study it diligently under the guidance of venerable interpreters. (Remember that Jerome’s writings were more than one thousand years old when Gutenberg printed his bible.) That, indeed, is one of the themes of Jerome’s epistle.

As this post’s title suggests, I’m concerned here with how the Reformation participates in the transformation of the book’s opening protocols. Openers of books printed in the Reformation now found very different matter up front, as exemplified by the printed bibles (as we’ll see in Part 2). The first pages became sites of new designs–artistic, religious, and political–on the part of authors, woodcutters, church leaders, and monarchs. Earlier this month, I was given fresh food for thought on these issues while attending Wheaton College’s annual Theology Conference, this year’s theme being “The People’s Book:¬† Reformation and the Bible.” A session on media featured superb papers by my colleague in the Communications Department Read Schuchardt and the theologian and church historian Densil Morgan of Prifysgol Cymru Y Drindod Dewi Sant, a.k.a. The University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Both of their papers will appear in a good time in the conference’s published volume, so I won’t attempt to summarize their arguments here. Rather, I want to make a few observations about Reformation title pages inspired by their presentations, on print as the formal cause of the Reformation and on the translation of the Bible into Welsh in the sixteenth century, respectively. As I commented to both of them, the relationship between the print book and the Reformation cuts both ways: if the print book fuels the Reformation, so too does the Reformation influence the evolving anatomy of the book.

In Five Hundred Years of Printing,¬†S. H. Steinberg recalls Stanley Morison’s claim that “The history of printing is in large measure the history of the title page.” (This was the position taken, by the way, by one of the most infamous of biblioclasts, the antiquarian John Bagford, whose plan to illustrate the history of print led him to tear the title pages out of hundreds of rare books at the start of the eighteenth century.) Steinberg then wryly observes:

It might even be true to say that the introduction of the title-page constituted one of the most visible and distinct advances from script to print. For neither ancient nor medieval authors, scribes and librarians seem to have felt a need for what has become that part of the book which is the beginning, and often the end, of reading it.

For Morison, as for Steinberg, the title page fascinates because it seems one of the few places in the book where typographer’s art may take precedence over the author’s. For other book historians, the title page offers a window into the evolving legal conditions of print. And for still others, the title page presents a case study in information management. As the specimens to follow will (especially in Part 2) show, the title page is among the most dynamic and provocative elements of Reformation books. In other words, the Reformers and their printers quickly capitalize on this new element: it must be considered essential to how many books in the Reformation canon “work,” that is to say, how they mean, how they frame the reader’s understanding of what’s to come. So here’s my humble claim: while one can’t tell the history of the Reformation exclusively through title pages (a la Morison/Bagford and the history of print), taking the measure of Reformation title pages is often telling from both the religious and book-historical points of view.

As Gerard Genette teaches us in Paratexts: thresholds of interpretation, all that paper and text in the fronts of books, or page displays in the case of ebooks, surrounding the “text proper” should be thought of as more than just “transitional” space that eases the reader into the world of the text. This material-cum-mental “threshold” is, instead, transactional. The paratext is, Genette writes,

a privileged place of a pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that–whether well or poorly understood and achieved–is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it (more pertinent, of course, in the eyes of the author and his allies).

The “author and his allies” are thus already working on readers in these spots, shaping our sense of the text that will follow and offering guidance about how to conduct the business of reading it. Title pages, alongside other adornments in what Genette calls the “publisher’s peritext,” do all kinds of work that are all more powerful for being barely acknowledged by readers. For example, publishers often list at the bottom of the page multiple cities where the press is hubbed: “New York London Delhi,” etc. These few words shape our expectations about what we will read–about the book’s quality and importance–and perhaps even affect our sense of ourselves as readers–as members perhaps of a global or cosmopolitan readership. (Those kinds of geographical connotations are, in fact, coming into being as the Reformation picks up, as we’ll see in Part 2.) The Reformation title page is an ideal demonstration of Genette’s argument about the “transactional” nature of the peritext.

