Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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‘Like to a title leafe’: Surface, Face, and Material Text in Early Modern England

Lucy Razzall

[1]  In a letter composed in 1645 and published posthumously in an English anthology just over a decade later, the French writer Jean-Louis Guez Balzac thanked a friend for sending him a work of theology. Responding to the book, Balzac wrote:

Expect not here […] from me a precise judgement of what I cannot reach. I have not discover’d the depth of the book: It is true, Madam, the outside and surface is very beautifull and is precious. I am ravished with the sound of the harmony which is made by matters I cannot comprehend: this way of writing would have amazed the Philosophers whom it had not convinced. And had Gregory of Nazianza, shewn such a piece of work to his friend Themistius, questionlesse it had wrought upon him He would have admired the appearance and outside of Christianity though he could not have beheld the secret and interiour part of it. They are not words printed and read on the paper, they are felt, & penetrate even to the very heart. (Balzac 1658: sig.O8v)

In praising the gift, Balzac opposes its ‘depth’ and ‘surface’; the former is something he ‘cannot reach’, remaining yet to be ‘discover’d, while the latter is at ‘the outside’, and readily appreciated as ‘very beautifull’ and ‘precious’. It is not clear, from these lines, whether he is referring to the visual appearance of the material text he has received, presumably a bound book, or more metaphorically, to its literary qualities. The contrast between the superficial and the hidden persists throughout his letter; he goes on to praise ‘the appearance and outside of Christianity’, which is more easily admired than the ‘secret and interiour part of it’. As the letter progresses, the distinction between the book as material object and mental or spiritual experience is increasingly blurred, as is the distinction between this particular work of theology and the broader concept of ‘Christianity’. In the final line of this passage, Balzac seems to downplay the importance of the book’s materiality – rejecting the ‘words printed and read on the paper’ – but it is only through the very physical vocabulary of sound, feeling, and penetration that he can express the persistently inward effect of these words, which ‘penetrate even to the very heart’. Despite his rhetorical negation of the material text, ultimately Balzac is dependent on this materiality to make effective his portrayal of the complete experience of reading. His letter neatly illustrates the inevitable intricacy of ‘surface’ and ‘depth’, even as it sets them in opposition: literary or spiritual ‘depth’ can only be facilitated by, and encountered through, the simultaneously mental and material experience of ‘the outside and surface’ of ‘words printed and read on the paper’.

[2]  This brief early modern account of reading elides the material and conceptual experiences of the book. Balzac blurs the distinction between his book’s various possible surfaces, which might be visually impressive – perhaps a beautiful binding, or ornate title-page – or intellectually so – a ‘way of writing’, as he says, which stirs his mind in a way that also has to be expressed in physical terms. The moment of interplay between visual and intellectual experiences of a book in Balzac’s letter provides a helpful opening for this essay, which will explore some of the visual and metaphorical aspects of one particular bibliographical surface in early modern literary culture: the printed title page.

[3]  The title page is one of the first textual surfaces, and very often the first textual surface, that a reader of an early modern printed text encounters. Although bindings, blank sheets, waste sheets, and fly leaves may precede it, the title page is usually the outermost or uppermost textual surface of the printed book as a multi-surfaced, multi-dimensional object with physical as well as metaphorical ‘depth’. Like contents pages, prefatory dedications and epistles, indexes, and other paratextual features, title pages set themselves outside the book proper, as navigational starting points for finding a way into, and through, the book. Modern editions of early modern texts usually standardise the information provided on original title pages, and so it is easy to forget that title pages are often intriguingly messy typographical sites, as well as particularly rich reminders of the many agents involved in producing a printed work in the early modern period.

