The title page I

Of the various kinds of Early Modern paratext, the title page attracts a fair amount of scholarly attention, and rightly so. To start with, it is the part most replete with information – metadata – about the book, the author, the time and place of printing. It is often also the most visually attractive. Both these characteristics stem from the “Sitz im Leben” of the title page: Early Modern books were often sold – and displayed – in an unbound form, so that the title page served as the first encounter with the book not only of the reader, but also of the potential buyer at the shop . Thus, the title page is a paradigmatic paratext: a threshold to the book, an intermediary, mediating space.

We could divide kinds of paratexts to two very broadly construed types. Of the first are tables of contents, running heads or chapter headings –  paratexts that can be seen more as mechanisms of framing the content, managing it, steering it and through it. These are ‘inward-facing’ paratexts, so to speak. Of the second type are those paratexts that face outwards, be they dedications, notes, “by the same publisher/author” pages and their sort. Of course these are not hermetically distinguished groups; paratexts may serve both functions, only sometime the one more than the other. In this respect, the title page is a typical ‘outward facing’ front matter, standing on the book’s – or shop’s – display,  inviting people in, boasting, soliciting, calling for attention.


Title page of A Concent of Scripture (1588) by Hugh Broughton.

This function of the title page makes it especially appealing for those who wish to know the external surfaces and spaces around the book: the intellectual marketplace, the literary agora, the place and functions of books in their cultural, historical surrounding.

Since Early Modern times, the title page is ubiqutuous in Front Matter, to this day. We will very rarely find an Early Modern English book that contains any front matter but has no title page. So much so that in fact we need to revisit the picture presented in the previous post. There, the plot seemed to have shown that frontal matter became prevalent in the 18th century. If, however, we break the category of “Front Matter”, and check separately for title pages and for other types of front matter, we find that what we saw earlier was actually the history of the title pages rather than of frontal matter at large. As the figure below shows, other types of front matter behave rather differently: we see a sharp decline towards 1640, when less than 30 percent of what was published contained frontal matter other than front pages, and a very gradual recovery over the following decades.

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 10.17.33 PM

The difference between the prevalence of the title page and that of other types of paratexts in front matter, and especially the sharp sink at the 1640 is clearly shown when compared to a total of books with front matter, rathen than to the entire TCP corpus:

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 10.02.39 PM Why does the title page fare differently than other frontal paratext?

The solution presents itself when one looks at the full half of the glass, namely, when one looks at 1640 not as a drop but rather as a rise; as a sudden abundance of the kind of text that has a title page but no other paratext. Indeed, “In 1641 England experienced a culture shockan explosion of small cheap books and broadsides reporting, commenting upon, and manipulating public events. That pamphlet culture waxed and waned until the Restoration, by turns more and less seductive. This impact of the civil war on the world of English texts is apparent also in two graphs made available by Early Modern Print, that show a sharp rise around 1640 in the annual number of texts, and at the same time a steep decline in the number of words per year.

These flutters in the graphs are not an unsignificant, temporary anomaly in the cardiogram of the world of print; they are extremely significant, as they mark the advent of a short text form. The pamphlet, the short form of  Early Modernity is predecessor of the newspaper article (as it is, in a way, of the academic journal article), and it is the short form which serves as the carrier of the modern public sphere. As Michael Mendle writes (ibid), “…it always remained a cultural presence, providing the greatest common denominator of public experience“.

About Sinai

Post-doctoral fellow at the Polonsky academy, Jerusalem. Interested in text mining the language of dedications, prefaces, letters to the reader and other mainly - but not only - Early Modern kinds of paratext, and more generally, in what the digital humanities may hold for the study of paratext.
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