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First Published:  7 September 2014
Revised (substantive):  26 March 2017

Re. “reading lots of close-set black letter”

“Black letter” refers to the heavy, ornate style of typeface (also known as “Old English”) used for printing 16th- and 17th-century books in Britain.

^ Facsimile of title-page, set in black letter, for the 4th printing of the very popular book of astrological medicine, Thys is the Myrrour or Glasse of Helth ..., by Thomas Moulton (1st edn., in or before 1531, with at least 13 edns. published at London between 1531 and 1580).

I have chosen to feature this 4th issue of The Myrrour or Glasse of Helth (1541?) because it was printed by the first English woman to print books under her maiden name, Elizabeth (Elysabeth) Pickering (c.1510–1562). As the second wife of the prolific printer Robert Redman (d. 1540), she was also known as Elisabeth Redman.
   The black-letter title-page for Elizabeth’s reissue of Moulton’s The Myrrour or Glasse of Helth reads in full: Thys is the myrrour or glasse of helth necessary & nedefull for every person to loke in, that wyll kepe theyr body from the sekenes of the pestylence. And it sheweth howe ye planettes reygne in every houre of the day and the nyght with the natures and exposycyons of the .xii. sygnes, devyded by the .xii. monthes of the yere. And sheweth the remedyes, for many dyvers infyrmytes and dyseases that hurteth the body of man.
   As with many books at this time, the volume’s imprint is given separately on the colophon (the end of the book), not on the title-page. The entire book is printed in the same black letter used on the title-page and colophon.


^ Facsimile of colophon, set in black letter, for the 4th printing of Thys is the Myrrour or Glasse of Helth ..., by Thomas Moulton.

The colophon gives the printer’s name and place of printing, but no publication date, and reads in full: “Thus endeth the Myrour or Glasse of helth[.] Imprynted at London in fletestrete by me Elysabeth [Pickering] late wyfe unto Robert Redman dwellynge at the sygne of the George nexte to Saynt Dunstones churche.”
   The date 1541? has been attributed to Elizabeth’s reissue of The Myrrour or Glasse of Helth. She printed at least 13 titles after her husband’s death in 1540, all of which were reissues of earlier Redman prints, mostly medical tracts and law books.

During the 17th century, English printers increasingly favored the lighter Roman type, and moved away from use of black letter in all but the weightiest and most magisterial of legal documents, state proclamations, and religious texts.

^ Facsimile of page 20, mostly set in black letter, from the first English book on pollution, Fumifugium: or the Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated (1661), by John Evelyn.

The bulk of Evelyn’s Fumifugium was printed in Roman and italic type, as was then customary, pages 18–20 being an exception because of their unique content: Evelyn’s transcription of legislation from the 7th year of James I’s reign, entitled “An Act against burning of Ling, and Heath, and other Moor-burning in the Counties of Yorke, Durham, Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmerland, Lancaster, Darbie, Nottingham, & Leicester, at unseasonable times of the year.” The Jacobean statute is set in black letter to differentiate it from the rest of Evelyn’s text, as at the bottom of p. 20 where Evelyn resumes his proposal with the commentary, “So far the Act. And here you see was care taken for the Fowl and the Game, as well as for the Fruits, Corn, and Grasse ....”
   Fumifugium was a public-policy tract dedicated to Charles II, and “Published by His Majesties command” (title-page). Evelyn here proposed neutralizing and abating the capital’s severe air pollution by turning London into the first great Garden City. His ingenious proposal was well-received by the king, who “commanded Evelyn to prepare a bill against the next Session of Parliament, to carry part of them into effect; but it does not appear that any thing of the kind was attempted. Yet Evelyn tells us in his Diary, 11th January 1662, ‘I received of Sir Peter Ball, the Queenes Attorney, a draught of an Act against the nuisance of the Smoke of London, to be reform’d by removing several trades which are the cause of it, and indanger the health of the King and his people. It was to have been offer’d to the Parliament as his Majesty commanded.’ As late as the year 1772 this tract [Fumifugium] found an anonymous editor, who, struck by the increased and increasing evil [of London’s air pollution], recommended it ... to the attention of the Magistrates and Legislature.” (W. Upcott, The Miscellaneous Writings of John Evelyn, 1825, xii–xiii)

(In contrast, German printers continued to use a form of black letter — Fraktur — for all types of printed text until 1941, when Antiqua became the standard German type.)

