Communion Of Dreams


A bookbinding mystery.

Been a while since I posted about book conservation. But I thought I would share a little mystery I came upon recently in my work.

First, a simple lesson in bookbinding history, with some terms used in the profession …

When books are sewn together, that sewing goes through a group of sheets which are folded in half. Each folded sheet is called a folio. The group — whether it is a single folio or multiple folios — is called a section (also a signature, a gathering, or a quire).  Most books consist of many different sections, all sewn together in a particular sequence, in order to keep the pages in the correct order.  The number of folios in each section can vary greatly, but it was common for it to be 2 or 4 folios until fairly recently (8 folios per section is common now).

To make it a little easier to keep everything straight and in the right order, printers developed some common practices (or conventions). Numbering the pages seems like an obvious way to do this, but page numbering conventions are surprisingly convoluted and confusing. So they came up with some other tricks for the bookbinders to follow. One was to give each section a letter designation. And another was to have a number combined with that letter designation, so the bookbinder would be able to make sure that they had all the folios for a given section. And just to be extra certain, for a long time printers would place at the very bottom of the printing on each page the start of the word on the *next* page.

Here are three images which show this, from a 1744 book awaiting my attention:

Mystery 1

OK, look at the right-hand page (called recto), at the bottom of the print. See the capital letter E? That shows that this was the start of the new section. And if you look in the same line as that E, you’ll see the word “and”.

Take a look at the next image:

Mystery 2

Note there on the top of the left page (called verso) the print starts with the word “and”. Look at the bottom of that page, and you can see the word “will”, which is the first word on the top of the next page. Got it?

Also, look at the bottom of the recto page, and you’ll see “E2”, meaning that this is the second folio of the section. And there, off to the far right, is the word “which”.

Next image:

Mystery 3

See? The first word on the top of the verso page is “which”, and the page numbering is sequential. At the bottom of that page is the word “faid” (which is actually the word “said”, using an f in place of a long s), and that is the same word on the top of the recto page. The page numbering is again sequential in going to the recto page. But look — there’s no section and folio marking at the bottom of the recto page. That means that this book has sections of just two folios. And if you look at the gutter of the book in this image, you can see the original sewing: the two discolored bits of thread at the top and bottom of the book.

Simple, right? Yup, and this was the way that almost everyone in Europe printed books for about 300 years. (There’s a lot more interesting history connected with this, but for now we’ll just leave it at that.)

OK, let’s take a look at one final image:

Mystery 4

This is from a different book. A bible. One printed sometime around 1644 in German.

Look at the bottom of the text there on the recto, in the lower right of the image. See the section and folio marks? It’s a lower case “e” for the section, and then “iiij.” So this should be the fourth folio of section “e”, right?

But look at the gutter of the book, there on the left hand side of the image. That’s the sewing of the book. In fact, if you look carefully, you can see that there is the original sewing thread, and then brighter sewing thread, where I have added new thread to strengthen these first few sections of the book.

What gives?

I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me. This book has three-folio sections, but it is marked as though it should be four folios per section. That’s through the whole book (well, according to my random examination of multiple sections … I haven’t examined every one, since this is a big ol’ bible).

It really threw me at first, because the book came to me with a number of loose pages front and back. Initially I thought that there must be a lot of missing pages (there are a couple), but I started using the other printing conventions of the starting part of a word, and was able to clearly establish that I did indeed have most of the pages. Then I went and checked some of the intact sections of the book, and saw this weird mystery.

Why on earth the printer did this, I can only guess. And that guess is that he did it to make someone think that there were more printed pages in the whole text than there actually are, since a casual examination using the normal printing conventions would suggest that there should be 25% more folios than are really there. Is this a case of some unscrupulous printer ripping off the church or whoever paid for the work? Maybe.

But that’s just a guess.

 

Jim Downey


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Or printing mixed with beer.🙂

Comment by Danny Adams

That *has* been known to happen from time to time, true …

Comment by James Downey




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