An Essay on Colophons - Alfred W. Pollard - ebook

An Essay on ColophonsByAlfred W. Pollard

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An Essay on Colophons

With Specimens and Translations


Alfred W. Pollard

Contributor: Richard Garnett

Table of Contents












Leaving the Colophon in its bibliographical aspects to the able hand by which these are about to be treated, it may not be amiss to preface Mr. Pollard’s researches by a brief inquiry into the origin and significance of the term itself, and the reason why the colophon for so long performed the office of the title-page.

Colophon originally meant the head or summit of anything. It is clearly cognate with κορυφή, but is a word of far less importance, for while thirteen derivatives from κορυφή are given in Liddell and Scott’s Dictionary, κολοφών has not one. The former word is continually used by Homer; the latter is first met with in Plato, and then and afterwards only in a figurative sense. Yet it is clear that the word must from the first have borne the signification of “summit” or “crest,” for such is the position of the city of Colophon, which must have derived its name from its elevation, just as a modern house may be called “Hilltop.” Names of this kind, if not given at the first, are rarely given at all; we must suppose, then, that colophon was a recognized Greek word for “summit” when the city was founded about the tenth century B.C., according to Strabo by a Pylian colony, though this seems difficult to reconcile with the fact of Colophon being an Ionian city. In any case, the word has long survived the place.

According to the information supplied by the New English Dictionary, colophon made a brief appearance in English, in the first half of the seventeenth century, in its secondary classical sense of a “finishing stroke” or “crowning touch,” being used thus in Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy,” and again in 1635 by John Swan, who writes in his “Speculum Mundi” of how God “comes to the Creation of Man and makes him the colophon or conclusion of all things else.” Of the use of the word colophon in the particular significance elucidated in this essay—the end or ultimate paragraph of a book or manuscript—the earliest example quoted in the New English Dictionary is from Warton’s “History of English Poetry,” published in 1774. A quarter of a century before this it is found as a term needing no explanation in the first edition of the “Typographical Antiquities” of Joseph Ames, published in 1749. How much older it is than this cannot lightly be determined. The bibliographical use appears to be unknown to the Greek and Latin lexicographers, medieval as well as classical. Pending further investigation, it seems not unlikely that it may have been developed out of the secondary classical sense already mentioned sometime during the seventeenth century, when the interest in bibliography which was then beginning to be felt would naturally call into existence new terms of art. The Latin word subscriptio, which is used in a not very dissimilar sense, could hardly have been modernized without ambiguity. The Greek κορωνις, used for a flourish at the end of a manuscript, had not entered into any modern language. It is possible that it was thus only at a comparatively late date that a need was felt for a special word to denote the final paragraph of a book, and that the metaphorical use of colophon for a “finishing touch” caused it to be specialized in this sense. But whenever this use of the word colophon may have arisen, it is manifest that if this paragraph is to convey any description of the book, it fulfils the office of a title-page; and when we examine the manner in which colophon came to bear this special connotation, we shall see that the printer’s colophon could not, except for a very short period while men’s ideas were still indefinite, have coexisted with the title-page.

The idea especially implied in the Greek proverbial phrase “to put on the colophon” is that of putting the finishing stroke to anything, as when a building is completed by the addition of the coping-stone, or a discourse is summed up by a recapitulation of its general gist. Is the word simply used in the sense of a crowning peak? Or has it a special connection with the city of Colophon? Ancient writers assert the latter, and assign two reasons, one of which at least seems fanciful. Strabo says that the allusion is to the decisive charges of the Colophonian cavalry, which were made at the last moment. There seems no other indication of Colophon having possessed a high military reputation. The Scholiast on the “Theaetetus” of Plato gives a more probable derivation; he says that, on account of their having received the Smyrnaeans into their city, the people of Colophon were allowed a casting-vote in the Panionium, or congress of the twelve Ionian cities, and hence the expression was equivalent to “turn the scale.” There would be nothing unreasonable in this supposition if we were sure that the Colophonians actually had this casting-vote; but the notion may well have been invented to explain the proverb; and, after all, if κολοφών has the sense of “crest,” no historical explanation seems necessary.

We have, however, solely to consider here the application of the term colophon to books, and must ask, What portion of a book would embody that final touch which we have seen to be essential to the idea of a colophon? In modern times we should probably say the imprint, for although the printer’s name, as well as the publisher’s, may be given at the bottom or on the reverse of the title-page, it is more usual to find it at the end. The ancient colophon also gave this information, but it commonly gave much more. To understand the part it played in early printing, we must go back to its predecessor, the manuscript.

