This is a sermon printed Cologne in 1470. It’s a small book, about the size of a paperback novel, and the text itself is short: eleven numbered leaves and a frontispiece. But sitting in the library with that page open in front of me has, I think, been my most intense experience of the archival sublime, the sense of disbelief that something of such conceptual magnitude should be right there on my desk rather than labelled and sealed off in a display case.
In the early 1800s, recognising what this book represents, the great bibliographer Jacques-Charles Brunet wrote of it:
Ce petit volume rare, a le double mérite d’être en même temps le premier livre connu avec date, sorti des presses de Therhoernen, à Cologne, et le premier livre aussi dont les pag. soient chiffrées.
[This rare little volume has the double merit of being both the first dated volume known to have left the presses of Therhoernen of Cologne, and also the first book with numbered pages.]
That character, halfway down the righthand margin, looking like a J, should actually be read as a 1, and it’s the first page number in a printed book. (Technically it’s the folios not the pages that are numbered – each leaf rather than each side – but we won’t worry about that for now.)
There are a couple of things to note about the Cologne book. Firstly, 1470 is surprisingly late. Print had already been around for a couple of decades by this time without anyone thinking to add foliation. And secondly, even after they were introduced, numbered leaves failed to catch on as quickly as we might expect. In a wonderfully detailed piece of research, Margaret M. Smith shows that foliation remained an unusual feature for several decades to come. By the end of the century, it could still only be found in about 10% of printed books:
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that, technically, it’s not that simple to print those numbers. If you look at the main text of the Cologne book, it all fits into one big rectangle, an arrangement which is easy to lock tightly in the printing chase so that the letters won’t spill out onto the floor when you move it onto the press. Adding another element outside that rectangle makes it rather harder to lock the forme tightly, so there has to be a very good reason for it.
Which brings us to the second reason: in 1470, page numbers weren’t seen as a pressing need. In the manuscript world that preceded print, the nature of the handwritten word meant that different copies of the same text might not keep to exactly the same pagination. Thus the referencing systems that evolved in the manuscript era relied on features of the text rather than features of the book, the best example, of course, being the chapters and verses of the Bible. These systems meant that, for many of the major philosophical and theological works at least, there were already perfectly good ways of referring to specific sections of a large text.
So our folio numbers in 1470 present an additional problem for printers without addressing a real need for their customers. But it’s certainly a wild thought now to imagine a life, or at least a life of teaching and researching, without Therhoernen’s innovation, and in my next blog I’ll show the types of book where the value of page numbers really became apparent.