[4]  Bibliographers, book historians, and others usually offer fairly fixed definitions of what a title page is, although there are some disciplinary variations. In her history of the title page in the incunable period, Margaret Smith reminds us that ‘whereas bibliographers are at pains to define the title-page as not containing the beginning of the text, manuscript specialists conflate a decorated first page of text with a frontispiece, or a title-page. For bibliographers a title-page must be distinguished from both a frontispiece and the first page of a text’ (2000: 12). Building on the conventions of manuscript culture, the title page in the early years of print emerged gradually: ‘the title-page went through several stages of development: beginning with the adoption of manuscript practice, then to a blank, to a label-title on the blank (the birth of the title-page in the printed book), and finally to the full title-page’ (Smith 2000: 16). Throughout the sixteenth century the visual and verbal conventions of the title page continued to evolve, and in English, there appears to have been no specific name for the title page until the end of the century. Moreover, the very concept of a title, as well as its form and function, and its relationship to a written text, were also evolving gradually in the early modern period (Genette 1997: 55-103).

[5]  Physically outside a printed text proper, the title page is a distinctive exterior surface, but it is also a distinctive intellectual exterior, usually serving various practical and commercial purposes. Although the term suggests that this is a surface primarily concerned with a text’s ‘title’, in the early modern period this page is also the site for other important information about the work and those involved in producing it. It might provide the names of authors, editors, printers, and publishers, as well as the date and place of publication. If it supplies the details of an individual printer’s or bookseller’s shop, for example, a title page links the book as commercial object to a geographically specific location in London. A printed title page might feature other text too, such as epigraphs or quotations, instructions to the reader, and perhaps non-textual material in the form of decoration and illustrations. In contrast with engraved title pages, printed title pages have received relatively little attention in critical work on early modern paratexts. [1]

[6]  Title pages are one of the principal outward faces of a printed text, usually providing the reader with some information about what will be found inside. As sites of initial encounter, they are both face and surface on the book as object, communicating textual identity but also suggesting physical and intellectual senses of depth. This article brings together some early modern literary responses to real and imaginary title pages, including the first known use of a specific term for this particular part of a book, and teases out the connections between ideas of face and surface embodied at these sites. In considering how they operate in textual, material, and metaphorical ways, the article explores how early modern title pages might be useful locations for troubling some of our own, as well as early modern, assumptions about ‘surface’. This word itself has its origins in the early modern period, and the first part of the essay examines the relationship between ‘surface’ and ‘face’ as the former entered the English language. In its early appearances, the idea of ‘surface’ offers not simply an oppositional contrast with ‘depth’, but is associated with the creation or inscription of identity. The origins of ‘surface’ as word and idea in English writing provide an illuminating backdrop for thinking about the textual, visual, and material functions of the title page in early modern literary culture.

[7]  The word ‘surface’ entered English usage in the later sixteenth century, from the Middle French ‘surface’ and Latin ‘superficies’, referring to the ‘visible outside part of a body’ or ‘outermost boundary of any material object’ (OED 2016). In its early English appearances, it is generally employed as a technical term in geographical, mathematical, and astronomical contexts, where it is particularly associated with descriptions of the globe – as one astronomical handbook illustrates, a globe is ‘a massie body inclosed with one platform or surface’ (Tapp 1602: sig.A4r). In his 1592 dialogue on globes, the mathematician Thomas Hood explained that ‘whether the Globe be Mathematically conceaued in minde, or sensibly deliuered to the eye, it is contained and inclosed vnder one surface’ (1592: sig.B2r). His two speakers discuss the basic form shared by both terrestrial and celestial globes:

The surface of the Globe, as wee haue hetherto spoken of it, is to be vnderstood as a blancke hauing nothing inscribed in it, yet fit to receiue any inscription: therefore according to the inscription of the Globe wee diuide it two seuerall wayes: so that the Globe is saide to be eyther Celestiall, or Terrestriall (sig.B2v).

Their metaphor evokes bibliographical imagery: the ‘surface’ of any globe is compared to a ‘blancke […] fit to receiue any inscription’ – in other words, it is like a sheet of paper, awaiting text. This paper-like ‘blancke’ exterior is crucial to imagining a globe’s transformation from the general to the particular. The nature of such ‘inscription’ on this exterior surface decides and defines what kind of globe it will be, either ‘Celestiall or Terrestriall’. These early appearances in English reveal the word ‘surface’ to be associated with enclosure and exteriority, but also to have intriguingly imaginative, textual connotations.