Manuscripts, as the parents of printed books, have necessarily exercised the greatest influence on their development. A step which might have been very important was taken when, probably early in the fifth century, the form most convenient for the printed book was established by the definitive supersession of the roll form of manuscript by the codex, or manuscript in modern book form. Codices are of sufficient antiquity to be figured in the paintings at Pompeii, but the derivation from caudices, thin leaves of wood, shows that they were not at first much used for literary purposes, but rather for accounts or memoranda. When they began to compete with the roll, a step in the direction of convenience which may be appreciated by us if we can imagine that all our books had at one time been printed in newspaper form, we find the colophon already installed under the title of index. This did not denote the key to the contents of a book, thought so indispensable in modern times, but to the title, giving generally the subject and author of the book with the utmost brevity, and written at the end, precisely like a colophon, which in fact it was, though not bearing the name. As the papyrus roll was not bound, there could be no lettering upon a cover unless when, as was sometimes the case, a fine manuscript was inclosed within a case or wrappage for its protection; and the inconvenience of having to open every roll to find the title soon suggested the idea of hanging the index outside the roll on a separate slip, brightly dyed so as to attract attention. Examples may be seen in paintings from Pompeii. The general, though as yet by no means universal, displacement of papyrus by parchment led to the introduction of binding, early in the fifth century, as the best method of preserving codices. It had, of course, been practised before, but could not make much progress while the majority of books were papyrus scrolls; and even in the case of codices it seems to have been chiefly employed for the opportunity it afforded of adorning a valued manuscript with a splendid exterior. The disuse of the roll, however, soon made binding universal. In the Customs of the Augustinian priory at Barnwell it is distinctly laid down: “As the books ought to be mended, printed, and taken care of by the Librarian, so ought they to be properly bound by him.”

The question of binding, as it concerns the colophon, is chiefly interesting from the point it raises whether the colophon, representing as it certainly did the title-page, was the sole clue to the contents of a manuscript, or whether the binding was lettered by a label affixed, or by the author’s name being written on it. The books represented in the picture of “Ezra Writing the Law,” the frontispiece to the Codex Amiatinus, reproduced in Mr. Clark’s work on “The Care of Books,” show no signs of lettering; and centuries later, in the Augustinian Customs, we find the librarian enjoined not to pack the books too closely together, “ne nimia compressio querenti moram invectat.” Delay, therefore, in finding a book on the shelf was recognized as an evil to be guarded against: it is scarcely likely that this would have been so manifest if the books had been distinctly lettered, or that the librarian would not have been enjoined to supply lettering if lettering had been the practice.

It would seem, then, that the colophon of a manuscript would be the principal means of affording information respecting its contents; but, if we may so far extend the signification of the term as to cover any addition made at the end by the transcriber, and having no reference to the subject-matter of the book, it was capable of conveying much beside. How touchingly the feelings of the copyist, “all with weary task fordone,” craving to be assured that he has not labored in vain, are portrayed in this final note to a volume written in the ninth century!

I beseech you, my friend, when you are reading my book, to keep your hands behind its back, for fear you should do mischief to the text by some sudden movement, for a man who knows nothing about writing thinks that it is no concern of his.[1] Whereas to a writer the last line is as sweet as the port is to a sailor. Three fingers hold the pen, but the whole body toils. Thanks be to God, I, Warembert, wrote this book in God’s name. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Very moving, too, is the injunction of some tender spirit in a manuscript of the fourteenth century:

Whoever pursues his studies in this book, should be careful to handle the leaves gently and delicately, so as to avoid tearing them by reason of their thinness; and let him imitate the example of Jesus Christ, who, when he had quietly opened the book of Isaiah and read therein attentively, rolled it up with reverence, and gave it again to the Minister.

On the other hand, manuscripts frequently contain anathemas against the pernicious race of book thieves, which can hardly be deemed uncalled for when we remember the frank admission innocently volunteered by a Sicilian knight, in a ballad translated by Rossetti, that he had stolen his Bible out of a church, “the priest being gone away.” Sometimes additional force is sought to be given to these imprecations by the assertion that the book is to be regarded as the personal property of the patron saint of the church or monastery—St. Alban, for example.