In 17th-century Britain, black letter remained in use for decorative printing (appearing, for example, in headings), and was employed like an italic to add emphasis to text (e.g., to mark “black-letter days” in the church calendar, and to highlight the names of ships in a register). In such manner, Henry Stubbe’s polemical tract, The Plus Ultra Reduced to a Non Plus (1670), strategically uses black letter — interspersed with Roman and italic types — for rhetorical effect.

^ Facsimile of signature a3v, with its emphatic use of black letter, from Henry Stubbe’s epistle “To the Reader” in the first in his series of animadversions upon the Royal Society and its apologists, The Plus Ultra Reduced to a Non Plus (1670).

The phrases set in black letter are: “the Disciples were obliged for five years to hold their peace”; “angry”; “obstinate”; “illiterate passages”; and “our Nation.” These jump off the page for the reader, which is no small feat considering how busy the page is typographically (Stubbe makes such heavy use of italic type that it loses its visual impact).

And at the end of the century, an advertisement for the highly skilled glass-grinder and optical-instrument maker, John Yarwell (1648–1712), also relied on black letter, again interspersed with Roman and italic type, in a bid to grab the reader’s attention.

^ Facsimile of late-17th-century advertisement, with its emphatic use of black letter, from the bookseller’s catalog appended to William Salmon’s The Family-Dictionary; or, Houshold Companion ... in an Alphabetical Method ... (revised 2nd edn., 1696).

Microscopes and telescopes in a variety of sizes and patterns, perspective and reading glasses, spectacles, quizzing-glasses, magic lanterns, and camera obscuras of his own, and others’, invention were Yarwell’s stock-in-trade. His ad reads in full (with text originally set in black letter indicated by angle brackets): “At the Archimedes and Three Golden Prospects in St. Paul’s Church-Yard London, Lives John Yarwell, approved of by the Royal Society, who makes Incomparable <Spectacles>, ground upon Brass Tools, to the greatest Perfection, with all other sorts of Glass Instruments, acknowledged by the best skill’d in Opticks, to be performed to the Utmost that can be done by Art, as <Telescopes> of all Lengths, for Day and Night, <Perspective Glasses>, <Eye Glasses>, for any kind of Weather, <Microscopes> single and double, and of the newest and most convenient way for the Pocket, <Magnifying Glasses>, <Multiplying Glasses>, and <Weather Glasses>, <Concave Metals>, <Concave burning Glasses>, and <Looking-Glasses>, of all Diameters, <Triangular Prisms>, <Convex Lanthorns>, <Reading Glasses>, of all Sizes, with all other kinds of Glasses, both Concave, and Convex, and Optick Instruments of the newest Invention. <Speaking-Trumpets>, &c. All these are made and sold at the place above named, by <John Yarwell>.”
   Earlier ads by Yarwell (in 1692 and 1694) used italic type or small caps instead of black letter, and are not as eye-catching.

One of the more ambitious layouts to combine black letter, Roman, and italic types is found in one of the first illustrated readers for children, Orbis Sensualium Pictus [The Visible World Pictured], by the eminent theologian and educational reformer, Johannes Amos Comenius (aka Jan Amos Komenský; 1592–1670). Comenius’s celebrated bilingual primer, first published in Latin and High Dutch (Noribergae: M. Endter, 1658), and translated into English within a year of its publication by the English schoolmaster Charles Hoole (London: Printed for J. Kirton, 1659), combined the “Universal Language” of pictures with Latin and vernacular text set in parallel columns, resulting in what John Evelyn described as a “Hieroglyphical Grammar” (J. Evelyn, Sculptura, or, the History, and Art of Chalcography and Engraving in Copper, 1662, 139) intended by its author to teach not just Latin vocabulary, but also the arts and sciences, moral and natural philosophy, to boys and girls alike. The wisdom of this approach was still being hailed by educational reformers at the end of the 19th century:

The more we reflect on the method of Comenius, the more we shall see it is replete with suggestiveness, and we shall feel surprised that so much wisdom can have lain in the path of schoolmasters for two hundred and fifty years, and that they have never stooped to avail themselves of its treasures.

