Identifiers of Early Books: The Address to the Reader & Decorations


Jax De la Cruz-Luera ’20


As we make our way through the early modern book, the next few identifiers we will cover are The Address to the Reader, a more personal note that invites the reader into the book, and Printers Flowers and Ornaments, decoration that accompanied the text. 

The Address to the Reader

Any new technology requires a little bit of explanation, and the move from manuscript to printed books was no different. When some popular texts began to be printed instead of hand written, those in the book making business saw that it was necessary to explain some of the differences in the way the book was formatted or other stylistic choices that the printer may have made. Without all of the traditional illumination and designs that accompanied manuscripts, some readers were turned off by the initial look of the printed book; these addresses attempted to quell these concerns. 

Eventually, these addresses morphed into a type of introduction from someone who had a hand in the creation of the book, whether that be the printer, translator, or author. This makes it different from a forward, which was typically an introduction written by an author different from that of the book being published. These addresses to the readers would discuss a number of things, including who the intended audience was, information about the acquisition of the text,  as well as what the reasons were for publishing the book. Additionally, the author sometimes would attempt to anticipate what criticism the readers may have of the text, and offer guidance to the reading. 


Leo Fioravanti Address to Reader

The addresses were modeled as a formal dedication, typically starting with something along the lines of “To the Reader,” or more formally something like “Unto the Good Christian Reader.” These addresses created a dialogue between the book makers and the readers that signified that the book was consciously created specifically for the reader to absorb. Eventually these addresses caused a split between publishers and authors. In regards to errors in the text, printers and authors used the address to the reader as a platform to blame one another. Printers would blame authors for being absent or negligent during the process, and authors would blame printers for being inattentive to details. As authors gained popularity among audiences readers expected to be addressed by the authors themselves instead of the printers. This gave authors more control over the text. Authors gained the ability to specifically name who their intended readers were, encouraging their fans to remain loyal. 

The Fleurons and Ornaments

Unlike the first three characteristics we have discussed so far, the presence of fleurons and ornaments in books was not a new development that emerged thanks to the printing press. Instead, the presence of ornamentation throughout books was part of the illuminator’s job, and was essential to the quality of a book. Ornamental designs had been around for centuries before the printing press and had been utilized not only by scribes but also embroideries and lace workers as well. In books these initially were stamped into the leather bindings as well as illuminated within the text. 

During the early years of printing, books were still sent to illuminators for completion. Eventually, inked styles that could be sold as printers blocks replaced the illumination practice. These ornamental designs were typically cut into wood or metal and then relief inked. This gave rise to ornamental type, which were known as printer’s flowers or fleurons. Because they were the same size they were sold by the type founder to the printers along with the letter type. These flowers could be used individually or worked into complex designs. They were used as headers, footers, and also within the text to signify breaks or take up the extra space at the end of sentences. Some designs were cut for a specific text, and then recycled and used for other books. 

Religious texts especially were known for their elaborate ornamental designs. Therefore, following the Protestant Reformation, when bibles and prayer books began to be printed in mass quantities for the general public, there was a major rise in the usage of printer’s flowers as homage to the holy texts. Following the fluctuation in religious trends throughout Europe, the popularity of fleurons and ornamental flowers also rose and fell from the 16th-18th centuries. 

  Catholic Church Book of Hours Leaf

Eventually, prominent printers developed their own ornamental devices as a way to brand their publications. This was a way for printers and engravers to show their craft, bringing readers into another world not created by the author, and not reserved for the title page or frontispiece. These decorations became a part of the visual vocabulary. One of the most prominent printers of the 16th century, Wynkyn de Worde, is a perfect example of this printer vocabulary.

Wynkyn de Worde device

As more of the population became literate and book production continued to increase, ornamentation in books began to be seen as too time costly, and eventually died out. Those books that did continue to include illumination instead turned to new technology for the illustrations instead of the traditional inked relief blocks.