Thursday, July 31, 2008

Cranach Press Hamlet

On my last post about woodcuts, I promised some beautiful twentieth-century ones, so here you are:This is the opening to a German book arts press edition of Hamlet, printed in 1928 by Count Harry Kessler's Cranach Press in Weimar. The book consists of Gerhart Hauptman's translation of the second quarto of Shakespeare's play, surrounded by the relevant source texts of Saxo Grammaticus and Francois de Belleforest. Throughout the book are beautiful woodcuts done specifically for this edition by Edward Gordon Craig. (A second version of this book, with the play in English, was printed in 1930.)

The Cranach Press Hamlet does a remarkable job of using the woodcuts not simply to illustrate but to interact with the text and to perform its meanings through shaping the look of page. Notice how the nervous guards huddle against the majuscule "W" in the opening scene, while the form of the Ghost lurks on the far right of the text. Or examine how the dumbshow preceding Hamlet's play is set off from the text just as the performance language of the dumbshow sets off the play-within-the-play and the performance of Hamlet itself. Here, the beautiful and mysterious players stand on top of the red text of the dumbshow--the only use of red ink in the playtext.

The most striking moment in the book, however, comes at Ophelia's death.

The crowd of spectators (those watchers who are omnipresent in the play) push against the solid walls that hold within them a rectangle of blue ink. Just barely visible in that blue is the white outline of Ophelia, walking away from the crowd.

It's a devastating scene that hits home because of its skillful mise-en-page.

In many ways, the Cranach Press Hamlet pays tribute to the power and beauty of early printed books. The typefont was designed by Edward Johnston after the fonts used by the German printers Fust and Schaeffer. And the layout of text surrounded by commentary mirrors that of early printings of classical and religious works. The use of woodcuts, too, is part of the reforming of early printed typography. And they are a powerful reminder of how much the layout of the printed page can effect our response to the work.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

more on medieval books

Since in his most recent post, Got Medieval has included my brief thoughts on why books should be one of words when defining "The Middle Ages in Seven Words (or less)", I thought I would flesh out my earlier post a bit.

For me, there are two equally important parts in the question of whether books are medieval: what are books and what is medieval?

For most people, I'd hazard, "book" means something in print, made from moveable type or from the computer software equivalent thereof. It's something that is printed and exists in multiple printed copies. (I'd actually go further, and say that for most people, "book" means something that is made and sold by a publishing company, rather than a vanity press. If someone says, "I wrote a book!", I think we assume that it will be bought and sold, not that it's languishing in our bottom shelves or that we paid for the cost of its printing and distribution. There's another post lurking in our future about the practices of publication and what buying and selling means for books.)

In that sense, books are something that came about after 1455--that is, after Gutenberg printed his bible. We might think that that is a bit late for something defining the Middle Ages. But books should also be thought of in terms of their form. A book is a codex, organized by stiching together loose leaves (usually of parchment or paper) in a fixed order. We are so used to this format that it often passes unnoticed. But the transition from scroll to codex (a transition lasting centuries that was nearly complete by 400 AD) was a major technological shift, one that was at least as transformative as the transition (still not complete) from manuscript to print.

In other words, while we might associate manuscripts most strongly with the Middle Ages, many of those manuscripts are also books. In that sense, I would say that books are indeed medieval.

The other half of the question--what is medieval--is not easily answered (as made evident in the many responses that Got Medieval records). For many people today, "medieval" simply means something primitive and out of date and possibly violent. If you want to lazily dismiss something as ridiculously backwards, you could label it medieval. In contrast to this vision of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance is the beginning of all things civilized: perspective painting, print, anatomy, subjectivity, colonialism . . . This simplistic binary falls in line with the equally simplistic binary of manuscript equalling error-riddled and ancient and print equalling fixed, standardized, and modern.

To this, I would respond that print is not as stable as we typically assume, and that it was partricularly variable in its early years of printing. Nor should we assume that manuscripts are automatically riddled with mistakes. To link medieval only with manuscripts and Renaissance only with books reinforces that false divide in both binaries.

At some point in the future I'll do a post about early printed books and contemporaneous manuscripts so we can think about how very much printed books owe to manuscript books. For now, though, I'll just leave with the observation that if you google "medieval books" what you get in response are sites about medieval manuscript books. Some of them are very good. But that response overlooks the much more complicated relationship between books and manuscript and the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Not that I would ever suggest that Google misleads us--just check out Google Penance . . .

Sunday, July 20, 2008

more woodcuts

Last time I posted a picture of the big, full-page woodcut facing the first page of Genesis from the 1527 Latin Bible. There is another full-page woodcut in the Bible, facing the first page of the New Testament. But there are also lots of small woodcuts that appear at the heads of books and initial woodcuts that appear (sometimes) at the start of chapters.