[8]  Yet a keyword search in Early English Books Online suggests that beyond these technical contexts of mathematics, geometry, and geography, ‘surface’ was not more widely used in English until further into the seventeenth century. Alongside Hood’s description of the surface of terrestrial and celestial globes, I now want to compare the more poetic context of the opening lines of the book of Genesis, which describe the creation of heaven and earth. Contrasting early English translations of these lines leads Adam Nicolson to think about the apparent hesitancy in this period surrounding the word ‘surface’, and the possibilities offered by its close relation, ‘face’ (2003: 192-4). In his unfinished Old Testament translation of the 1530s, William Tyndale wrote:

In the beginnyng God created heauen and earth. The erth was voyde and emptye, and darcknesse was vpon the depe, & the spirite of God moued upon the water.

Tyndale’s prose here is accessible and useful, stating the facts of creation, but it is without any literary grandeur. Twenty or so years later, the compilers of the Geneva Bible offered this variation:

In the beginning God created the heauen and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darknesse was upon the deep, and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.

In their version, the prose is made more fluent, and more specific. The earth was ‘without form and void’, rather than only ‘voyde’, and the word ‘face’ is introduced in the final clause, suggesting the possibility of life emerging from the now plural ‘waters’, in contrast with Tyndale’s singular ‘water’. The King James Version of 1611 incorporates the additions of the Geneva text, building on them further:

In the beginning God created the Heauen, and the Earth. And the earth was without forme, and voyd, and darknesse was vpon the face of the deepe: and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.

Although the changes are slight, the effect is magisterial. The prose is rhythmic, poetically balanced through judicious punctuation, the repetition of ‘the’ and ‘and’, and the ‘darknesse’ ‘vpon the face of the deepe’ set against the ‘Spirit of God’ ‘vpon the face of the waters’.

[9]  Nicolson points out that there is a word which means ‘surface’ in the Hebrew, but all of these early English versions of Genesis avoid it (2003: 194), unlike modern English translations – the New Revised Standard Version, for example, gives us: ‘darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters’, overlooking the poetic possibilities embraced by the King James translators. Early modern translators repeatedly chose ‘face’ rather than ‘surface’; indeed, the word ‘surface’ does not appear anywhere at all in the King James text. Nicolson’s comments about the general preference in scriptural translation for ‘face’ over ‘surface’ are very suggestive. ‘The spirit of God moving on the face of the waters has a mysterious and ghostly humanity to it which neither the modern translations nor Tyndale’s blankness can match’, he writes – ‘The face of the waters carries a subliminal suggestion that the face of God is reflected in them […] In this first, archaic darkness a connection already exists between God and his creation. The universe from the moment of its making is human and divine’ (2003: 194).

[10]  While Nicolson’s justification is theologically and poetically convincing, it may also be the case that the King James translators were more conscious than Nicolson acknowledges of some of the contemporary technical associations of the word ‘surface’, exemplified in the astronomical works I cited earlier, and also in Robert Norton’s 1604 volume of applied mathematics, where it is stated that ‘A Superficies or Surface hath onely length and bredth without deepenesse’ (Norton 1604: sig.G3r). Norton’s definition in particular suggests one reason why ‘surface’ might not be an appropriate word to use for the primal waters of Genesis, even though is already associated with descriptions of terrestrial and celestial globes – according to Norton, a surface is specifically ‘without deepenesse’ (my italics). However, even as it sets up a contrast between surface and depth here, Norton’s definition complicates any potential binary, giving ‘surface’ the expansive dimensions of both ‘length’ and ‘breadth’, which define it as more than simply the opposite of ‘deepenesse’.

[11]  The hesitation of early modern scriptural translators surrounding ‘surface’ is a reminder that this word can be as potentially problematic as it is useful. With the avoidance of ‘surface’, the relationship between maker and what is made in Genesis is depicted implicitly as one of seeing ‘face to face’, a phrase which comes up explicitly, no fewer than eleven times, in the King James translation. It is perhaps most famously used by St Paul, who reassures the people of Corinth that ‘now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face’ (1 Corinthians 13:12), but it also appears many times in the Old Testament, where Moses and other prophets are associated with seeing God, or his angels, ‘face to face’ (Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 34:10). Whereas ‘face’ implies desirably direct, intimate encounter in all of these examples, when it is given the three-letter prefix ‘sur’ (from Latin, super, meaning ‘above’, ‘on top of’, ‘beyond’, ‘besides’, ‘in addition’), it is immediately made less direct, those three letters performing on the page a visual intervention like that which the word ‘surface’ itself implies, as something that comes before something else, concealing something from direct view or immediate revelation.