(Browning’s Introduction to The History of Educational Theories, 1882, 67; qtd. in The Orbis Pictus of John Amos Comenius, ed. by C. W. Bardeen, 1887, viii)

Crafted by Comenius as a children’s “Encyclopaedia of all intelligible, and memorable things that either are, or have ever been in rerum Natura” (J. Evelyn, Sculptura, or, the History, and Art of Chalcography and Engraving in Copper, 1662, 141), the pansophical Orbis Sensualium Pictus gave “a picture and nomenclature of all the chief things that are in the world; and of mens employments therein” (from the title-page to the 1st Eng. edn., 1659), and provides a unique record of life and manners during the 17th century.

page from mid-17th-century picture book for children, with index entries set in black letter

^ Facsimile of index page, with its stylized use of black letter for vernacular text, from the first English edn. of Comenius’s elementary school-book, Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658), Englished by Charles Hoole as Joh. Amos Commenius’s Visible World (1659).

The page I have reproduced above — with the end of the Latin subject entries (set in roman type) and the beginning of the English subject entries (set in black letter) juxtaposed on the same page — is from the bilingual index to Hoole’s 1st English edn. (1659) of Comenius’s classic.
   The entire book was designed around the typographic convention on display here, as originally configured by German printers. The 1st English edn. of Comenius’s Visible World mostly followed the same layout as the original High-Dutch (i.e., High German) edn., with Latin text set in Roman and italic type, and vernacular text set in black letter type. There were, however, significant typographic innovations with the English edn. of 1659, which introduced the use of Roman type for the English word-to-word translations of the Latin, as can be seen below.
   The title-page for the English edition reads in full: Joh. Amos Commenius’s Visible world. Or, a picture and nomenclature of all the chief things that are in the world; and of mens employments therein. A work newly written by the author in Latine, and High-Dutch (being one of his last essays, and the most suitable to children’s capacities of any that he hath hitherto made) & translated into English, by Charles Hoole, teacher of a private grammar-school in Lothbury, London. For the use of young Latine-scholars (London: Printed for J. Kirton, at the Kings-Arms, in Saint Paules Church-yard, 1659).

facsimile of page 261, from same mid-17th-century picture book for children

^ Facsimile of page 261, combining black letter with Roman type, from the first English edn. of Comenius’s elementary school-book, Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658), Englished by Charles Hoole as Joh. Amos Commenius’s Visible World (1659). This is the right-hand page for the 2-page spread on symbol No. 128, “Physick [Ars Medica].”

The gloss on page 261 gives the English and Latin vocabulary associated with the picture on the facing page (page 260),

facsimile of illustration on page 260, from same mid-17th-century picture book for children

illustrating the art of medicine (Ars Medica), with its 19 numbered callouts. The English translation for the Latin on page 261 reads: “The Patient, 1. sendeth for a Physician 2. who feeleth his Pulse, 3. and looketh upon his Water, 4. and then prescribeth a Receipt in a Bill 5.  ¶  That is made ready by the Apothecary 6. in an Apothecaries shop, 7. where Drugs are kept in Drawers, 8. Boxes, 9. and Gally-Pots 10.  ¶  And it is either a Potion, 11. or Powder, 12. or Pills, 13. or Trochisks, 14. or an Electuary, 15.  ¶  Diet and Prayer, 16. is the best Physick.  ¶  The Chirurgion, 18. cureth Wounds 17. and Ulcers, with Plaisters, 19.”
   Click/tap here to view a large digital facsimile (390KB) of Comenius’s lesson No. 128 on the 17th-century practice of medicine from the 1st edn. of Orbis Sensualium Pictus (in High Dutch and Latin) published by Michael Endter, the bookseller at Nuremberg, in 1657/8. Comenius had written his celebrated Orbis Pictus several years before this, while resident in Patak, but was unable to finish the work in Hungary for want of a skilful engraver on copper; even at Nuremberg, with all of Endter’s resources, the engraving delayed the publication of the book for 3 more years. “With what great approbation the work was received at its first appearance, is shown by the fact that within two years, in 1659, Endter had published a second enlarged edition.” (The Orbis Pictus of John Amos Comenius, ed. by C. W. Bardeen, 1887, x)

