All posts by b6040804

behind the scenes of books

If you wanted to make a book today you would only really need to open your laptop, type it out, then print it. In theory its simple. If we go back a good few hundred years, we see a very different process. The printing of ‘books’ in the 15th century is obviously a more laborious task than it is today. This is not just due to the founding of electricity and the creation of the printer but also some of the specifications that some of these texts would need. 

Having a play printed would mean people at the time could now read plays at home instead of having to go into the depths of London and past the Baiting pits, brothels and gambling dens. This did not mean in any way that plays getting performed would be stopped but now the writers could have their name to a play that might be in the reading room of the high classes. 

This brings us onto how these plays were printed. Print shops would receive a commission from the stationers and then they would have the text onto the sheets using the large wooden printing press. The text would be laid out with individual metal letters, backwards nonetheless, and then coated with ink before being pressed onto the paper. The paper would come in the form of the large folio pages: being the most expensive to print due to them being the largest pages they would have been on one side of the paper and not be cramped onto it, and then you would get down to the cheaper quarto pieces that are folded down into four to make a ‘booklet’. These Quartos could be bound together with thread or even have a cover made for you by the stationers to protect it even more (for an extra cost of course) This was already a  well-established system, from as early as Chaucer’s period where we saw manuscripts being formed in this way. 

Yet what is now different to these old manuscripts is that we now have the addition of Paratexts! Paratexts are some of the most important features of old printed texts. Paratexts are pieces written around the play, adverts, letters written by other authors praising the text, notes in the margins and mages to name a few. Today Paratexts are still relevant, (Helen coopers most excellent example of ‘Paratext-ception’ in the introduction to her article sums this up) but not as well written and detailed as those included in the books from the 15th century. One example being Benjamin Johnsons collected works. This book that was first printed in 1616 had many dedications to the author. There were multiple from Francis Beaumont praising Johnson, readers would see these ‘fluff’ pieces before the main piece and would perhaps give them a more certain idea of the work that they were about to read.

Looking closer at some of the Paratexts, specifically the very vivid and striking image that awaits on the opening page of Johnsons collected works (As pictured). This image that consumes the first page of the works is full of references to the plays within. The characters with Latin inscriptions around them signify that the works will have classical allusions to them and maybe also a signifier to the court for the ‘Masques’ that are included within the works as well. Even more interestingly the two characters at the top have the words Tragedy and Comedy underneath them showing what type of plays are in these works. As he was most notable for those two genres. 

For a product that we now take for granted it is certainly interesting to get an understanding of how much effort went into printing these texts back then.

Group: Louis Linsey, Amy Sandbach, Helena Eades, Helena Hussey, Ruairidh Watt

[Image; from collected works of Benjamin Johnson]