Title pages of early scientific books

Before every bookshop had a “science section” – even before the word “science” was used to distinguish a particular field of knowledge — how would purchasers know that the contents of a printed book related to natural history and physical phenomena? This was the subject of Neil Kenny’s paper, ‘Title-pages and the question of the scientific book, c. 1550-1650’, at the Seminar on the History of the Book in Oxford, on 22 January.

In the first third of the 16th century title pages emerged as a means of advertising books and attracting sympathetic readers. Were the title pages of scientific books distinctive? Some printers used the same elaborate floral borders on fiction as on geographical treatises, implying that any kind of visual marker might attract a reader.

But decoration could be directed at the scientific theme as well, for instance a celestial sphere on books of astronomy. Allegories of the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy) were incorporated in the border of Oronce Fine’s Demonstrations on the first six books of Euclid’s Geometry, printed by Simon de Colines in Paris, 1536.

Architectural borders, leading the reader into the text, could also be suggestive of genre. A 1620 edition of Jacques Guillemeau’s work on childbirth depicts surgical tools within its architectural frame, while the idea of a solid border is reworked into an elaborate green-house in Colines’s 1536 edition of Jean Ruel’s botanical De natura stirpium.

By contrast, a relative absence of iconography on classical works might suggest that the buyer was expected to know the nature of the work or to recognize the author’s name. Neil Kenny’s analysis of typography on the title pages of French scientific books showed that even on “plain” title pages, publishers were making careful choices about what words to emphasise, whether topic words in the titles, the name of the author, or the fact of a work’s translation “from the Latin”, all with a view to establishing a character and a lineage for the text and enhancing its credibility in the eyes of prospective purchasers.

Many title-pages are indicative only of a general scientific content, but the 1638 edition of Jean-François Nicéron’s La perspective curieuse shows an anamorphic cylinder, an optical curiosity for which instructions are to be found within the text.