Once black letter stopped being the everyday work-horse type for British printers, it soon became illegible to the reading public. In his Restoration-era proposal for educational reform, John Aubrey criticized black-letter capitals as “so disguised and embellished with knots and towsures” that Ovid’s warning about design as masquerade (Dress deceives us: jewels and gold hide everything: the girl herself is the least part of herself.) applied:

I do not approve of the method used in the teaching children their letters by the horn-book, or primer, in the black, purple and gothic character which they may never perhaps have any use of in their reading hereafter, except they be common lawyers. The Latin [Roman] character is not only the most useful but the most simple and consequently the most used and therefore the fittest for the first impression in the young child’s memory. The old black letters are derived from these with some alteration, but the capital letters are so disguised and embellished with knots and towsures [towsers] as they may happen to puzzle a critic in the learned language: ’tis like Ovid’s expression, — et pars minima est ipsa puella sui [the girl herself is the least part of herself]. Wherefore it ought to be the Latin character which they should first learn, ....

(J. Aubrey, Idea of Education, ms. begun in 1669 and completed c.1684, transcribed and ed. by J. E. Stephens, 51)

Nowadays, 21st-century readers — who are not Gothic Revivalists, and are most removed in time from the golden age of black letter in the Anglo-American print trade — find it a real challenge to decipher a page of black letter. Texts that were poured over by flickering candlelight in days of yore — by millions of readers who lacked modern optical accoutrements, such as trifocal reading glasses and auto-magnification buttons on computerized reading devices — produce audible groans today from even the most fluent of specialist readers.

A good example of the challenges posed to 21st-century-readers by a 16th-century black-letter text — where the difficulties of the type are exacerbated by archaic syntax and orthography — is provided below.

facsimile of late-16th-century title-page

^ Facsimile of title-page, with ornamental border, for the 1st edn. of Thomas Lupton’s A thousand notable things, of sundry sortes. Wherof some are wonderfull, some straunge, some pleasant, divers necessary, a great sort profitable and many very precious. This booke bewrayes that some had rather hide, which who so buyes, their money is not lost: for many a thing therin, if truely tride, wil gaine much more, the[n] twenty such will cost. And divers else great secretes will detect, and other moe of rare or straunge effect. It is not made to please some one degree, no, no, nor yet to bring a gaine to few: for each thereby, how rich or poore they bee, may reape much good, & mischiefes great eschew. The paines and travell hethertoo is mine: the gaine and pleasure henceforth will be thine. Imprinted at London: By John Charlewood, for Hughe Spooner, dwelling in Lumbardstreete at the signe of the Cradle, [1579].

The advertisement for Lupton’s book given in 12 lines of verse on the title-page is now as quaint as the black letter in which it is set.
   The archaic word “bewray” in the title means to reveal or expose, as in divulging secrets — a proven enticement for readers. Lupton’s best seller was divided into 10 books, each book containing 100 numbered “Notable Thinges.”

A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sorts (1579), by the political and religious controversialist Thomas Lupton (fl. 1572–1584), was a best-selling medical compendium with “a delightful mish-mash of information on a wide variety of topics. It contains excellent directions for setting and splinting broken bones, among other things.” (D. E. Nagy, Popular Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England, 100n45) Retailing for about two pence a copy, such medical compendia (along with almanacs) were affordable: “one conservative estimate has placed 3 or 4 million copies in the hands of 17th-century men and women from all walks of life” (Nagy, 51).

