Paratexts and Print in Renaissance Humanism: The 2019 Panizzi Lectures

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By Anna Speyart

We are so accustomed to title pages, tables of contents, and indexes as our first points of access to printed books that it is easy to forget that these paratexts have a history of their own. Ann Blair, who is Carl H. Pforzheimer Professor of History at Harvard University, placed paratexts at the heart of the 2019 Panizzi Lectures, which she delivered at the British Library on the 9th, 10th and 12th of December. Over the course of three evenings, Blair explained how the advent of the printing press in Europe affected the quantity, kind and style of early modern paratexts. Her analysis focused on scholarly publications in Latin by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) and Conrad Gessner of Zurich (1516-1565). Both humanists were prolific authors who maintained close relations with their printers throughout their careers, granting them heavy involvement in the paratexts around their works.

Blair started the first lecture by signalling difficulties in defining the boundaries of paratext, whether according to their material form or their role in a book. She then introduced the audience to early modern paratexts with a seventeenth-century example. The Spanish polymath Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz (1606-1682) published a sixteen-page treatise on printing and paratexts in a volume otherwise dedicated to theology (Theologia moralis fundamentalis IV, 1664). This unexpected addition is explained in a paratextual note to the reader: the manuscript for the last part of Caramuel’s theology had been lost in transit, so he had decided to compensate for the loss with his treatise on moral issues in printing and paratexts. (Fig. 1) Caramuel’s discussion of paratexts itself, then, served as a paratext in the volume. Indeed, Blair revealed that a range of paratexts by various authors – including anagrams, letters, and even a poem with its own paratext in the form of footnotes – constitute a third of the entire volume, an unusually high percentage.

Fig. 1 The note in which Caramuel explains the loss of his manuscript and lists the supplements that he has added instead. Courtesy of Hathi Trust.

According to Blair, Caramuel’s book exemplifies the complexity of early modern paratexts, displaying a characteristic jumble of authorial voices and creativity in adding heft and flair to a scholarly volume with paratextual “fillers.” Printing reduced the cost of adding pages to a book, allowing authors and printers greater freedom in devising tomes with more elaborate paratexts than had been common in manuscript culture. On the other hand, early printing was a speculative business that required heavy investments in fonts, presses and labour before any copy of a book could be sold, raising the overall stakes of book production. Printers therefore overproduced to increase their chances of making a profit. Trying to generate demand for their product, publishers and authors used paratexts to advertise the authority and qualities of their books to potential buyers.

By the start of the sixteenth-century, title pages had become the most distinctive feature and standard beginning of printed books, which were initially sold as unbound stacks of paper. A good title page, according to Blair, not only helped users identify works among an increasing number of available books, but also served to catch the attention of the browsing customer at a glance. She compared the many editions of Erasmus’s Adages that were published between 1500 and 1528 to illustrate the development of title page strategies in this period. Early editions tended to embed the name of the author and title in a longer blurb, which praised the erudition and scholarship contained in the book. Johann Froben, Erasmus’s printer in Basel, was especially concerned with advertising the improvements of new editions without upsetting anyone who already owned a previous edition. His son Hieronymus, instead, opted for a more streamlined layout that emphasised the author’s name and the title. Overall, Blair concluded, the success of the Erasmus-Froben imprints suggests that there was value to the marketing of a book through the consistent appearance of its title page.

Apart from the need to attract buyers, Blair alerted the audience to another important reason why printing stimulated the production of paratexts. Printing allowed texts to travel widely across time and space. While those who produced printed works embraced the potential for greater fame and impact, they also feared the consequences of a negative reception. Readers of printed books were also less likely to have a personal connection to the author’s environment that would predispose them towards a favourable reception. Accordingly, humility tropes and pre-emptive apologies abound in early modern paratexts. Authors also alluded to the patronage of important figures and friendships with other intellectuals to embed their book in the context of an authoritative community. Printers, thus, needed books to sell, but authors especially hoped for favourable and appropriate readers and used paratexts to allay their anxieties over publication.

The influence of authorial anxiety, social relations and contingency on printed paratexts were discussed further during the second lecture. Blair started the evening with a brief discussion of quantitative data on the paratexts in Erasmus-Froben imprints. Erasmus wrote elaborate dedications and indexes, which are considered the major types of paratext, together with title pages. But Blair also made an especially strong case for lesser-known paratexts as telling sources for the social and pragmatic considerations involved in early modern book production. Humanists used these “minor” paratexts to capture the benevolence of their readers and to fill leftover space in a book at short notice.

Errata lists, Blair argued, are a good example of a frequently overlooked but meaningful type of paratext. They allowed authors and publishers to correct and apologise for mistakes, or to blame others for their negligence in correcting proofs. In the Ecclesiastes (1535), the errata explain that Erasmus had been too ill to oversee the printing of this book, praising the keen eye of the compositor who had made some corrections in his stead. In the errata of the 1536 Adages, on the other hand, Erasmus recounts his horrifying discovery of an interpellation in the text. He blames his former assistant for the mistake, though an annotated copy of the Adages reveals that the interpellation originated from Erasmus’s own hand. Blair explained that Erasmus had fallen out with his former amanuensis and probably used the errata statement to settle a score with him. Generally, the errata lists from Erasmus’s later career show a concern with posthumous editions of his writings, inspired in part by the humanist’s life-long battle against interpellations in ancient texts.