We have dwelt at some length upon the question of colophons, or inscriptions corresponding to colophons, in manuscripts, as these have been little investigated, and form the groundwork of the more important inquiry concerning the development of the colophon in the printed book, which is the subject of Mr. Pollard’s essay. It would be interesting to collect from medieval manuscripts and bring together in one corpus the ejaculations of medieval scribes, whether minatory, hortatory, or simply expressive of gratitude or relief at the termination of their irksome labors. How far this latter sentiment may have been qualified by the artist’s pleasure in his calligraphy must be matter of conjecture. If he was illuminator as well as transcriber, he must frequently have had ample ground for complacency. It would be a proof how little the conception of painting as an art independent of every other was developed if we could suppose the illustrator of a fourteenth-century Dante, for example, whose talent would in this age have made his fortune as a painter of pictures, condescending to the humble labors of a copyist, exquisite as his calligraphy might be. Yet the craft of the illuminator was destined to be absolutely obliterated by printing, while that of the transcriber exercised an important influence on early printing, as evinced by the care which the first printers took to adapt their types to the forms of letters prevalent in the manuscripts of their respective countries.

The same adaptation is observable in the use of the colophon by the early printers in the place of a title-page, when, as was not always the case, they thought fit to give a title at all. To us this seems almost incomprehensible. The immense advantage of a book bearing a title on its front and manifesting its nature from the first is so apparent that our practical age cannot comprehend how it could have been less obvious to our predecessors than to ourselves. It further seems in accordance with common sense and general usage in all similar matters that proclamation should be made at the beginning and not at the end, at the entrance and not at the exit, as the dedication of the temple is inscribed above the portico. The neglect of this apparently self-evident rule is perhaps to be explained by the influence of the “traditions of the scribes,” which affected early printing in many ways. We have alluded to the manner in which types were modelled upon the style of handwriting in use in the respective countries, the beautifully clear Italian type contrasting so markedly with the massive and imposing ruggedness of the Gothic. We also see how the tradition of illumination long induced printers to leave blank spaces for capital letters, especially at the beginnings of chapters, to be filled in by the artist, and to employ the services of a “rubricator” to preserve at least some phantom of the wealth of color which the printing art was destroying as effectually as in our day the photograph has killed the woodcut. The elegant border, also, was a legacy from the manuscript to the printed book, and this, fortunately lending itself to engraving, admitted of preservation. The service rendered by printing to engraving, it may be parenthetically remarked, is a great set-off against the injury it inflicted upon art in the shape of pictorial illustration. All these circumstances indicate the strong influence of the scribe upon the printer; and it is perhaps not surprising that the latter should for some time have followed the example of his predecessor, and given no title except occasionally the brief heading which frequently precedes the first chapter of a manuscript. This was never set out on a distinct leaf, an indispensable condition of a title-page, until many years after printing had effectually dethroned transcription as the method of the reproduction of books. The first title-page did not appear until some twenty years after the invention of printing. Title-pages became the rule about 1490, but it was not until 1493 that the announcement of the printer or publisher, hitherto buried in the colophon, began to appear upon them.

This it is which gives the colophon such extraordinary importance in the history of early printing. Wherever one exists, the question of place and printer, and frequently the question of date, is entirely solved. Where there is no colophon, we are left to conjecture. The problem is, indeed, generally soluble by a really scientific investigation, but it is only of late that science has been thoroughly brought to bear upon it by a Bradshaw and a Proctor. It is no unimportant matter, for every determination of the locality of an early book is a paragraph added to the history of the culture of the country where it originated. The beginnings of printing, as of other arts, were obscure, and we must be most grateful for any information which has been afforded us by men who assuredly no more thought of posterity than does any tradesman who advertises his wares without reflecting that he too is contributing something to the history of culture or of industry. The ancient printers had no more notion than Shakspere had what interesting figures they would appear in the eyes of posterity.

The colophon, however, does much more than reveal matters of fact. It admits us in a measure into the intimacy of the old printer, shows us what manner of man he was, and upon what he rested his claims to esteem as a benefactor of the community. We find him very decided in asserting his superiority to the copyist, a reaction, perhaps, against a feeling entertained in some quarters that the new art was base and mechanical in comparison with the transcriber’s, with which, in the estimation of the devotee of calligraphy, it could only compare as a motor-car may compare with an Arab steed. That such a feeling existed in highly cultivated quarters we learn from the disdain for printing expressed by the eminent scholar and educator Vespasiano da Bisticci, who had collected the library of the Duke of Ferrara, and who looked upon the manuscripts he had gathered with such joy and pride as an admiral of the old school may have looked upon his lovely frigates in comparison with the ugly, but undeniably more powerful, ironclad. Such printers as Jenson might have replied that their typographical productions were hardly inferior in beauty to the manuscript, but we are not aware that they ever took this line. They rather lay stress upon a more tangible advantage—their superior accuracy. They also affirm, and with truth, that their work is easier to read. “As plain as print” is a proverb which has grown up of itself. They might also have dwelt upon the various sorrows and afflictions which copyists prepared for their employers, so graphically described by Petrarch. Petrarch’s lamentation must have been a rare enjoyment to the first printer who published it, if he understood it and had professional feeling.