[12]  The printed title page provides a rich material and imaginative focus for thinking about the web of associations between the visual and the metaphorical connected to the word ‘surface’ in early modern writing. Like Thomas Hood’s ‘blancke […] fit to receiue any inscription’, the title page serves as a defining surface, at which we might expect to deduce something of the nature of the text within. As these early modern technical and literary contexts for thinking about ‘surface’ suggest, title pages, like faces, might also be associated with literal and metaphorical kinds of recognition and reflection. Several of these material and imaginative connections are at play in the first published instance of a specific term for a title page in early modern writing, to which I will now turn, before then considering what some other literary and real encounters with title pages tell us about how these bibliographical sites work as surfaces.

[13]  In the opening scenes of William Shakespeare’s The Second part of Henrie the fourth (written around 1596 and first printed in 1600), three different messengers bring conflicting news from the battle of Shrewsbury, and on the arrival of the third, the sick Earl of Northumberland exclaims:

Yea this mans brow, like to a title leafe,
Foretells the nature of a tragicke volume:
So lookes the strond whereon the imperious floud,
Hath left a witnest vsurpation.
Say Mourton, didst thou come from Shrewsbury? (1600: sig.A3v)

Morton’s facial expression, before he has spoken, reveals that he brings bad tidings – the news that the rebellion against the king has largely been defeated, and Northumberland’s son, Hotspur, has been killed by Prince Hal, not the other way round as reported several lines earlier. In response, Northumberland likens Morton’s face to a ‘title leafe’ of a ‘tragicke volume’; more specifically, it is his ‘brow’ which draws this simile from him. His words suggest a physiognomical moment of revelation, in which the furrowed lines of Morton’s forehead can be read, accurately foretelling ‘the nature’ of his news. No sooner has it been read in this way, however, than Morton’s face is rapidly transformed into another surface, on a much greater scale: a shoreline bearing traces of tidal invasion. While editors of the play usually comment only on the comparison between the frowning human brow and the lined aspect of a beach encroached upon by the tide here, there is also a suggestion of the lingering salty wetness of sweat on his brow, or even tears on the rest of his face, further ‘witnesses’ of the news of Hotspur’s death.

[14]  It is especially appropriate that this invocation of a title page comes at the beginning of the play, as initial encounters between protagonists take place, and the nature of the drama that is to follow is established. ‘How doth my sonne and brother?’, Northumberland goes on to ask Morton, continuing before he can respond: ‘Thou tremblest, and the whitenes in thy cheeke/Is apter than thy tongue to tell thy arrand’ (sig.A3v). As an ominously trembling ‘title leafe’, Morton’s face has the ‘whitenes’ of paper, on which blankness might ‘foretell’ and ‘tell’ as much as, or indeed more than words. Northumberland elaborates that because of this face, he knows ‘my Percies death ere thou reportst it’ (sig.A3v), making Morton into a primarily visual, rather than verbal, source. In the Induction moments earlier, the figure of Rumour, ‘painted full of Tongues’, has established an atmosphere of mistrust for the play’s opening, in which ‘continual slanders ride’ and ‘smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs’ circulate (sigs.A2r-v). Upon Morton’s entrance though, Northumberland trusts what he sees, before he hears anything; in this encounter, all is on the surface. He focuses on Morton’s face as a visual form of communication, rather than an aural one, in contrast with the cacophony of uncertainties ‘from Rumour’s tongues’. As a legible ‘title leafe’, Morton’s face more reliably establishes the nature of the action to follow.

Figure 1: William Shakespeare, The Second part of Henrie the fourth (London: V.S. for Andrew Wise and William Aspley, 1600), title-page. RB 69318, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.


