The title page II

One recognizes a blossoming scholarly field when the number of results for ”paratext” when searching through a conference program (such as the list of abstracts of the Renaissance Society of America conference in Berlin) exceeds the number of consecutive sessions, and you realize that you will not be able to attend all papers of the theme you are interested in. I did, however manage to attend a number of the papers devoted to Renaissance Paratexts.


The view from room 213 at the Altes Palais, RSA 2015

The conference opened with an excellent selection of such papers in the Altes Palais of Humboldt University, in a double panel on Paratexts of Printed Translations in Early Modern England. For a non-English scholar, in the sense of both language and discipline, it was a humbling experience. Paratext scholars display an impressive  attention to detail, a dizzying mastery of metaphor and virtuoso eloquence. This abundance is all the more stupefying when one knows she is about to commit an act of analytic barbarousity and crude simplification, and treat title pages as simple units to be counted.

Title pages, as wonderfully shown in Brenda M. Hosington’s presentation on “Sixteenth-Century English Printers and the Nature of the Translated Title Page”, and as elaborated in McConchie’s programatic paper, call for a multi-modal approach not only because of the explicitly visual elements in them- such as frames, emblems and flowers – but also because of the intricate semiotics of layout and typography. Digitizing title pages into plain text meaning to strip them of multiple rich semantic layers.

And it is not even that digital and quantitative methods necessitate this ignorance of graphic detail. As the Culpepper project shows, digital and quantitative study of title pages can be attentive to almost microscopic details and pay heed to multiple semiotic layers. To my defense, however, when analyzing  Early Modern title pages by trying to “reverse engineer” and extract information from many thousands of TCP texts, we cannot take out of them more than was put in there to begin with. Without the intricate annotation scheme of the Culpepper project, the TCP title pages give us only shapeless words, and so, to start with, we can count them:

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EEBO-TCP+ECCO-TCP average words per title page

For the same panel, Guyda Armstrong has used an ingeniously simple method for distant reading of title pages: the handout of her talk on title pages for Decameron translations until 1620 included 25 thumbnail images of title pages, diachronically ordered, which were mostly too small to read, but enabled a broad ”Morettian” view of the trends in title page design. One striking trend was the gradual growing density of the page, peaking in the 1670’s, with a sudden drop back to clearer, more concise title pages after 1982.  The very same plot reveals itself in the graph above, from which, we also learn that the density stabilized towards 1600 for three decades, and then a second significant rise occured untill peaking around 1650.

Graphs are only the starting point of understanding. It is up to us to interpret them: we may dismiss such statistical upheavals as whimsical permutations of aesthetic preferences and fashions, or address them more seriously as aesthetic negotiations: an attempts to attract the potential readers’ attention visually, while at the same time attract them through the content; or as the interplay of the dilemma between font size and amount of information publisher wished to display. This too does not provide an explanation of the specific diachronic plot.  It might be worthwhile to turn to the history of the printing industry, market and technology in search of explanation. Perhaps the rise in the numbers of printed titles and the competition on the readers/buyers retina made publisher realize that less is better? Or that once the race on the refinement of printing technology exhausted itself, printers stopped adding details and moved to try and distinguish their title pages through other means? but then, why the second rise towards 1650, this time up to an average of 100 words in title pages?
As also shown by Brenda Hosington , the growth in density in 16th century title pages was coupled with the intensification of the linguistic content. We will have to wait for a combined approach for this phenomena before speculating more seriously on its causes.

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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