Much more might be said about the old printer as revealed by the colophon—his trade jealousies, his disposition to monopolize, his deference to patrons, his joy at having carried his work through the press, his conviction that his labors have not been unattended by the divine blessing. That inferior person, the author, too, occasionally gets a good word, especially when his authorship assumes the form of translation or commentary. But our business is mainly with the colophon in its literary and bibliographical aspects, and it is time to make way for Mr. Pollard, whose monograph upon it will, we believe, be found the fullest, the most entertaining, and the most accurate extant.

R. Garnett.


The interest of individual colophons in early printed books has often been noted. The task which, under the kind auspices of the Caxton Club, is here to be assayed is the more ambitious, if less entertaining, one of making a special study of this feature in fifteenth-century books, with the object of ascertaining what light it throws on the history of printing and on the habits of the early printers and publishers. If, instead of studying each colophon singly for the sake of the information it may give us as to the book which it completes, or for its own human interest,—if it chance to have any,—we compare the same printer’s colophons in successive books, and the colophons of different printers in successive editions; if we group those which have similar characteristics, and glance also at the books which have no colophons at all, or quite featureless ones, then if there is anything to be learnt from colophons, we ought to be by way of learning it; and if there is only very little to be learnt, that also is a fact to be noted.

The existence, incidentally referred to in our last paragraph, of books which have no colophons, or colophons from which all positive information is conspicuously absent, is a point which may well be enlarged on. In Mr. Proctor’s “Index of Early Printed Books” the one unsatisfactory feature is the absence of any distinguishing mark between the books which themselves contain a statement of their printer’s name, and those of which the printer was discovered by the comparison of types, or ornaments, or other inferential evidence. Mr. Proctor used humorously to excuse himself for this omission on the ground that he had already used so many different symbols that if he had added one more to their number the camel’s back would have broken. But the omission, while occasionally vexatious to the student, is regrettable chiefly as obscuring the greatness of Mr. Proctor’s own work. If all books gave full particulars as to their printers and dates, there would have been little need of Bradshaw’s “natural-history” method, or of Mr. Proctor’s almost miraculous skill in applying it. It is the absence of colophons in so many books that calls into play the power of identifying printers by their types, and of dating books by the appearance of new “sorts,” or the disuse of old ones. A single instance will suffice to illustrate the secrets thus revealed. To Ludwig Hain, Bartolommeo di Libri of Florence is the printer of four books. In Mr. Proctor’s Index he is credited with no fewer than one hundred and twenty-six in the collections of the British Museum and the Bodleian alone, among these being the famous first edition of Homer and some of the finest Florentine illustrated books. He is thus raised from obscurity to the front rank of Italian printers, an example of a man who, though he did excellent work, hardly ever troubled himself to take credit for it. In the face of such an instance the partial nature of the information we can gather from colophons is at once plain. And yet from this very absence of Libri’s name we glean some really characteristic evidence. For, to begin with, the great Florentine Homer is not without a colophon. On the contrary, it possesses this very explicit one:

Homer. Florence: [B. Libri,] 1488.

Ἡ τοῦ Ὁμήρου ποίησις ἅπασα ἐντυπωθεῖσα πέρας εἴληφεν ἢδη σὺν θεῷ ἐν Φλωρεντίᾳ, ἀναλώμασι μὲν τῶν εὐγενῶν καὶ ἀγαθῶν ἀνδρῶν, καὶ περὶ λόγους ἑλληνικοὺς σπουδαίων, Βερνάρδου καὶ Νηρίου Τανάιδος τοῦ Νεριλίου φλωρεντίνοιν· πόνῳ δὲ καὶ δεξιότητι Δημητρίου μεδιολανέως κρητὸς, τῶν λογίων ἀνδρῶν χάριν καὶ λόγων ἑλληνικῶν ἐφιεμένων, ἔτει τῷ ἀπὸ τῆς Χριστοῦ γεννησέως χιλιοστῷ τετρακοσιοστῷ ὀγδοηκοστῷ ὀγδόῷ μηνὸς Δεκεμβρίου ἐνάτῃ.

This printed edition of all Homer’s poetry has now come to its end by the help of God in Florence, by the outlay of the well-born and excellent gentlemen, enthusiasts for Greek learning, Bernardo and Nerio, sons of Tanais Nerli, two Florentines, and by the labor and skill of Demetrio of Milan, a Cretan, for the benefit of men of letters and professors of Greek, in the year from Christ’s birth the one thousand four hundred and eighty-eighth, on the ninth day of the month of December.