Blair argued that, like many other paratexts, errata also acted as fillers for empty space towards the end of a quire or page in printed books. Even if printing reduced the cost of production per page, publishers and authors were reluctant to waste opportunities to print text on pages that would otherwise remain blank. In the hands of Conrad Gessner, the addition of paratexts in leftover space developed into a fully articulated ‘lest-blank trope’, as Blair called it. A note at the end of Gessner’s De piscibus (1556) justifies the last-minute addition of a list of Greek fish names and errata by arguing that those pages would otherwise have remained blank. In a treatise on cookery, however, an eight-page letter on Alpine milk products, with which Gessner claimed to fill blank pages, exceeded the number of pages required to complete the quire, leaving another quire to fill. In the end, two more quires were added to accommodate Gessner’s paratexts. While the ‘lest-blank trope’ may seem trivial, Blair argued that it was part of Gessner’s authorial strategy. It accounted for the sometimes jumbled presentation of his works and portrayed him as a hard-working and versatile author.

Throughout the first two lectures, it became clear that paratexts are not necessarily written for the reader. Blair noted, for example, that she has hardly seen instances in which readers actually applied corrections as suggested in the errata. Instead, authors and publishers used paratextual spaces to settle scores, to allay their anxieties, to instruct the publishers of future editions, and to advertise their skills and connections. During the third lecture, Blair reminded us that paratexts are most certainly not written for the information of the modern book historian. The last evening was therefore devoted to the limits of what can be gleaned from early modern paratexts without contextual information.

Blair explained that paratexts are mostly optimistic in tone, articulating hopes and ambitions that were not necessarily fulfilled. She used Gessner’s Historia animalium I (1551) to illustrate how contextual sources can shed a different light on the interpersonal relations sketched in paratexts. The volume contains extensive and unusual paratexts, including a separate table of contents for the paratexts. Archival records reveal that the work’s dedication to the city of Zurich was successful: Gessner was granted a lifelong allowance of food and wine in return. In other cases, however, his dedications were less favourably received. He dedicated the second edition of his Icones animalium (1560) to Elizabeth I of England, after the dedicatees of the first edition had been executed for treason under Queen Mary. In his advice on paratexts, Caramuel specifically warns against re-dedicating books with a second edition and recommends that a second dedication, if inevitable, must always aim lower in the social hierarchy than the first. Indeed, Gessner’s correspondence reveals that Elizabeth felt insulted by the recycled dedication, despite his good intentions.

Gessner also made creative use of paratexts to promote his research and to reinforce his network of correspondents. Volumes on natural history advertised his bibliographical works and vice versa, creating a buzz ahead of publication even if some of the volumes announced were never published in the end. He also invited his readers to contribute to his on-going research by sending specimens or information on the natural world, with detailed instructions on how such snippets might reach him from faraway regions. In return, contributors could expect goodies, information or an acknowledgement alongside the many existing correspondents that Gessner listed in his volumes. (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2 The list of acknowledgements and instructions to aspiring contributors in Gessner’s Historia animalium III (1555). Courtesy of the Getty Research Institute, via the Internet Archive.

Printed poems were another avenue through which authors could enhance their social relations, according to Blair. Authors filled pages with poetry to showcase their humanist skill or to find favour. Erasmus, for instance, tried to appease Giles Cousin, an assistant who threatened to change jobs against Erasmus’s will, by publishing his poem in the Ecclesiastes, only to remove the poem from subsequent editions after Cousin had left. Blair ended the last lecture with a few remarks on early modern indexing, which made it possible for authors of miscellaneous collections to present information in any order they found convenient. Erasmus and Gessner both experimented with innovative indexes, which could be mentioned on title pages as selling points.

Our continued use of indexes and other Renaissance paratexts testifies to their enduring effectiveness. On the first evening, however, Blair reflected on the impact of digitization on contemporary paratexts, which she called ‘endangered textual species’. As electronic publication formats plunge us straight into the main text, we no longer encounter front matter unless we seek it out. Meanwhile, search boxes and Ctrl+F seem to eliminate the need for indexes. Blair remained optimistic nonetheless: digitisation is also making the study of paratexts easier and more fruitful than ever. Early printed books are increasingly available in digitized form to scholars around the world, who are thus granted immediate access to early modern paratexts in their full variety and in their original place within a book. 

The audience’s interest in paratexts was certainly sparked by the lectures, as testified by regular chuckles throughout and by abundant questions. Blair was mostly asked to compare her case studies to paratexts in books from different regions, periods or genres. She explained that it is very difficult to draw comparative conclusions on paratexts, mainly because quantitative data on paratexts are difficult to come by. By the end of the lecture series, it was clear that there is much scope for continued paratextual studies. Blair paved the way by alerting listeners to methodological tricks and caveats in between her detailed examples and analyses, showing not only which opportunities await within the field of paratexts, but also how paratextual studies can make essential contributions to social, intellectual and book history.

The Panizzi Lectures 2019 have been made fully available as podcasts by the British Library: follow the links to listen to the first, second and third lecture.

Hint: follow the links in the text if you are interested in seeing digitised early modern paratexts for yourself!


Anna Speyart has just completed the MA in Cultural and Intellectual History 1300-1650 at the Warburg Institute in London.

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