Seminar on the History of the Book: Rebecca Bullard, “Gathering and gathered texts, 1650-1700”, 11 February 2011

The amours of Messalina, late queen of Albion, 1689, apparently showing 3 leaves to the gathering.

— from Martha Repp

The fourth in the 2011 series of the Oxford Seminar on the History of the Book was given on 11 February 2011 by Dr. Rebecca Bullard, of the University of Reading, on the subject of “Gathering and gathered texts, 1650-1700”.
The gathering, or set of consecutive pages, usually printed on a single sheet of paper, and folded together, is the basic building block of all books produced during the hand-press period. Each gathering is assigned a signature mark (usually an alphabetical A-Z sequence), the gatherings are then arranged in the proper order and sewn together to make a book. Perhaps because of their commonplace nature, gatherings have received comparatively little scholarly attention in their own right, but, as Dr. Bullard’s paper demonstrated, they can provide much information both on printing house practice during the hand-press period and on the working methods and thought processes of individual authors.
While the new bibliographers have done much work on printing house practices, and in identifying individual sets of type and the work of specific compositors, this has inevitably tended to focus on compositors and pressmen. Dr Bullard reminded the seminar that when considering gatherings, two other workers come to the fore: the warehouse keeper and the binder. The warehouse keeper (the most senior employee in the printing shop, and also the person responsible for managing the accounts) would collate the unfolded sheets into the right order, and fold them in half. The sheets would then either be sold in this unbound state, or sent to a binder, who would be responsible for folding the sheets to produce the correct sequence of pages, inserting any plates and making any necessary cancellations, before sewing them together, and, finally, binding them.
In most cases, the gatherings run in a completely regular A-Z sequence, but the remainder of the session was devoted to looking at examples where this is not the case, and considering possible reasons for it. It was suggested that, while readers would not necessarily have noticed signatures that run regularly, they would have noticed an out of place signature mark or an unusual pattern of signing, and would probably have experienced this as disorientating, and as a disruption to the expected orderly sequence.
The first example considered was the prophetess Anna Trapnel’s “Report and Plea” of 1654, in which an additional bifolium signed “d” is inserted between gatherings D and E, disrupting both the pagination and the register. The possibility that this may have been due to the particularly inflammatory nature of the material contained in gathering “d”, and have been done to enable the printer to remove those particular pages in case of trouble, was initially seen as tempting, particularly as the gathering is absent in many of the existing copies, but this possibility had to be discarded as the text is continuous, and gathering D even ends mid-sentence. As gatherings A-D and gatherings E-G are clearly in different type, a more likely explanation is that there were two printers working on this particular text, and that the printer of gatherings A-D received the manuscript of the text of quire “d” after the rest of the text — that it was in fact a last-minute addition. The insertion of this gathering also serves to reinforce the depiction in the text itself of Trapnel as a disruptive influence on the expected order.
This same kind of last-minute addition can also be seen in Margaret Cavendish’s “Natures pictures drawn by fancies pencil” of 1656, in which gathering 3E does not appear as expected at the end of the work, but has instead been cut up and distributed throughout it. Since all the leaves of gathering 3E begin with directions to the binder as to where each leaf should be placed, it seems fairly certain, particularly given Cavendish’s habit of making last minute additions to her work, that last minute additions is exactly what they are; although why the printer chose to sign the leaves in that particular way remains a mystery. It also fits with Cavendish’s belief in the importance of afterthoughts. Gatherings therefore have the capacity to represent the author’s mind as it changes over time, and to flag up material as a late addition or afterthought. Since gatherings have a natural sequence and represent movement through time, they create a kind of textualized temporality.
The final example considered was “The amours of Messalina, late queen of Albion” of 1689, an anonymous (post Glorious Revolution) account of the supposed scandalous behavior of Mary of Modena, second wife of James II. The work is divided into 4 parts, of which the first two are gathered in 3s. Since it is a physical impossibility for gatherings to consist of an odd number of leaves, something unusual is clearly happening here. The most likely explanation is that the book is in fact a 12° printed on half-sheets, with each resulting gathering of 6 pages containing 2 signatures. Even in parts 3 and 4, which are in fact gathered in 2s, the printer continues to sign the leaves A1 and A3 rather than A1 and A2. This leads to an unexpected proliferation of odd numbers, and the odd and unsettling nature of the gatherings mirrors the underhand nature of the behavior described in the text, as well as its murky origins. Furthermore, the work had originally been planned in 3 parts, with the original part 3 being divided at a late stage to produce the parts 3 and 4 as eventually printed.
Gatherings do not conform to G. Thomas Tanselle’s division of printing evidence into unintentional manufacturing clues and intentional design features, and can indeed in some cases function as both. It is likely, for example, that authors such as Cavendish who intervened late in the editorial process would have anticipated a certain degree of disruption to the finished text, even if they could not have foreseen the precise form that disruption would take.
A wide-ranging final discussion considered questions such as whether these disruptive elements in the gathering pattern were smoothed over or retained in subsequent editions of the same work; ways of telling whether a work was printed at the expense of the author or the printer; and differences between English and continental practices in this respect.