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Early modern printing: Processes

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explain the processes involved in printing early modern texts.
In this series of three video talks, we turn to the processes by which early modern printed texts, and especially the first folio, evolved. In this talk, we look at the various stages involved in the process. In the next, we focus on the process of composition, and finally, we examine how texts further evolve into electronic digital texts.
Broadly speaking, there were five steps involved in producing early modern printed works. All printing, even today, involves printing from something. That something is the copy text. The text the print is copied from. So the first step was get hold of the copy texts. One source for these was manuscripts, perhaps prepend by the author or scribe employed by, for example, the theatre company. Another source was earlier printed texts. As for the first folio, half of its 36 plays had not, as far as we know, previously been printed. So the assumption is that these were printed from manuscripts. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in a previous video talk, none of these manuscripts survive.
The probable source for the remaining plays was Quarto editions that had been printed earlier from 1594 onwards. The next step was composition. This involved the compositors replicating the copy text in metal type. This process could have sometimes quite dramatic effects on the language, and so I will come back to it in a little more detail in a moment, and more substantially in the following talk. The next step involved printing the sheets of paper that made up the books by pressing sheets of paper onto the inked metal type, and then hanging them up to dry. Then the first sheet that was printed will be checked by the proof reader, who was not usually the author.
But note that the press did not start printing until the proofreader had finished. It was uneconomic simply to halt printing. It kept on going until the proof reader had finished, then there was a pause while certain corrections were made, and then the press got back to work. Finally, the sheets of paper were compiled and bound together. A folio is made up of quires. Three sheets of paper folded and combined, and then the quires are stitched together to make up the folio. There are about 80 such quires in Shakespeare’s first folio. I’ll talk more about quires in the next talk. To get a sense of some of these processes in action, let’s look at some images from the period.
The image on the left is from the late 16th century, and the one on the right is from the 17th century. They contain many similarities. In the background of the left hand image, you can see a couple of people in front of cases that held the blocks of metal type. These are the compositors setting the type. Now look at the right hand image. Here the compositor is sitting on the right. You can actually see the text he is copying from being held up on a stick. He selects the letters from the cases, and puts them in a composing stick, which holds a line of text. You can see this in his right hand.
Note here that the letters were put into the composing stick upside down, so that they would appear the right way around when printed. The lines of type are accumulated and set in a forme. Let’s have a quick look at what that is. This is a forme, a modern one, but it is basically what would have been used in the past. And yes, forme is spelled with an E at the end. In the foreground, you can see quite clearly the individual blocks of type, and the whole lot is held together by a kind of metal frame. Now let’s go back to the early modern images. Look at the left hand one.
In the foreground, the man on the right is using two ink pads to apply ink to the typeface in the forme. You can see the person performing the same role in the image on the right. The other person in the left hand image is preparing a sheet of paper to be pressed onto the ink. In the right hand image, you can see the man on the left pulling a lever that lowers the press and squeezes the paper onto the print. In this video talk we have focused on textual processes, and in particular the way the first folio evolved. We looked at the various steps in the process from copy texts through composition, printing, and proofreading, to binding.
Of these it is probably composition that is the most important in terms of linguistic consequences, and that is why it is the subject of the next talk.

The processes involved in printing early modern texts had some impact on the language, as we will discuss in the following video.

The first step in printing, even today, is the “copy-text”, the text the print is copied from. As mentioned in a previous video, we do not have Shakespeare’s original manuscripts. For the First Folio, for some plays the copy-text could have been a manuscript, but for others it was probably a quarto edition that had been printed earlier.

The next step was composition, which was process of replicating the copy text in metal type. Then there was the actual printing, followed by (possible) proofreading, and finally binding the sheets altogether.

At each step, there is potential to depart, accidentally or otherwise, from what is in the copy-text. In particular, the composition step was liable to error, not least because the compositor had to set the metal letters of the print upside down so that they would appear the right way when printed. A recipe for error indeed!

We’ll talk more about these difficulties in the next video-talk. For now, add any thoughts you might have about the processes involved in printing in the comments.

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