Plotting the Book

Heather, Monica and I have been working with the 1588 Plantin edition of the Physiologus. Heather has developed some bibliographical and catalogue commentary in a post here, while Monica has prepared a discussion of image and the ways in which we interact with “The Book.”

This post is a brief intorduction to the object that has inspired our thinking. I have been focusing on some of the physical aspects of the volume as way of beginning to understand the productive processes that underlie it.

This is not a weighty book. It is in octavo, a format used for more handheld and popular material It is bound in parchment with a handlettered spine. It is printed on paper, which is rather thick and coarse to the touch.

We used a mock-up of format and layout to better understand the book’s physical construction.

Following the chain lines in the paper, we identified the format as octavo. It is a unusually large octavo: the page size is approximately 108 mm x 166 mm, which gives us a total expected sheet area of  1.434 square metres.

We found a watermark in the paper in the top left quadrant of page A6r. With some squinting (and an attempted rubbing), we saw something that looked like two balls joined by a domed loop. Using the Memory of Paper site, we were able to match it to the “two keys detached” motif and I could find examples with elements of what we saw in the paper. However, the book was published in 1588, which seems to be outside of the scope of the database. (Or, it could be a fault of the search interface.)

The watermark was not the same in each of its appearances in the book. In several quires it ran off the page, suggesting that the paper was cut off along the top edge of the sheet. This is consistent with the ‘oversize octavo’ we noted before.

The book is actually very sophisticated from a printing standpoint: it has text in Latin and Greek characters, the Greek showing independent accent marks (i.e. not a part of the individual letter cast). It has decorated initials that come off woodblock printing, as well as segmented border decorations. Most beautifully, it is filled with engraved/etched illustrations of the animals discussed in the Physiologus , showing indentations in the paper around the edge of the plate and bringing a naturalistic depth to the page.

Handling the book, and parsing it for singular material clues has revealed the work of making a book in very tangible ways. Each detail we have been able to plot traces back through an entire network of actors and labourers, connecting one thing to the larger systems of its time. In the same way, the tools we use as scholars to investigate objects, develop ideas about their significance, and present them mark us out in particular ways. The elements of the “pre-digital book” ask us to confront oour digital objects with the same incisive gaze.


About Andrea Hasenbank

PhD Candidate at the University of Alberta, researching Canadian proletarian print of the 1930s.
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1 Response to Plotting the Book

  1. Pingback: This Is Not A Book | Predigital Worlds

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