1.1.1: 1460 - 1585 - Introduction

By the fifteenth century, when printing began, European books had been codices for over a thousand years. It is the form we still use. In codex format, texts could be consulted and compared faster and more efficiently than is possible with rolls which until then had been the most common text-bearing medium. A codex may have large or small dimensions, depending on the number of times the sheets of which it consists are folded. Also, the size of whole sheets is variable, for the animal from which a parchment sheet originates may be a calf, a lamb or a rabbit, while paper was manufactured in different standard sizes. A book's size is an indication of its intended use. A large codex was to be placed on an altar or lectern, a small book was made to be held in the hand, or to be carried among personal belongings. Books of hours, devotional works and schoolbooks were usually produced in pocket formats, whereas liturgical works and the great standard works of theology and law were published in massive folio editions. It is striking that many reformational bible translations were published in a small octavo format.

The binding often betrays what lifespan was expected for a book. A blind-stamped leather binding on wooden boards was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a long-term investment in a valued book. A schoolbook or some other work for practical use of the moment might be given a limp vellum wrapper. In the course of the sixteenth century, wooden boards gave way to paste-boards made of layers of paper. Christopher Plantin in Antwerp, who originally had been a binder, introduced a new, refined and luxurious binding style following French fashions, with geometrical patterns decorated in gold on coloured leather.

The printing type indicates more than any other element for what kind of readership the book was intended. The style of printing type is closely linked to the language of the publication. For texts in Dutch, a light textura style was adapted, originally closely related to the script of the Brethren of the Common Life (Fraterschrift), but used well into the seventeenth century as a 'black letter'. When out of necessity such type founts were used for texts in Latin, the result did not satisfy the contemporary readers or printers. When setting up their first firm in the Flemish town of Alost, Dirk Martens and Johannes de Westfalia brought in 1473 an excellent rotunda type from Venice to support their publishing programme of Latin texts for use by theologians, lawyers and scholars. This style of type was read throughout the entire professional and scholarly world of their time. Ten years later, Gheraert Leeu, first in Gouda and moving to Antwerp, followed their example. Founts in bastarda style were initially an expression of luxury, to emulate the manuscripts made for the Court of Burgundy and its circle, especially by Colard Mansion in Bruges, but, scaled down, remained in use until well into the sixteenth century for texts in French. Roman type, which was widely used in Italy from the 1470s on, was seen only exceptionally in the Netherlands in a few texts of pronounced humanistic character, until it became more common from around 1540. Italics, first introduced in Venice in 1501 by the humanist printer Aldus Manutius, are first found in the Netherlands in 1522, to remain in use for Latin texts. Following the model of Robert Granjon (Lyon), the elegant civilité style was introduced around 1564; it was based on the script style used in the sixteenth century for texts in the vernacular. Official documents and schoolbooks were printed in civilité founts that were sometimes also used for a specific decorative effect.

In the course of the sixteenth century this variety of styles and sizes of type began to be exploited for the 'articulation' of texts, to differentiate function and emphasis. A title page could have the appearance of a type specimen displaying the printer's stock of typographical materials.

In the early years of printing, rubricators or illuminators applied the decoration of printed books by hand. They painted or drew initials of different size and colour, added paragraph marks in red and blue, underlinings, chapter titles in red; borders and miniatures could conform to traditional styles of that particular city or area. Decoration and illumination served to indicate the structure of the text and to guide the reader through the book. This part of the completion of the book was often (but not invariably) left to the buyer. By the year 1480, typographical materials such as printed initials, woodcut borders and illustrations of the text began to take the place of illumination and decoration, with the same function as the hand-painted decoration, but changing the visual aspect of the books.

author: L. Hellinga