Experiencing Print: Experiments in Book History

School of English PhD Candidate Rosie Shute reflects on a week spent  with a wooden printing press and considers some of the exciting research possibilities that Experimental Studies can offer Print Historians.

There’s a subfield of archaeology called experimental archaeology. My knowledge of this discipline stems almost entirely from watching a BBC programme called Secrets of the Castle, which followed historians rebuilding a thirteenth-century castle in France with medieval castle-building techniques. The presenters spend much of their time eating dubious-looking food cooked to medieval recipes and making their own clothes.

Experimental Studies like these aren’t usually undertaken by those of us working on written English (with the possible exception of creative writers). Generally, we’re interested in what a text says; it’s not usually necessary to recreate a text to see what happens. Books generally aren’t likely to do very much, even if we did.

However, my PhD research examines the printing process, and whether this could have had an effect on spelling in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. To undertake this work I’ve been learning about the printing process and trying to understand whether these processes could have affected the language which ended up on the page. It’s difficult to understand just what kinds of difficulties a printer could have faced when putting together a text more than five hundred years ago. Which is how I came to spend a week printing in London on a reconstructed wooden press, supported by generous funding from the RSC fund.


The imitation wooden handpress we worked on, at St Bride's, London.

The imitation wooden handpress we worked on, at St Bride’s, London.

We spent two full days printing on a reproduction wooden handpress at St Bride’s in London (and three more serious days in seminars) learning about printing from the printer’s point of view.

We each started setting a short piece of text, just a few lines long. This is the first point at which I started to understand really what it was that the compositors of texts were working with. I’d read several times that printers set out their type on their composing stick with the type upside down and mirror image. The reality of looking at upside down mirror-image type whilst being the one to set it meant a lot of my early prints had ns for us and I confused a lot of ps and bs.

A few lines arranged on the compositor's stick in size 24pt type.

A few lines arranged on the compositor’s stick in size 24pt type.

One of the things I had set out to investigate was just how printers justified their text, i.e. aligned the text to both the right and left hand margins. This was something that I had a go at for myself, and it’s surprisingly difficult. The text has to be wedged tightly into the compositor’s stick (which incidentally also makes it very difficult to get the type back out).

I had three ideas for how the compositors might best justify their text and I had a go at all three of them to see which I–as an experimental historical linguist–found the quickest and the easiest. The method that I preferred was to add extra spaces between words when the last word wouldn’t fit. This involved my wedging different sized spaces in to the text and hoping that the text didn’t look ludicrously spaced when printed. This happily supported my working theory on justification practices, though my text was not always the best-looking. Though the text sometimes looked better, I found it took longer to abbreviate words and to alter spellings to justify the line.

Well-justified type pinned tightly together ready for printing.

Well-justified type pinned tightly together ready for printing.

After the text was printed, we hung our printed pages up to dry for most of the afternoon. Once these had dried, the corresponding pages would have been printed on the other side, and then the page would have been folded into a booklet. It took us nearly two days to get to a level of competence where we could print four sides of what was admittedly a very small amount of text. Especially as one of those pages was the title page.

All our lovely printing hanging up to dry.

All our lovely printing hanging up to dry.

Spending two days as a printer (admittedly one who would probably be fired quite quickly) gave me a brilliant insight into the workings of the compositor, and helped me understand the way that their work could have influenced the printed language. It also had the added bonus of supporting my working hypothesis about justification in texts.

Rosie's own printed text!

Rosie’s own printed text!

I would advise anyone to have a go at experimental English studies if it makes even the slightest amount of sense for their research!

If you’d like to keep up-to-date with Rosie’s finding and research you can follow her on Twitter!






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