It is important to recall, though, that the printers of the Reformer and their Roman Catholic counterparts didn’t invent the title page. We already see experiments with it as early as Peter Schoeffer’s 1463 pamphlet-sized papal Bull. (A sign of its experimental nature is that fact that there are both printed and manuscript versions of the title page.) By the turn of the sixteenth century, the title page is an idea circulating through the new industry, if not exactly yet a standard or standardized practice. A nice slide-show of the progression is available here.

One can see something of the state of the art at the turning of the century in these two Italian examples:

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 9.28.15 PMScreen Shot 2016-04-10 at 9.31.55 PM

On the left, we see a florilegium (“bouquet”) printed by the Aldine Press in Venice in 1503. On the right, a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses printed in Parma in 1505. Notable on the left is both what’s missing (again, from a modern perspective) and what’s emphasized, especially the dominance of the printer’s sign. The title page on the right, meanwhile, gives useful information about contents but tell us nothing about the conditions of its publication. These title pages illustrate a transitional moment, when printers were still determining how much information and ornamentation to include on title pages (and what to keep in a colophon). In effect, they were still working out what a title page should do for authors, readers, printers, booksellers.

As with all things Reformation, a wise way forward from the century’s turn is through Erasmus. Take a look at these two title pages:

tr-title-pageScreen Shot 2016-04-19 at 10.06.00 AM

Erasmus’s Novum Instrumentum (1516) appears on the left, his Lucubrationes (1515) on the right. Our attention gravitates to the hourglass shape of the text on the top of the New Testament, an expansion of the familiar “half-diamond indention” (reader: if you know the official term for this kind of design, do comment!). Within that hourglass, the extended title clarifies that this “new and improved” New Testament has been disciplined by the old authorities, including Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome. While the title aims to coax the reader to acquire something genuinely novel, it also endeavors to frame its contents’ continuity with tradition.

The Lucubrationes title page, meanwhile, features that elaborate border containing images of writers of Scripture (David, Isaiah, Paul) and doctors of the Church (Jerome, Augustine, Gregory, Ambrose). As M. Patrick Graham observes (here), this kind of Scriptural/apostolic/doctoral borderwork shows up in numerous Catholic works in the teens. As in the references to the names above, these images position Erasmus within the orthodox theological tradition. We are to read him, the images suggest, as we would these earlier, authoritative voices. All’s well, both of these title pages argue, with the orthodox tradition.

I would also direct your attention to the busyness of the bottom of the Novum Instrumentum. Here the printer, Johann Froben of Basel, asserts his special “privilege” to print this text within the Holy Roman Empire (then under the dominion of Maximilian I). The page on the right also contains a shorter such claim. These remarks testify to the emerging economic and legal conditions of the print age in which printers were licensed to ply their trades by secular authorities. The obvious “transaction” represented here pertains to the political authority and the publisher (and warns of reaction against pirating). But it also has implications for readers, since it suggests that the book has multiple authorities behind it. Reformation title pages, as we’ll see, are intriguing in this regard.

Consider now the work of another Basel printer, Adam Petri, from 1520:


Here’s what the title says (roughly): Part One of a Sincere Lucubration by the Reverend Father Doctor Martin Luther, the Augustinian Theologian. (Petri had planned a second volume.) What’s immediately apparent about this border design by Hans Holbein the Younger, of course, is that it’s the same as what we’ve seen it already. Here, again, the reader is given a volume by one who belongs to the ancient line of bookmakers (all of whom, in a delightful anachronism, wield codices). Graham helpfully observes that Petri had already used it once for a collection of the works of Ambrose (as a wise printer was apt to do with such an elaborate, and likely expensive, design). He then argues that these images would be palatable to both Protestant and Catholic sensibilities. But that position hinges on the assumption that in 1520 those audiences and their respective tastes were already established. Luther’s excommunication, remember, was pronounced in January of 1521. The recycling of this iconography suggests that to Petri at least Luther could still be understood, and advertised, as an orthodox doctor of the church. Notice the headwear! The reader was invited to view Luther as the successor to a pope, two bishops, and a cardinal. Nothing too dangerous here, dear reader…

The establishment of a distinctive Protestant approach to the title page was a few years away, as we’ll see in Part 2.


Related posts

Leave a Comment