Here is an example of both of those. The one on top--God with kneeling angels on either side--appears at the top of the page, on the left-hand column of text, just before the summary of the chapter. Below it is a smaller, square woodcut illustrating another moment of God's creation of the world. (According to Baudrier's Bibliographie Lyonnaise, these woodcuts were not designed by the master who did the full-page one, but by G. Leroy.)

I mentioned last time that woodcuts were investments that were often reused in the same or in different books. One way that the use of woodcuts was spread out was to have reusable borders that could decorate a woodcut. Look closely at the woodcut of God and the angels. There is the central picture itself, surrounded by a decorative border along the top, a different decorative border along the bottom, and two columns--one on the left and one on the right--depicting little putti standing on plinths. Now look even closer. See the white space between each border? And between the border and the picture? Each of those elements are separate physical pieces. That illustration is made up of five woodcuts. Swap out the central picture, swap in a different scene, and you have the makings for a different book illustration. Need a longer border? Add in more border sections, and you can get a bigger frame for the picture. Pretty resourceful.

Woodcuts were the most common type of illustration in the early years of making books. An image was drawn onto a block of wood, the white areas of the picture were cut away, leaving behind the raised lines that would then be inked, and transferred to the paper as black lines. Because woodcuts could be set along the type in a printing press, and inked and pulled along with the type, they were a preferred type of illustration during the early years of printing. Later, engravings became more in demand, as they could convey finer lines and more detailed illustrations; on the downside, they were much harder to incorporate into books, as they required a separate printing process and often had to be sent to a different printing house. (The image of the bookworm from earlier this month is an example of a copperplate engraving.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an essay about woodcuts and some nice examples online, including the woodcut used to print Albrecht Durer's Samson Reading the Lion.

Stay tuned for some examples of modern woodcuts in a beautifully made twentieth-century edition of Hamlet . . .

Thursday, July 17, 2008


It's been a while since I turned to the 1527 Bible, but we're not done exploring yet. We still have to look at one of its most striking features: the full-page woodcut. Go back and look at previous blogs on the book if you want to see it in context of the page opening. It's opposite the beginning of Genesis--a fitting choice for a depiction of God creating the world. Above is the woodcut itself, ready to be admired. It's a beautiful picture.

According to the Bibliographie Lyonnaise (a monumental bibliography and key reference source on early modern books printed in Lyon), the woodcut was made by an arti
st it refers to only as "the master of the Ars moriendi of Jean Siber." If you look further in the Bibliographie Lyonnaise and then follow that with research on the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, you'll discover that Jean Siber was a Lyonnaise printer associated with an edition of an Ars moriendi that was printed in the early 1490s (there's some disagreement about whether he was the printer or someone else). If you then go to Gallica, the online digital collection of the Bibliotheque nationale de France, you can find not only a record of this Ars moriendi (which they attribute to the other printer), but you'll also be able to access a pdf of the book! There are twelve illustrations in the book made from nine different woodcuts. First, here is one of those woodcuts:

Is there a connection to our woodcut of the creation of the world? To my (admittedly untrained) eye, there are similarities in style.

And now, I'll return to that number--in the Ars moriendi one woodcut was used in three different locations, so that there are twelve illustrations made from nine woodcuts. That practice is not unusual for the period. Far from it--woodcuts were often used more than once in a single book and they reappeared in other text as well. It's helpful to remember that woodcuts were hand crafted, that they were an investment of time, labor, and money. Why use it once when you can use it multiple times and spread out the cost? That beautiful illustration of the creation of the world we've been looking at? Jacques Mareschal used it repeatedly in Bibles he printed between 1523 and 1541.

Oh, and what's an Ars moriendi? It's a work that teaches you how to die well: the art of dying. Perhaps there will be more occasions to think about the connections between dying and printing.

Monday, July 14, 2008

more bookworming

Today's feast: this beautiful illustration of a book worm from Robert Hooke's Micrographia: Or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon. Published in 1665, with beautiful copperplate engravings based on Hooke's own drawings, Hooke's work is a foundational work in the history of science. And it provides us with the first depiction of a bookworm:
This Animal probably feeds upon the Paper and covers of Books, and perforates in them several small round holes, finding, perhaps, a convenient nourishment in those hulks of Hemp and Flax, which have pass'd through so many scourings, washings, dressings and dryings, as the parts of old Paper must necessarily have suffer'd; the digestive faculty, it seems, of these little creatures being able yet further to work upon those stubborn parts, and reduce them into another form.
This picture came from the Project Gutenberg's eBook of Hooke's work, which you can read in full online. There are more resources about bookworms: William Blades's 1888 Enemies of Books devotes a chapter to giving a heated account of the damage bookworms can do (it's also at Project Gutenberg, or you can find it here). More scientific, and less entertaining (albeit probably more useful) is the information given in the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences:
Bookworms in the larval stage of a variety of beetles cause the most damage. Upon hatching, the larvae eat their way into the book, whose glue and starches nourish them. The well-fed larvae become beetles, lay eggs, and recommence the cycle.
That's a bit dry, to my taste, but there is useful information about killing the critters with napthalene fumes. They also explain what you might be wondering: why are there plenty of wormholes in old books, but not in newer ones? Our methods of making paper today are not as tasty. Mmm, china clay!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