Lupton’s A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sorts — described by Lupton’s ODNB biographer, G. K. Hunter, as “a heterogeneous collection of folk remedies and witty sayings largely drawn from Renaissance encyclopaedias” — enjoyed an especially long run, and was kept continuously in print by the booksellers until the 19th century. The last editions I’ve seen were printed (in modern Roman type) in 1800, 1815, and 1822. During the 16th–18th centuries, Lupton’s text was reissued at least 19 times, in: 1590, 1595, 1601, 1612, 1627, 1631, 1650, 1660 (published by a woman: Mary Wright), 1670, 1675, 1686, 1701 (selections bound with Thomas Tryon’s The Way to Get Wealth for a new guide to health & well-being marketed at 1s. 6d.), 1706, 1776, 1785, 1791, 1793, 1795, and 1799.

Of the many interesting medical receipts given in Lupton’s book, I want to single out Lady Owen’s treatment for breast cancer — a dilution made from sowbugs. This “rare secrete,” passed to Lupton “by an old woman” of his acquaintance, was set in black letter and printed as recipe No. 50 in Book 9 (“The Nynth Booke of Notable Thinges”) of the 1st edn. of Lupton’s miscellany, pp. 235–6:

facsimile of page from late-16th-century printed book

^ Facsimile of page 235, from Thomas Lupton’s best-selling A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sorts (1st edn., 1579).

The black-letter text of Lady Owen’s prescription for treating breast cancer (see No. 50), begins here on page 235.

facsimile of page from late-16th-century printed book

^ Facsimile of page 236, from Thomas Lupton’s best-selling A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sorts (1st edn., 1579).

The black-letter text of Lady Owen’s prescription for treating breast cancer continues at the top of page 236.

My modern HTML transcription of Lady Owen’s prescription follows:

A Perfect and most sure and proved remedy, and a rare secrete, for the helping of womens sore brests that be swolne & ful of paine: which was revealed unto me by an old woman: who sayd yt the Lady Owen, Doctor Owens wife, used it to women in this case very much, who kept it as a great secrete. The medicine foloweth. Stampe or bruse nine litle woorms, of som called Swyne lyce, (which commonly wyll be founde betweene the barke and wood of olde or drye trees, which have many feete, and being touched, they become round as a button,) in eight or nyne spoonefuls of drinke, let them remayne therin all night, and the next morning streyne the same drinke, and let the diseased woman drinke ye same a lytle warmed, at one draught, and then let her laye to her breast, a two or three foulde lynnen cloath warmed: the next morning, let her take eyght of the same lytle woormes in drynke, in such order as before, & the thyrde morning seven, & the fowrth morning syxe, & so every morning following one lesse: discreasing one every morning, untyl nyne mornings be ended, on which nynth morning she must take but one of them, as it wyll fall out by the discreasyng one every day. And if she be not then throughly hole of her breast, let her encrease every morning one immediatly following: untyll she hath receyved nyne at one tyme, according to the order before appoynted. A rare and notable thing, if it be true: for I never proved it.

(Thomas Lupton, A Thousand Notable Things of Sundry Sortes, 1st edn., 1579, 235–6)

I believe the Lady Owen identified here by Lupton to have been Lettice, first wife of the renowned Dr. George Owen (c.1499–1558), appointed physician to Henry VIII in the late 1520s, and admitted to the College of Physicians in 1545, serving as the college’s president from 1553. Dr. Owen was also a prominent physician at the Tudor court of Queen Mary (r. 1553–58), presenting the queen with “two pottles of preserves” in 1556 (Sidney Lee and Patrick Wallis, ODNB entry for George Owen, n. pag.). Mary I was not long on the throne, dying of uterine cancer on 17 November 1558, after reigning for 5 years and 4 months.

