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Early Modern Book Construction: What are all those Letters and Symbols?

It’s not unusual to arrive at the last page of an early modern book and see a list of all the letters in the alphabet.  There might even be some additional symbols, along with yet another listing of the alphabet.  You might have also noticed that these letters and symbols appear at the bottom right corners of some of the book’s pages, often accompanied by a number.  There is, in fact, a method to this madness – the letters at the bottom of the pages are called signatures, while the note at the end is called the statement of signing.  These provided important guidance for bookbinders.  During the hand press period books were not printed one page at a time; instead, several pages were printed at once on one large piece of paper, which was then folded so the pages appeared in the correct order.  The signatures, rather than the printed page number, indicated the order in which the pages needed to be arranged before the book was bound.a

Let’s take a look at how this works.

Shown here is the statement of signing from the 1543 edition of Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica.  The “Series Chartarvm” indicates which signatures were used – in this case asterisks, lowercase letters, uppercase letters, and a combination of the two – and the paragraph beneath them gives detailed instructions on how the pages needed to be organized.  The printer, Johannes Oporinus, indicates that all the sheets are to be gathered in groups of three (“omnes terniones”) except for the gatherings signed m and Mm, which consist of four sheets of paper (“praeter m & mm quaterniones”).

The illustration below shows how the sheets are nestled together.  Because the Fabrica is a folio, the sheets only needed to be folded once.  Once the group of three sheets was put in the proper order and folded, it created six leaves and twelve pages of text.  All these gatherings bound together create the finished book.

While the statement of signing provides the overall picture of how the book should be assembled, the individual signatures provide the exact guidance.  Look at the detail on this page from the Fabrica.  See the signature mark *2?  That tells us that this is the second leaf in the gathering signed with an *.  When the printed sheets are being organized, the signatures need to be in the correct order: * followed by *2, followed by *3, and so forth.  When they are organized properly, the book will flow in the manner intended by the author.

 

Signatures are one of the most distinctive features of early modern books, and can be used to distinguish various impressions and editions.  They also provide us with a look into how books were produced several hundred years ago.  It's something to look out for if you ever find yourself handling a book from the hand press era. 

 

a The signatures are usually more reliable than the page numbers.  While the pagination of the Fabrica is inconsistent, the signatures are, and the text reads in the proper order.

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