digesting books

An earlier post joked about "cockroaches of the book". Then I was thinking not about scurrying little pests but about printed waste. But I don't want to overlook the relevance of critters to early modern books, so: what do you see in the image above? Tiny little black circles? Did you guess? They are worm holes, the traces of where little bookworms ate their way through this book (you might recognize it as the 1527 Bible I've discussed before).

Read more about wormholes in ABC for Book Collectors:

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

medieval books

Over on the wonderful blog Got Medieval is a discussion about what terms define the medieval period and about the slipperiness between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. What are the seven terms that define the Middle Ages? According to Got Medieval's students, "knights, things found on or around knights, and peasants" (my summary really doesn't do that classroom exercise justice; it's well worth reading). Got Medieval offers his own list, based on his tag cloud: "Beowulf, King Arthur, Marginalia, Manuscripts, the Bayeux Tapestry, Popes, and Latin."

A recurring feature on the blog is "Mmm... Marginalia", a highly entertaining look at medieval marginalia. I certainly wouldn't want to argue that marginalia or manuscripts should not be strongly associated with the medieval period. But what about books?

The first book printed with moveable type was Johannes Gutenberg's Bible, completed in 1455. Given the complexity of the task, it's likely that Gutenberg began experimenting with moveable type in the 1440s. Is that the Middle Ages or the Renaissance in Mainz?

I'm not quibbling with Got Medieval's list, or with the other lists that commentators devised (some of which do mention books on their list of defining traits of the period). But I do want to pause on that question of whether books are medieval. That split between medieval & manuscript versus renaissance & book reveals a great deal about how we conceptualize not only the two historical periods but also the traits of manuscripts and books.

More posts on that in the future. In the meantime, admire different copies of Gutenberg's Bible at the British Library, the Harry Ransom Center, Gottingen Library, and the Library of Congress.

UPDATE: Got Medieval fans: see my newest post updating this one!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Hamlet's tables

In my last post, I mentioned Hamlet's practice of commonplacing, or recording things of note in his writing tablets. I want to return to Hamlet to look at commonplacing from a slightly different angle--not what is written, but what is written upon.

Below is the first part of the speech from which I quoted before. For context, you should know that Hamlet is speaking to himself after his first encounter with his father's ghost and during which the ghost exhorted Hamlet to "Remember me."

Remember thee?
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain
Unmixed with baser matter. . . . .
(Hamlet, Arden3, 1.5.95-104)
Hamlet's description of wiping away the records to clear the space for the commandment to remember his father has long been read as metaphorical. And there is much in the speech that invites us to read it as a metaphor: Hamlet describes his brain as a book wherein memory inscribes itself.

But Hamlet's reference to writing tables that can be erased is also quite literal. In a marvellous essay in Shakespeare Quarterly is a full account of how erasable tablets were made, who used them, and where we can find surviving examples. One survivor is in the Folger's collection, a copy of Robert Triplet's Writing Tables with a Kalender for xxiiii. yeeres (London, 1604). Below is an image of that volume held open to a set of pages treated to be erasable.

The pages were treated with a coating of gesso and glue, and written on with a metal stylus. In this example, you can see how the coating has crumbled over the years, with the top, harder layer remaining in some places (revealing a recipe for treating horses), while along the edges, the under, spongier layer is now visible.

It is worth noting, too, the size of the tables: small, and easily portable. What else makes this a portable tablet, as opposed to other, non-portable writing surfaces? Writing with quill and ink requires many more tools: quill, inkpot, a hard surface, paper, a quill knife, perhaps some blotting material. How could Hamlet--or an actor playing Hamlet--possibly carry so much equipment and stop to write with it? The only other tool required for these tablets is a stylus, and many surviving examples of the tables have evidence of a stylus having been attached directly to them, or kept within the binding.

Once again, the technologies of writing and the materiality of text shape what we can create. With erasable tablets, a scholar could note in his tables whatever he or she wanted to include in a commonplace book, transfer those notes to the book, and then wipe clear the table to be used again. Hamlet's juxtaposition of the table able to be wiped clean and the "book and volume of my brain" in which the Ghost's commandment will be inscribed enacts the practice of commonplacing that we have been considering.

For more information on erasable tablets, see Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, J. Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe, "Hamlet's Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England, " Shakespeare Quarterly, 55 (2004): 379-419.