Out of Sorts: On Typography and Print Culture

Out of Sorts: On Typography and Print Culture

Out of Sorts: On Typography and Print Culture

Out of Sorts: On Typography and Print Culture


The new history of the book has constituted a vibrant academic field in recent years, and theories of print culture have moved to the center of much scholarly discourse. One might think typography would be a basic element in the construction of these theories, yet if only we would pay careful attention to detail, Joseph A. Dane argues, we would find something else entirely: that a careful consideration of typography serves not as a material support to prevailing theories of print but, rather, as a recalcitrant counter-voice to them.

In Out of Sorts Dane continues his examination of the ways in which the grand narratives of book history mask what we might actually learn by looking at books themselves. He considers the differences between internal and external evidence for the nature of the type used by Gutenberg and the curious disconnection between the two, and he explores how descriptions of typesetting devices from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have been projected back onto the fifteenth to make the earlier period not more accessible but less. In subsequent chapters, he considers topics that include the modern mythologies of so-called gothic typefaces, the presence of nontypographical elements in typographical form, and the assumptions that underlie the electronic editions of a medieval poem or the visual representation of typographical history in nineteenth-century studies of the subject.

Is Dane one of the most original or most traditional of historians of print? In Out of Sorts he demonstrates that it may well be possible to be both things at once.


At some point in the mid-fifteenth century, several technicians worked on the problem of an ars artificialiter scribendi. Such work is often referred to in early documents, but the language is too vague to clarify exactly what procedures or techniques might have been involved. the so-called Strasbourg documents of the late 1430s, recording a suit involving Gutenberg, refer to the work of a press (“drucken”) and a device dismantled by Gutenberg so that its use and function would not be apparent (a hand-mold?). the colophon to the 1457 Mainz Psalter by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer refers to the “adinventio artificiosa imprimendi ac caracterizandi absque calami ulla exaratione” [an artificial device for printing without any use of the pen]; the colophon to the Catholicon (1460? perhaps by Gutenberg) speaks of its printing as “non calami, stili, aut pennae suffragio, sed mira patronarum formarumque concordia, proporcione, ac modulo” [not by the aid of pen or quill, but by a miraculous concordance of punches and letters]. the colophon to the 1470 Sallust (by Da Spira) celebrates the efficiency of printing:

Quadringenta dedit formata volumina Crispi
Nunc, lector, venetis spirea vindelinus
Et calamo libros audes spectare notatos
Aere magis quando littera ducta nitet.

[To Venice Wendelin, who from Speier comes
Has given of Sallust twice two hundred tomes,
And who dare glorify the pen-made book,
When so much fairer brass-stamped letters look?]

The vague reference to brass letters (which may not be brass at all) is omitted from the 1471 second edition.

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