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WWP Training Materials

Encoding forme work

Early Modern Texts

Using the methods of 'Descriptive Bibliography'

When most of us hear the word 'bibliography' the traditional research bibliography comes to mind first. In this bibliography, also known as the "Works Cited List," the central goal is to list texts either as topical references or as cited materials. Minimal identificatory information is provided in such lists; for example the name of the work, its producers, and perhaps some publication information would be present. Bibliographic lists such as these are not interested in describing or analyzing the texts to which they refer. None of us note the binding type or the page numbering conventions of Frank Conroy's Body and Soul when writing up the bibliography for a paper on American poets.

There is however a difference between the research works cited list and what students and scholars of the early modern period call 'descriptive bibliography.' Rather than simply listing texts for the purposes of reference the descriptive bibliography is a genre concerned with the "study of books as material objects." For some this study has its end in the production of 'best' texts, understanding the networks of circulation for a particular text, and the relationships between different variant editions of a text. We won't get into those details here as they are the purview of a much larger discussion. What is germane to our work at the Women Writers Project are some of the descriptive practices which have become standard in bibliographic work. Many of these practices offer important structural information about the text and thus are captured in our encoding.

The Early Modern Printed Text


Many of the early printed texts in Britian and elsewhere were printed with hand-set moveable type on large sheets of paper that were later folded, cut, and bound. In some cases printers did not actually do the binding; individuals bought printed sheets and would bind them together, sometimes with other texts, at their own cost.

The large sheets of paper could be printed to produce a number of different sizes of texts. The most common are the folio, two pages per sheet of paper, the quarto, four pages/sheet, the octavo, eight pages/sheet, and the duodecimo, twelve pages/sheet. While there was variation in the dimensions due to different sized sheets, these sizes were relatively regular and the educated eye can often distinguish between them.

Another clue exists for determining the size of a text, and is itself important for the citation of early modern texts. Signatures, marks made on the first page (sometimes all of the pages), were used to identify the order of pages for the folding and collation of the text after cutting. The commonest form of the signature is some combination of the 23 letters of the alphabet and arabic numerals. In cases where the sheets of paper used in printing exceed 23, a series of letters was used. In the case where 46 sheet were used the signatures will likely begin with 'a' and end at 'zz,' with sheet 24 signed 'aa.' With alpha-numerica signatures the 'a' signature could run a1,a2,a3,a4 in the case of a quarto, and a1-a12 in a duodecimo. Early modern signature conventions were not rigid and there are many kinds of variation, including the spliting of a single sheet into two signatures (i.e. a1-a6 and b1-b6 for a duodecimo).

Signatures were very often only printed on a single side of a sheet of paper. Consequently, whether compiling a descriptive bibliography, citing an early modern edition, or encoding a text a further piece of information must be included. If you open a book and flip to any page you'll be looking at one page on the left and another on the right. These are the different sides of two different leaves. When sheets of paper are printed and bound together the single sheet produces a specified number of leaves, each with a front and back. When the book is bound or collated the binder needed to be sure that each leaf was ordered correctly, paying attention to order of the pages on a given leaf. Scholars conventionally identify the page of a leaf which appears on the right when a book is opened as the 'recto' and the back of the same leaf as the 'verso'. The notational convention for encoding, citation, or bibliography thus identifies the first page of a signed printed text as 'A1 recto' or 'A1r' and the second as 'A1 verso' or 'A1v'.


Signatures were one aid to the early modern binder and catchwords were another. A catchword is a word placed at the foot of a page that is meant to be bound along with other pages in a book. The word anticipates the first word of the following page, and thus helps to ensure that the leaves are in fact in the correct order. In rare cases the catchword is longer than a single word, and it may in fact be erroneous, either because of a printing or a binding error. We encode the catchwords of each text and we do pay attention to the information about errors that may be present. Catchwords and signatures are part of a larger category of textual objects known as either 'forme work' or 'metawork' - that is infrastructure of the page

Early Modern Typography

Early modern printers often used forms of letters and styles of type which are no longer in use and which may be unfamiliar or ambiguous. Below is a short discussion of the most common forms that you may encounter. You'll learn more about our specific encoding of these forms later.

Examples of Black-letter types

Black-letter print

'Black-letter' is a general name for what are actually several more particular forms of early modern print, as the examples to the right suggests. The modern reader often encounters these forms as 'fancy,' especially when they are compared to the 'roman' typeface that is now the dominant form of English and western European print. The manuscript-derived black letter was the dominant form in early modern England, though it co-existed with the roman type coexisted, sometimes in a single text, beginning in the early sixteenth-century.

Long s and long s ligatures

The old-style long s in roman type looks like an f without the crossbar, or with a very short crossbar extending only to the left. In italics it looks like an integral sign.

I and J

Lower case i and j are clearly different as they are in modern texts. In italics, in the upper-case, there is often only one letter-form, which looks like a long J with a cross-bar in the middle. This is (despite appearances) an I. There are also some texts in which this character appears, which also contain instances of the more familiar italic capital I, which looks like a roman I but with a slant. In blackletter similarly, the character which looks like a capital I with a slight lefthand curve to the bottom and a crossbar in the middle is an I.

U, V, and W

There are several forms of the lower-case letter v: with a pointed bottom, with a rounded bottom, and with a decorative swash. There are also be several forms of the upper-case letter V: with a pointed bottom or with a rounded bottom. All of these should be encoded as v or V, with as necessary. They can be distinguished from u and U by the fact that these have a tail on the right-hand side. The letter w was sometimes produced by placing two v's side by side.

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This document last updated Thursday, 22-May-2014 13:40:21 EDT