[15]  Shakespeare’s simile of the ‘title leafe’ also hints at the materiality of the play in its printed form. Although it does not feature Northumberland’s word ‘tragicke’, the title page of the 1600 quarto describes The Second part of Henrie the fourth, continuing to his death, and coronation of Henrie the fift, tempering this with the promise of the humours of sir Iohn Falstaffe, and swaggering Pistol. Between the printed text of the title, the references to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and William Shakespeare, and the colophon at the foot of the page, there is one piece of non-alphabetical type – an architectural ornament depicting a small grotesque face within a cartouche. Although this ornament is there to fill blank space, and as a necessary feature of the printing process has no intentional relationship to Shakespeare’s play, the presence of this image is a reminder of the connections between faces and books embodied in another term sometimes used as a synonym for title page or ‘title leafe’, the ‘frontispiece’.[2] From the Latin frontispicium, meaning literally ‘looking at the forehead’, ‘frontispiece’ was an architectural term referring to the principal ‘face’ or front of a building in use in English from the late sixteenth century, as well as to the first page of a printed book from the early seventeenth (OED 2016). Thus as Northumberland reads Morton’s ‘brow’, he might equally and more literally liken it to a ‘frontispiece’. Although a distinction is usually now made between title page and frontispiece, with the latter term given to an illustrated page facing the title page, often involving a portrait, the terms were less clearly distinguished in the early modern period.

[16]  For example, John Taylor conflates these two terms figuratively in a sermon on repentance, which he describes as ‘a great volume of duty; and Godly sorrow is but the frontispiece or title page: it is the harbinger or first introduction to it’ (1653: sig.E5r). Just as Morton’s face relays sad news at the start of Shakespeare’s play, here Taylor asks his audience to imagine ‘Godly sorrow’ as the necessary ‘harbinger’ of repentance. In both texts, the ‘frontispiece or title page’ works as a crucial simile or metaphor to convey the sense of something to be read, indicating what is yet to come. For Shakespeare’s Northumberland and for Taylor, the face and the ‘frontispiece or title page’ are both reliable surfaces, which in a culture that made much of physiognomy, can be accurately read as revelatory sites. [3]

[17]  Yet at the same time, anxieties about the reliability of such outer surfaces pervade early modern writing. The reinforcement of the surface-depth distinction is often in the context of religious polemic, and is particularly tied to the distinctively Protestant fixation with the idea that exteriors are deceptive.[4] In his exposition of ‘Meekness’ as a ‘necessary feminine Vertu’, the preacher Richard Allestree uses another metaphorical ‘frontispiece’ to insist that a woman’s ‘mind’ should ‘correspond’ with her face:

For tho the adulterations of art, can represent in the same Face beauty in one position, and deformity in another, yet nature is more sincere, and never meant a serene and clear forhead, should be the frontispiece to a cloudy tempestuous heart. ’Tis therefore to be wisht they would take the admonition, and whilst they consult their glasses, whether to applaud or improve their outward form, they would cast one look inwards, and examine what symmetry is there held with a fair outside; whether any storm of passion darken and overcast their interior beauty, and use at least an equal dilligence to rescu that; as they would to clear their face from any stain or blemish. (1673: sig.C3r )

According to Allestree, it is fundamentally unnatural for the face to conceal the true feelings of the heart. The truly virtuous woman should seek to resolve the desired ‘symmetry’ of the face and what is ‘inwards’, so that the former looks outwards unblemished, accurately foretelling ‘interior beauty’. An earlier seventeenth-century treatise on virtue and moral conduct by Henry Crosse offers a more general catalogue of the ways in which ‘by the disguised craft of this age, vice and hypocrisie may be concealed: yet by Tyme (the trial of truth) it is most plainly reuealed’ (1603: sig.A1r ). The sin of hypocrisy is everywhere: ‘this idle shewe and false appearance, o how dangerous it is to the truth! being possessed with nought but treacherie and cosonage, a capitall plague, it is for the wicked to make shewe of goodnesses, and may fitly be sorted to the Apothicaries painted boxes, that haue nothing within but poyson, or some deadly compound’. A man to whom ‘glorious titles’ are given, but who does not match these with a virtuous character, is like ‘a rotten carkasse with a painted skin’, but as Crosse warns, ‘the all-seeing eye of heauen, to whom darknesse is light, perspicuously obserueth all their deeds, and will bring them forth euen as they are naked and vncouered’ (sigs.D3r, H2v-H3r).