Owen’s second wife was named Mary, and since I know very little about either woman, I’m not certain which wife (Lettice or Mary) developed treatments for women with breast cancer. Both women may have worked at refining the recipe, since it was not unusual at this time for physicians’ wives to support their husbands in their clinical practice. Indeed, by the end of the 17th century, it was so common for a wife to serve as her husband’s physician assistant that the satirist Thomas Brown used this role as a comic device in the send-up of contemporary medical practice with which he opened the 2nd part of his Letters from the Dead to the Living (pt. 1, 1702; pt. 2, 1703). Brown’s recently-deceased friend, the comedian, actor and writer Joseph Haines (d. 1701) — here corresponding from hell, where he has an active afterlife as the leading medical astrologer in Pluto’s realm — writes to Brown and other drinking companions at Will’s Coffee-House in Covent Garden that his thriving medical practice in Hades has so many modest female patients that he has been forced to get a yokefellow:

I forgot to tell you, that finding it absolutely necessary to take me a Wife (the Women in certain Cases that shall be nameless, being unwilling to consult any but those of their own Sex) I was advised by some Friends to make my Applications to the famous Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, who being a Person of great experience, and notably well skill’d in the Arcana’s of Nature, would in all probability make me an admirable Spouse. In short, after half a Dozen Meetings, rather for form sake than any thing else, the Bargain was struck, and a Match concluded between us Alexandrian Majesty and my self; Cardinal Wolsey, who is now Curate of a small Village, to the tune of Four Marks per Annum, and the magnificent perquisites of a Bear and Fiddle, perform’d the Holy Ceremony: Amphion of Thebes diverted us at Dinner with his Crowd, and all the while Molinos the Quietist Danced a Lancashire Jigg. Sir Thomas Pilkinton, who, as I told you in my last, is become a most furious Rhime-tagger or Versificator, composed the Epithalmium, and Sardanapalus, Caligula, Nero, Heliogabalus, and Pope Alexander the Seventh were pleased to throw the Stockin. Her Majesty, to do her a piece of common Justice, proves a most dutiful and laborious Wife, spreads all my Plasters, makes all my Unguents, Distills all my Waters, and pleases my Customers beyond expression.

(Thomas Brown, A Continuation or Second Part of the Letters from the Dead to the Living ..., 1st edn., 1703, 29–30)

Lady Owen’s sowbug prescription, which continued to be popular for centuries, soon lost its association with her as other compilers picked it up and reprinted it, oftentimes with alterations suggested by new clinical trials and practices (for example, the Royal Society’s Robert Boyle “have often both recommended to others, and taken my self” Lady Owen’s preparation, which he found efficacious in treating “the Stone” and cataracts, as well as “sore Breasts and Fistula’s”). By the end of the 17th century, Lady Owen’s recipe — no longer attributed to her, but instead known by the name of “those vile Insects commonly called in English, Wood-lice, or Sows, and in Latine Millepedes” — was well-known to women, passed among them by word-of-mouth (“she was advised to the use of Millepedes, by a Woman”) and in best-selling titles such as Hannah Wolley’s A Supplement to The Queen-Like Closet (1st edn., 1674), a domestic handbook recommended by Henry Oldenburg in a 1675 issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Hannah Wolley reworked Lady Owen’s original recipe as follows:

For a Cancer in the Breast, or to Cure sore Eyes.
   There is no better thing in the World than to take inwardly Sows or Woodlice, in this manner following.
   Take about six score of them alive, and wash them in a little White-wine, then bruise them well in a Porringer with the back of a Spoon, then pour in some clean White-wine into them, and strain the juice of them into a quart of Whitewine or Ale, but Whitewine is better, keep it in a Glass-bottle, and every Morning fasting, and at four of the Clock in the Afternoon drink one quarter of a pint of it, so long as you find you need it. Then take a quart of Spring-water that rises in the East, and boyl therein two handfulls of red-Sage till half your water be consumed, then strain it out and put in a little Roch-Allom, and then some Honey, heat them together over the fire, and then put it in a Glass for your use: lay nothing to your Breast but linnen Cloths dipped in some of this Sage-water warmed, Morning and Evening. It is the Wood-lice which doth the Cure, for any Drink which is made of them, especially if it be in White-wine, doth not only Cure a Cancer in the Breast, but also sore Eyes, Scurvy, drowsiness in the Brain, Convulsion-fits in Children or in Older people, or any manner of Obstructions, for they will carry out all evil and venemous Humours out of the Body.

(H. Wolley, A Supplement to The Queen-Like Closet, 1674, 21–2)

Wolley’s late-17th-century version of the recipe was printed in readable Roman type, with the book’s running title set in black letter for emphasis.