Today we take this quality-assurance function entirely for granted when we look at an imprint. Oxford University Press with its heraldic mark on the spine and title page, or even its name just spoken, has a cachet some other imprints do not. As we move into the age of electronic publishing, with less extensive peer review and less stability for texts in circulation, we are reverting to a situation like that of the early title page, when the maker's mark was not always a recognized guarantee. The early modern printer's mark was something you had to stop and read, whether you encountered it in a bookshop, in a library, or in a classroom. It was a hallmark of quality, but one that had to be evaluated on a continuing basis. Its ability to function as a hallmark, that is, depended on a public of readers educated to understand the emblem and willing to take the time to puzzle it out.

The habit of claiming intellectual high ground in printer's marks elicited at least one negative critique in the sixteenth century. Johann Arnold of Marktbergel (fl. 1515-1547) published a poem in 1540 in praise of the marvelous invention of printing. Like Erasmus in the later editions of the Adagia, Arnold recognized that the glorious intellectual achievements of his age were both promoted by printers like Aldo Manuzio and counterfeited by other, less scrupulous men. Erasmus and Arnold assigned the blame to profit seeking; and both pointed up the hypocrisy embodied in the high-culture pretension of printer's marks. (25) Arnold was far more direct in his criticism than Erasmus. One of the printed marginal rubrics to Arnold's poem was "On printers' marks"(De typographorum insigniis), and the poem went right to the point with more than one double entendre: "The present age sells/praises reputations/symbols on books, and puts them for all to see right at first sight/on the title page" (Vendicat ac praesens aetas insignia libris / Et prima facie conspicienda locat). Arnold quickly dispensed with the ambiguity of such wordplay and launched into a bitter complaint about the misuse of complex and often obscure classical symbols to sell shoddy goods. Even Delphian Apollo could not figure some of them out. The passage ends:

Every [printer] hopes he will shed favorable light on his books with this kind of deceit, and he expects dishonest profit thereby. But what the image displayed on paper actually shows is its owner's everlasting negation of his own good deeds. No one offers a symbol of virtue; no one takes up just arms in the hand of Justice. (26)

The significant wordplay here is in that usque (continuing, everlasting) -- the durability of the mark on paper is compared to the eternity of the printer's damnation.

Perhaps it was just too much to expect commerce and humanism to mix easily in the confined space of a title page. Still, Arnold was in the minority. Most other writers on emblematic printer's marks were less critical. They praise the printers who live up to the intellectual pretensions of their marks. Even Erasmus, who complained long and bitterly about the greed of printers, did so in the context of his explication of the mark of a printer he admired. Arnold, by contrast, fixed on the marks as symbols of hypocrisy. His depth of feeling cannot be denied. It attests to the real influence such emblems were thought to have for teaching good --or for embodying evil. (27)

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(25)   Wolkenhauer 1998, 164-166 and 2002, 86-88.
(26)  Arnold 1940, viii verso-ix recto: Quilibet hoc fuco libris accedere lucem / Augurat, & foedi spem capit inde lucri. / Sed quod picta refert chartis praefixa figura, / Possesor factis abnegat usque piis. / Nemo virtutis praefert insignia, nemo / Iustitiae iusta corripit arma manu.
(27)   Wolkenhauer 2002, 86-109 gives texts of many of the extant comments; for another body of notes and commentary on applied emblems, see Sabbioneta 2003, 32-36 and passim.

Posted by admin on September 22, 2008
Tags: Chapter Seven

Total comments on this page: 3

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dianarobin on whole page :

This is very interesting: emblems used
as hallmarks of quality, but ones that
had to be evaluated by the early
modern reader and not taken for
granted as such. This seems very modern
as you say.

March 17, 2009 4:30 am
annirdmn on whole page :

I found it really interesting to read about how an imprint can actually be self-explaining, when we know the meaning and quality of it.

It is also interesting how printers’ marks are later being used as reputations or symbols and basically sell the book, because the symbol is right on the front on the title page.

I feel like the reader has to sort out, whether the book is a shoddy book or a good book, or rely on other opinions, this is how culture changes.

November 29, 2011 11:30 am
Paul F. Gehl :

You are certainly right to point to the fact that this is a continuing issue, both in print and in the new media environment. Every time we encounter something without a trademark or brand name we recognize, we have to evaluate it for ourselves. The task is even trickier online, where branding is particularly weak and where content creators do not always cite their sources.

November 29, 2011 2:32 pm

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