The University of Manchester - The University of Manchester Library
First Impressions

Glossary

Can't tell a forme from a frisket? Don't know the difference between a punch and a matrix? Our glossary will guide you through many of the technical terms relating to early books and printing.

Black-letter
A name (which came into use around 1600) for the form of type Gothic used by early printers, as distinguished from the 'Roman' type, which later prevailed.
Blockbook
A book in which each page was printed from a single block of wood, onto which both text and images were carved in reverse. Although it is often thought that blockbooks preceded the invention of printing from movable metal type, most surviving examples date from the period 1460 to 1480.
Breviary
A book containing the texts used to celebrate Divine Office each day by members of monastic orders and clergy, consisting of Psalms, Collects, and readings from Scripture and the lives of the Saints.
Catchword
A word printed at the end of a quire to indicate the first word of the next page; if the catchword does not tally with the first word, this suggests that a leaf is missing, or that the quires have been bound in the wrong order.
Chase
A rectangular metal frame into which a forme, or body of type is locked, using wedges or quoins, ready for printing.
Colophon
A statement at the end of a book containing some or all of the following: name of the work, author, printer, place of printing, date. It is sometimes accompanied by a printer's device or mark. This information was later carried on the title page.
Compositor
A person who sets, corrects and distributes type. The work of operating a hand-press was performed by a pressman.
Distributing type
Returning the individual sorts to their cases, after they have been printed. Often shortened to 'dissing'.
Engraving
Illustrations or decorations printed (intaglio) from a metal plate, or (in relief) from the end-grain of a wood-block, whose surface has been incised with a graver or burin. From the late 15th century until c.1830 the metal was usually copper.
Epilogue
The concluding part of a work; an appendix.
Folio
  1. A leaf of paper in which the chain lines run vertically down the page. Unless cut as a separate leaf, a folio is usually one half of a sheet folded in two (a bifolium). The size of the full sheet before folding corresponds to the size of the paper-maker's mould. Depending on the size of the mould, a folio is typically 12-15 inches tall.
  2. A book made up of gatherings of these sheets, each folded once, is also called a folio, as distinct from a quarto (folded twice), octavo (folded three times), etc.
Forme
The forme is the body of type, locked by the compositor into a frame called a chase, ready for printing.
Fount / font
A complete set of upper- and lower-case letters, figures, punctuation marks and symbols, cast in one size and typeface. Typically a fount would contain sufficient type to enable a printer to set several pages at one time.
Frisket
A thin metal frame covered with stiff paper and joined to the upper part of the tympan with pin hinges. It holds the paper on points during the printing process, to prevent it moving. Windows are cut out to leave only the print area of the paper exposed, keeping the rest of the sheet clean.
Galley
A three-sided shallow metal tray onto which type is transferred from a composing-stick for holding composed matter before it is split up into pages. Galley proofs are proofs on long sheets of paper, of composed matter before it is made up into page.
Historiated initial
A decorated initial in a manuscript or printed book, containing a recognizable scene or figures within and/or around it, rather than floral or abstract decorative designs.
Incunable
A book printed with movable metal type before 1501, from the Latin in cunabula ('in the cradle').
Indulgence
A declaration issued by the pope or a lesser church authority, absolving those who contribute to a stated cause from paying for their sins, in life or in purgatory. The abuse of indulgences to raise money for the Church was one of the causes of the Reformation.
Initial
An enlarged and (commonly) decorated letter introducing an important section of a text. Initials can have different levels of significance, according to a hierarchy of decoration. Initials carried over from manuscripts to printed books, where they were either printed (in black or a second colour) or were added later by hand.
ISTC
Incunabula Short Title Catalogue: an international database of fifteenth-century European printing, listing some 30,000 editions. It is hosted by the British Library with contributions from institutions worldwide. http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/istc.
Leads
Thin strips of type metal placed between lines of type to separate them. Leading is the process of spacing lines by inserting the strips.
Letterpress
Any material printed from a relief surface, distinguished from lithographic or intaglio printing. Sometimes used in reference to printed type, as distinct from illustrations, such as woodcuts.
Ligature
Two or more connected letters cast on a single piece of type.
Matrix
A block of soft metal into which a character is stamped (using a punch). The matrix is then inserted into the bottom of a hand-mould, into which molten metal alloy is poured to cast the type.
Miniature
An independent illustration in a book or manuscript, as opposed to a scene incorporated into another decorative element such as a border or initial. From the Latin miniare ('to colour with red').
Missal
A book containing the service of the Mass for the whole year; a mass-book.
Movable type
Type cast from molten metal alloy, in which a single sort represents one character, or a combination of two or three characters (ligatures). The three advantages of movable type over blockbooks were:
  1. type could be set far more quickly than a block could be carved;
  2. if typographic errors were spotted on the press they could be corrected easily by moving or replacing sorts;
  3. after printing the type could be distributed, for later reuse.
Octavo
The size of a leaf of paper or vellum folded three times. A printed book or manuscript made up of gatherings of such leaves is itself known as an octavo.
Penwork
Fine linear decoration made with a thin pen and ink (often blue and red). Initials were often infilled or extended with elaborate, intertwining penwork in foliate patterns.
Printer's device
A symbol used by printers, especially early printers, to identify their work. They were a form of early trademark, and were often forged or appropriated by others. The earliest known device was that of Fust and Schoeffer of Mainz. Among famous printers' devices were Caxton's 'WC' (later used by Wynkyn de Worde) and Aldus Manutius's dolphin and anchor symbol. Printer's devices tended to be placed on the last printed leaf, along with the colophon, and later on the title-page.
Prologue
A preface or introduction to a text.
Punch
A rod or bar of hard metal, onto the end of which a character is engraved in relief. The punch is then struck into another piece of softer metal, a matrix, to create a negative impression from which type can be cast.
Quarto
The size of a leaf of paper or vellum folded twice. A printed book or manuscript made up of gatherings of such leaves is itself known as a quarto.
Quire
The group of leaves formed after the printed sheet has been folded to the size of the book and before it is combined in proper order with its fellows for binding.
Roman typeface
A typeface inspired by the architectural lettering of classical Rome, and the beautiful humanist script of 15th-century Italy, in contrast to the Gothic blackletter of northern Europe. It was pioneered by early printers such as Johann and Wendelin de Spira and especially Nicolas Jenson.
Rubric
Rubric is a title, chapter heading, or instruction that is not strictly part of the text, but is used to identify its components. It was usually written or printed in red, hence the name, from the Latin rubrica ('red').
Scriptorium
The writing-room of a monastery or other religious house where manuscripts were copied.
Signature
A mark, usually comprising a letter and number at the foot of a leaf, indicating the sequence of sheets within a quire, and the arrangement of quires, e.g. 'a1', 'a2'... 'b1', 'b2', etc. Early printed books did not have printed page numbers, and pages are identified by the signatures instead.
Sort
A single piece of metal type representing a particular character.
Standing type
Type that is stored as formes after it has been printed, rather than being distributed, in case a reprint is required.
Textura
A formal book-hand, characterized by angular letterforms, pronounced serifs and feet, and separate downstrokes (minims) making it difficult to distinguish between m, n, u and i. Adopted as a model by early printers.
Tympan
A frame covered with parchment or paper, upon which the sheet of paper to be printed is laid. The tympan is hinged to the bed of the printing press.
Woodcut
A woodcut illustration is cut with a knife along the plank, while a wood-engraving is cut with a graver or burin on the cross-section, usually of a piece of box-wood. Woodcuts were the most common way of illustrating early printed books, because they could be printed simultaneously with the letterpress text.