[18]  In this conventional Protestant polemic, God alone remains undeceived, while mortals are easily led astray by earthly things, amongst which are the particularly dangerous agents of ‘vaine, idle, wanton Pamphlets and lasciuious loue-books’. Crosse protests that they conceal ‘idle Poems of carnall loue, lust, and vnchaste arguments’:

the very nurses of abuse, by which the minde is drawne to many pestilent wishes. For when as young folkes haue licked in the sweete iuice of these stinking bookes, their conuersation and manners are so tainted and spotted with Vice, that they can neuer be so cleane washed, but some filthy dregges will remaine behinde. I may liken them to fawning curres, that neuer barke till they bite: or a gaye painted coffer, full of toades and venemous beasts: So in like manner many of these bookes haue glorious outsides, and goodly titles: as if when a man tooke them in hand, he were about to read some angelicall discourse: but within, full of strong venome, tempered with sweete honey: now while the minde is occupied in reading such toyes, the common enemie of man is not idle, but doth secretly insnare the soule in securitie […] (sig.N4v).

While there are men with ‘glorious titles’ which are not matched by inner virtue, so too are there books with ‘glorious outsides, and goodly titles’ which ‘infect and poison delicate youth’. In this passage Crosse exploits the aptness of pestilence and poison as metaphors for the way in which books affect their readers in unseen, insidious ways. The ‘glorious outsides, and goodly titles’ of a book are both material and intellectual surfaces, and when the reader takes the book ‘in hand’, literally and mentally, they must be wary of how they interpret these external surfaces, in case the volume turns out to contain ‘strong venome’ rather than the ‘angelicall discourse’ promised.

[19]  Such diatribes against worldly dangers, in which the danger of superficiality is relentlessly emphasised, present fairly standard reformed rhetoric. Books are implicated as material, intellectual, and spiritual experiences, with a particular emphasis on the deceptive potential of their ‘titles’, and by extension, their title pages, as distinctive faces or surfaces. This anxiety about the reliability, or not, of a title page extends beyond puritanical debate to a more generalised fear of dishonesty in print, as Thomas Dekker admits in one of the prefatory epistles accompanying his intriguingly-titled pamphlet A strange horse-race:

The Titles of Bookes are like painted Chimnies in great Countrey-houses, make a shew a far off, and catch Trauellers eyes; but comming nere them, neither cast they smoke, nor hath the house the heart to make you drinke. The Title of this booke is like a Iesters face, set (howsoeuer he drawes it) to beget mirth: but his ends are hid to himselfe, and those are to get money. Within is more then without; you shall not finde the kirnell, vnlesse you both cracke and open the shell. (1613: sig.A2v).

The ‘Titles of Bookes’ manipulate a reader’s perspective, Dekker says, on closer inspection often turning out to mean less than they promised. His appropriately architectural simile for the frontispiece or title page suggests the reader’s material as well as intellectual experience of it, as something that is often visually tempting from a certain distance, but which may disappoint within. Turning to his own book, he implicitly brings in the more literal meaning of ‘frontispiece’, likening his title to ‘a Iesters face’, which seems to ‘beget mirth’ but conceals a more avaricious intention. Books, buildings, and faces all have the potential to mislead with their exterior surfaces, but Dekker dares his reader to venture further, even at the risk of disappointment.

