Speaking Volumes: The Folio Format in Premodern European Culture
AuthorDe Jong, Ian Hendrik
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The history of the premodern book has for decades been built largely upon the evidentiary model of the case study: inductive reasoning extrapolates general narratives from specific data. The advent of digital cataloguing is stimulating the diversification of evidentiary models, including the spread of quantitative study of large populations. This “quantitative turn” reveals hitherto unguessed-at conclusions about international exchange, book-users’ habits, and conventions of material discourse. It also calls into question some of the critical narratives which have emerged from the case-study mentality.This type of study has been and is being undertaken in a variety of channels, with intriguing results. However, quantitative methods have not yet been applied to study of format distributions and incidences in premodern books. This lack permits the survival of suspect critical narratives about the folio format, in particular—attaching descriptors like “prestigious” or “high-status” to folios. In this dissertation, I define, describe, and analyze a large dataset of folios printed between 1455 and 1623, both to fill this gap in critical format studies and to complicate narratives of folio prestige.This study illuminates a number of intriguing methodological and historical conclusions. For instance, it appears that late medieval printers frequently (though not exclusively) used the folio format to print first editions of classical authors. This practice seems to have shifted throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; by 1623 the folio was more likely to be a collective repository for works previously printed in smaller formats. In addition, folios could contain any length of work, not merely large, putatively prestigious texts. Slender folios deploy reference technologies and illustrations about as frequently as do bulky folios; this suggests that visual and referential elements, often considered “lavish” or “extraneous,” presented both in expensive and inexpensive folio volumes. Methodologically, this study depends on in-person archival research, drawing attention to the gaps in the transmissive affordances of digital facsimiles. It also demonstrates the value of indiscriminately selected, large datasets based on format, serving as a model for future quantitative research into the contents, materiality, and inclusions of premodern format.