Rubrication : articulation, not decoration

‘Rubrication’ can refer to several types of coloured (usually red) elements added to a printed page in order to articulate the text. This practice carried a tradition of handwritten emphasis from the manuscript period into the 15th century and the age of print — but this tradition was later overtaken by typographic innovations.

Dr Margaret M. Smith opened the fifteenth year of the Seminar on the History of the Book, 1450-1830 (convened at All Souls College, Oxford) with a paper presenting observations from her research in progress on ‘Hand rubrication: the mid-fifteenth-century method of textual articulation’.

Was rubrication part of the publication process? Examination of many copies of the same edition suggests that hand rubrication was not done in the printer’s shop and is not uniform across a given edition or text. It was not uncommon, however, for the printer to leave spaces in the printed text for the addition of rubricated elements such as paragraph signs or larger initials at the beginning of major text divisions. Similarly, the existence of printed tables providing the wording for rubricated headings indicates that the printer expected some texts to be rubricated as part of the process of completing the book. The rubrication would have been done by a professional or by a knowledgeable owner.

Dr Smith showed two leaves from 15th-century books bearing five main types of rubrication: large initials, paragraph signs, underlining, initial strokes (single penstrokes that highlight a printed initial), and headlines at the top of a page.

In the page reproduced here (a leaf of Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job, printed by Kesler in Basel in 1496, part of Book 14, ISTC ig00432000.), large Lombard-style initials mark the beginning of chapters; paragraph signs mark the beginning of extracts from the book of Job (lemmas); underlining highlights chapter numbers, the marginal cue for ‘Tex.’ and some marginal references to other Biblical books; initial strokes mark upper case letters; and the running titles at the top of the page are underlined. In each of these instances the rubrication helps the reader orient themselves in a way that Dr Smith observed is analogous to punctuation.

Dr Smith’s quantitative research suggests that just under 50% of extant incunables received rubrication and that hand rubrication declined from the 1470s to the 1490s. Many of the functions of hand rubrication were taken over by changes in page design and by typographical signals, such as today’s use of italic type to distinguish particulars words in a text.

Finally, cataloguers of antiquarian books were urged to note the presence of hand rubrication in copy notes, to make available the kind of quantitative evidence on which Dr Smith’s work was based. — Julia Walworth

Gregory the Great's Moralia in Job, printed by Kesler in Basel in 1496

Gregory the Great's Moralia in Job, printed by Kesler in Basel in 1496

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