[20]  While Dekker meditates on the deceptive potential of the title page for his own entertaining purposes, the problems he raises are recounted in other ways by contemporary writers concerned with the fact that printers have significant influence over the titles of books, and can exploit title pages for their own commercial ends. Barnabe Rich, soldier and author whose various works include six texts on the art of war, reflected that:

the Printer himselfe, to make his booke the more vendible, doth rather desire a glorious Title, than a good Booke: so that our new written Pamphlets of these times, are not much vnlike to a poore Inne in a Countrey towne, that is gorgiously set foorth with a glorious signe; but being once entred into the house, a man shall find but cold intertainment, as well of homely lodging, as of bad fare. They are but resemblances to the Apples that are said to grow about Sodom, which being pleasant to the eye, doe vanish into smoke, or into soot as soone as a man doth but put his teeth into them: and like the small bells of the Choribantes, that may make a little tingling noise, but they are good for nothing but to trouble the braine. To speake truly, I haue many times beene deceiued with these flourishing Titles that I haue seene pasted vpon a Post, for bestowing my mony in haste at my better leisure looking into the book, and finding such slender stuffe, I haue laughed at my owne folly: but I haue yet made vse of them, for what will not serue for one thing may well be imployed to another. (1606: sig.L4r)

Rich’s vocabulary here is very similar to Dekker’s, but instead of an ostentatious country house he invokes ‘a poor Inne in a Countrey towne’, whose ‘glorious signe’ conceals the poor welcome offered inside. Moreover, title pages may even be detached from the book altogether, and ‘pasted vpon a Post’ for advertising purposes. This passage reinforces in emphatically material terms the idea that the title or title page is all too often but a let-down, promising more than it delivers. Although title pages were among those things ‘we commonly hang vpon a wall, fasten thereunto’, as one contemporary noted – ‘if it be a Proclamation or Title page of a booke, that it is pasted vnto the wall; if it be a new Pamphlet, that is fastened to the wall with nails’ (Willis 1621: sigs.B2v-B3r) – Rich finds the complete separation of this part of the book especially problematic. He says he has ‘yet made vse of them’, however, euphemistically alluding to other possible uses of paper that reduce it to nothing but an entirely disposable surface.

[21]  In such articulations, title and title page inevitably conceal a lack of substance. While these are commonly expressed concerns in early modern writing, the reality is that title pages represent much more complex kinds of surface, which confound many of our assumptions about how this particular face or surface of a book should work, complicating the relationship between surface and depth. The close imaginative associations between title pages and other surfaces requiring visual interpretation, whether faces, or buildings, or inn signs, are a reminder that the printed title page may be visually striking, even in purely typographical terms. Title pages printed in the first half of the sixteenth century are often especially engaging in this respect, with text laid out in bold, graphic shapes. The visual effects of the text often conflict with our modern sense of what a title is, and what the title page should do, as words are prioritised and split in surprising ways, and an often symmetrical, visually pleasing outline of the text block is achieved at the expense of easy reading. Access to the contents of the book may be slowed down through unexpected hierarchies, where opening articles such as ‘a’ or ‘the’ are given greater prominence than the more specific details of the title. The eye may be gradually drawn in to a vanishing point, to a single piece of type, blurring the distinction between letter and ornament. The effect is almost one of optical illusion, not unrelated to the early modern fascination with visual perspective, in which the two-dimensional page gestures towards the three-dimensional space of the whole book. While engraved title pages might more explicitly play around with perspective, using architectural designs to create an almost tangible sense of depth, for example, printed title pages can also visually suggest depth, revelling in the possibilities and limitations of the printed surface.

[22]  Very little has been said about this curiously ornamental stage in print history – Margaret Smith says, dryly: ‘it must be conceded that a label-title arranged in a half-diamond indention could be quite attractive’ (2000: 60). Her comment is insufficient in responding to the effects of these surfaces, where the textual becomes the visual, and individual letters units of decoration, before they are words. We might compare them to shape poems like George Herbert’s familiar Easter-Wings, which resolves the fallenness of sin and the uplifting power of Christ’s resurrection in a poem that hovers, as a pair of wings, as if about to take flight from the page, or ‘The Altar’, which similarly slows down the process of reading, and hints at a three-dimensional material form beyond the page.