Here Demetrio Damilas, the Cretan of Milanese descent, is anxious enough to advertise himself: perhaps all the more anxious because his name seems to have been suppressed in the case of some previous Greek books in which he may have had a share. He compliments also, as in duty bound, the brothers Nerli, without whose munificence the book could not have been produced. But the craftsman at whose press the Homer was printed was too insignificant a person for a scholar of the very self-regarding type of the first professors of Greek to trouble to mention him, and thus Libri is ignored by Damilas as completely as the later printers were ignored by the publishers. In some of his larger works of a less learned kind,—books by Boccaccio, the Florentine Histories of Bruni and Poggio, and the Logic of Savonarola,—Libri, when left to himself, was at the pains to print his name. But in the mass of “Rappresentazioni,” Savonarola pamphlets, and other seemingly ephemeral books which he made attractive by procuring for them delightful woodcuts, he did not take sufficient pride to claim the credit which Mr. Proctor after four centuries recovered for him. The scribes who preceded the printers were by no means forward in naming themselves. Though not to the same extent as Libri, the early printers largely imitated their reticence. More especially with vernacular books they were careless of connecting themselves, because vernacular books were as yet despised. Hence, though we shall have to quote some in the chief languages of Western Europe, the comparative rarity of vernacular colophons. Hence, on the other hand, the comparative frequency of the Latin ones, which can be culled from all kinds of learned books, more especially from the laborious legal commentaries which now possess so few attractions beyond their beautiful, though crabbedly contracted, typography. It is a pity, because the Latin found in colophons is often far from classical, and occasionally so difficult that our renderings will be offered in fear and trembling. But it was in Latin that literary distinction was mainly to be won in the fifteenth century, and it was therefore with Latin books that the printers desired their names to be associated. Colophons, in fact, are the sign and evidence of the printer’s pride in his work, and this is the main clue we have in seeking for them.

Breslau Missal. Mainz: P. Schoeffer, 1483.


Latin Bible. Mainz: Fust and Schoeffer, 1462.

It was said at the end of our first chapter that the presence of a colophon in an old book is to be taken as a sign of its printer’s pride in his work. This being so, it would seem only reasonable to expect that the very earliest books of all, the books in which the new art made its first appearance before the book-buying world, should be found equipped with the most communicative of colophons, telling us the story of the struggles of the inventor, and expatiating on the greatness of his triumph. As every one knows, the exact reverse of this is the case, and a whole library of monographs and of often bitterly controversial pamphlets has been written for the lack of the information which a short paragraph apiece in three of the newly printed books could easily have given. What was the reason of this strange silence we are left to guess. It will be thought noteworthy, perhaps, that all three of these too reticent books are Latin Bibles—the 42-line Bible variously assigned to Gutenberg and to Fust and Schoeffer, the 36-line Bible variously assigned to Gutenberg and Pfister, and the 48-line Bible known to have proceeded from the press of Johann Mentelin of Strassburg. It is indeed a curious fact, and it is surprising that the folly of Protestant controversialists has not leapt at it, that not merely these three but the great majority of Latin Bibles printed before 1475 are completely silent as to their printers, place of imprint, and date. Of the fourteen editions which in the catalogue of the British Museum precede that which Franciscus de Hailbrun and Nicolaus of Frankfort printed at Venice in 1475, only three reveal their own origin—those printed at Mainz by Fust and Schoeffer in 1462 and by Schoeffer alone ten years later, and the edition of 1471, printed by Sweynheym and Pannartz at Rome. On the other hand, the three editions printed before 1462, as well as those of Eggestein and the “R-printer” at Strassburg and of Ruppel and Richel at Basel, are all anonymous. We might imagine that there was a fear that the natural conservatism of the church would look askance at the new art, and that therefore in printing the Bible it was thought best to say nothing about it. But, as a matter of fact, it was not only in their Bibles that these printers showed their reticence. Gutenberg never put his name in any book at all. Bertold Ruppel never dated one; Eggestein dated nothing till 1471, Mentelin nothing till 1473, Richel nothing till 1474. Most of their books are anonymous. When we remember that Mentelin was printing at Strassburg, a city with which Gutenberg had many relations, as early as 1458, and Eggestein not long after; that Ruppel was Gutenberg’s servant and Richel was Ruppel’s partner and successor, it would almost seem as if all this reticence were part of a distinct Gutenberg tradition, an attempt to keep the new art as secret as possible, either in order to lessen competitors and keep up prices, or (to take another alternative) because some of these printers may have broken promises of secrecy imposed on them with this object, and were thus less anxious to advertise themselves.