Imagine a bookseller in fifteenth century Europe, sitting in a cramped shop surrounded by piles of unbound pages roughly bundled together for sale. How would anyone know which pile was which book?
Title page of The primer set furth by the kinges maiestie & his Clergie ... 1546 (1710 reprint)

The primer set furth by the kinges maiestie & his Clergie ... 1546 (1710 reprint)

This was the time, soon after the introduction of printing, when the title page became one of the most important design elements of a book.

It hadn’t been a feature of the manuscript books that came before the invention of the printing press. Produced in smaller numbers, manuscripts were often commissioned by individuals or religious institutions, collated and bound to order.

In the early years of printing, a book would be sold unbound. The buyer would then choose their preferred binding: either a simple calf or vellum cover, or an ornate bespoke design that reflected the collector’s wealth. Printed pages often waited for some time before they were bound.

Initially, a blank page was added to the front of the book to protect the pages that followed. Then, in about the 1460s a short ‘phrase’, like a label, was added to identify the content. This label was expanded over the next 200 years, becoming a form of advertisement as well as identification.

A title-page has been aptly said to resemble the entrance of a building, the fashion and workmanship of which are the indexes to the style of the interior.

— Anonymous, The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, Volume 1, 1821

 

The design of the title page developed alongside the skill of the printer and the ambition of the publisher.  The earliest examples had a simple border and woodcut illustration. They often showed a scholar or teacher at their desk, either alone or surrounded by students.

Borders became more and more intricate, embellished with figures, flowers, animals, urns and cherubs. Designs would be copied because not every printer had their own skilled engravers.

Elements of Renaissance architecture often appeared on title pages — the text surrounded by an ornate framework of columns, arches, plinths and headpieces. The design functioned as a doorway or entrance into the text.

As the title page was a perfect place for promotion, many printers incorporated their ‘device’ or mark into the design. The dolphin wrapped around an anchor of the Aldine Press appeared on title pages from as early as 1501, reflecting the press’s motto festine lente (hasten slowly).

 

Terentius, 1563
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The well-known device of the Plantin Press featured a pair of compasses with the Latin motto labore et constantia (labour and tenacity).

Copper engraving led to more complex illustrations on the title page, making it an attractive introduction to the text that reflected its characters, events, subject or location.

Some of the most elaborate title pages appeared in sixteenth-century Bibles like the Great Bible of 1539 championed by Thomas Cromwell and authorised by King Henry VIII. The original title page shows the king handing over the word of God to the Bishops, represented by Thomas Cranmer, and the state, represented by Thomas Cromwell. After Cromwell was executed in 1540 the title page of the next year’s edition featured a blank circle instead of his coat of arms.

 

The Byble in Englyshe of the largest and greatest volume, auctorysed and apoynted by the commaundemente of oure moost redoubted Prynce, 1541
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From the seventeenth century, publishers would hand-colour the title pages of extravagant large-format atlases and natural history publications.

But not all title pages were illustrated. Many featured an arrangement of type and text to grab the reader’s attention. A longer title for the book often became almost a synopsis. Important words in the title or publication details would be printed in bright red ink following the tradition of rubricated letters in older manuscripts.

 

The works of Virgil: containing his Pastorals, Georgics, and Aeneis, 1716
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An important source of information for book collectors, the title page became the favoured location for the owner’s signature, the library stamp, or the handwritten note with details of provenance, ownership and reading history.

The tradition of elaborate title pages became less dominant in the nineteenth century, although there are always exceptions. Today’s title page is usually predictable — showing the title, author’s name and publication details. Now it’s the intriguing, bold cover design that attracts our attention to a book and tempts us to pick it up and enter the world of the author.

 

Seneca De quatuor virtutibus cardinalibus.
Seneca De quatuor virtutibus cardinalibus.
1495?
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Digital ID: 
991013096339702626
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Quatuor nouissima cu[m] multis exemplis pulcherrimis, 1497, by Denis, the Carthusia
Quatuor nouissima cu[m] multis exemplis pulcherrimis
1497
Denis, the Carthusian
Digital ID: 
991007366399702626
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Horatij flacci Venusini Poete lirici opera, 1498, by Horace
Horatij flacci Venusini Poete lirici opera
12 March 1498
Horace
Digital ID: 
991007365939702626
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Inicipit Tractatus de virtutibus herbarum.
1499
Arnaldus de Villanova
Digital ID: 
FL3484356
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Origenis Adamantii Operum tomi duo priores cum tabulis & indice generali proxime sequentibus.
Origenis Adamantii Operum tomi duo priores cum tabulis & indice generali proxime sequentibus.
[1522]
Origen
Digital ID: 
991002808059702626
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The Byble : which is all the holy Scripture in whych are contayned the Olde and Newe Testament
MDXXXVII [1537]
Digital ID: 
FL3546440
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The Byble in Englyshe of the largest and greatest volume, auctorysed and apoynted by the commaundemente of oure moost redoubted Prynce, 1541
The Byble in Englyshe of the largest and greatest volume, auctorysed and apoynted by the commaundemente of oure moost redoubted Prynce
1541
Digital ID: 
991020032979702626
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Terentius
1563
Terence
Digital ID: 
FL3727451
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Le metamorfosi di Ovidio, 1584, by Ovid
Le metamorfosi di Ovidio
1584
Ovid
Digital ID: 
991022997479702626
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A discourse of the subtill practises of deuilles by vvitches and sorcerers, 1587, by George Gyfford
A discourse of the subtill practises of deuilles by vvitches and sorcerers
1587
George Gifford
Digital ID: 
FL3757912
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Poliorceticon : sive, De machinis, tormentis, telis, libri qvinqve / Ivsti Lipsi.
Poliorceticon : sive, De machinis, tormentis, telis, libri qvinqve
1596
Justus Lipsius
Digital ID: 
991008901579702626
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The historie of that wise and fortunate prince, Henrie of that name the Seventh, king of England
1638
Charles Aleyn
Digital ID: 
FL10640193
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Don Quixote, 1620, by Miguel de Cervantes
Don Quixote
1620
Miguel de Cervantes
Digital ID: 
991018852939702626
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Vlyssis Aldrovandi patricii Bononiensis Serpentum, et draconu[m] historiae libri duo, 1640, by Vlyssis Aldrovandi
Vlyssis Aldrovandi patricii Bononiensis Serpentum, et draconu[m] historiae libri duo
MDCXXXX [1640]
Digital ID: 
991003424499702626
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The counter-scuffle : whereunto is added, The counter-rat
1558, [1658]
R. S.
Digital ID: 
FL12396751
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De zee-atlas ofte water-wereld
1676
Pieter Goos
Digital ID: 
FL3726372
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The primer set furth by the kinges maiestie & his Clergie ... 1546 (1710 reprint)
The primer set furth by the kinges maiestie & his Clergie ... 1546
[1710?]
Henry VIII, King of England
Digital ID: 
991001351689702626
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The works of Virgil: containing his Pastorals, Georgics, and Aeneis, 1697, by John Dryden
The works of Virgil: containing his Pastorals, Georgics, and Aeneis
1716
Virgil
Digital ID: 
991019428089702626
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Maggie Patton, rare books & maps expert

This story appears in Openbook Summer 2020.