[23]  One example of this manipulation of the visual possibilities of type on a title page is found in a quarto printed by John Day in 1560, containing three sermons given by Roger Hutchinson. On Day’s title page, framed by an architectural border of scrolls, leaves, and faces, eight lines of text gradually shorten, announcing the topic of the sermons, the name of the preacher, the place in which he preached them (Eton College) and the year (1552). The description of the sermons, A faithful declaration of Christes holy supper, involves upper case type in two decreasing sizes for ‘A faithful declaration of’, as well as italic and blackletter fonts in smaller sizes again for ‘Christes holy supper’. The word ‘comprehended’ and the two parts of the author’s name are split over breaks between lines.

Figure 2: Roger Hutchinson, A Faithful Declaration of Christes holy Supper (London: John Day, 1560), title-page. RB 61548, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.


Day’s details and the date of printing, as well as the Latin statement of royal approval are set out beneath in a similar visual composition.[5] Between these two blocks are some further lines, in type of the same font and size, and a similar almost-triangular shape: ‘Whose contentes are in the other syde of the lefe.’ In the Huntington Library copy of this text, a reader has added in the name of the author, Roger Hutchinson in manuscript, in the gap between this note and the printing details, reasserting that crucial detail in the conventional form of complete words, as if for quick reference.

[24]  This early modern reader’s intervention is perhaps a giveaway that this title page is not so easy to read – that the printer’s practical decisions over how to arrange text on this surface have brought about visual coherence at the expense of readerly convenience. The printed title page thus becomes a surface obsessed with itself. In the sixteenth century there is often little distinction between a title page and a contents page, hence Day’s reminder to check ‘the other syde of the lefe’ for the ‘contentes’ of the sermons. Moments like this are quite common: ‘Thou that to read this title doth begin, turn over leaf and see what is within’ (Anon 1663), announces one anonymously published moral treatise of the mid-seventeenth century on its title page. Unlike other paratextual materials, such as epistles, the title page itself is not usually explicitly attributed to anyone, and so these moments of instruction come from an uncanny, unknown voice. Such volumes are acutely aware of their own materiality, and remind the reader that intellectual engagement is inseparable from tactile, physical encounter.

[25]  The direction to ‘turn over leaf’ seems unnecessary – surely the reader does not need to be directed to turn this page, of all pages – but it also works like a sort of apology for the limitations of the page itself, as well as anticipating verbally the moment of suspense as a page is turned. Even as it admits to its own two-dimensionality, the printed title page signals the three-dimensionality of the book, and complicates our notion of its surface function. The early modern literary invocations of the title page discussed here have revealed how these paratextual features are especially vibrant surfaces, at which the book is especially aware of the possibilities and limitations of its own form. They also illustrate the importance of thinking beyond a clear-cut opposition of ‘surface’ and ‘depth’; as well as suggesting something within, and potentially deceiving the eye about what is hidden, title pages might be more reflective or participatory sites. As a ‘superficies or vpper part, the first shew or outward face’ as one early seventeenth century dictionary defined ‘surface’ (Cotgrave 1611: sig.4Fiiv), the printed title page is not merely a passive surface on which text is laid, but a transformative site of initial encounter, at which the material, visual, and mental experiences of the book as three-dimensional object are particularly closely intertwined.

 University of Cambridge


[1] The engraved title page, which I am excluding from my discussion here, is the focus of Corbett and Lightbown’s The Comely Frontispiece: The Emblematic Title-Page in England 1550-1660 (1979). Among recent work on particular elements of printed title pages, see Smith’s ‘‘Imprinted by Simeon such a signe’: reading early modern imprints’ (2011) and Sherman’s ‘On the Threshold: Architecture, Paratext, and Early Print Culture’ (2007). [back to text]

[2] For more on reading faces in early modern culture, see Porter’s Windows of the Soul: Physiognomy in European Culture 1470-1780 (2005). [back to text]

[3] William Shakespeare, The second part of Henrie the fourth (London: V.S., 1600), title page. HM69318, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.[back to text]

[4] For more on vision and superficiality in the context of the Reformation, see Clark’s Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (2007). [back to text]

[5] Roger Hutchinson, A faithful declaration of Christes holy supper, comprehe[n]ded in thre sermo[n]s, preached at Eaton Colledge (London: John Day, 1560), title page. HM 61548, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.[back to text]



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