For Him that Cannot Reade: The Index as Graphic Novel

In early 1566, Peter Frarin’s Oration Against the Unlawfull Insurrections of the Protestantes began to circulate in its English translation, printed in Antwerp. Frarin’s text is standard religious polemic – nothing particularly surprising – until we come to the back of the book. There we find a rather extraordinary innovation.

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Peter Frarin, Oration Against the Unlawfull Insurrections of the Protestantes (Antwerp, 1566) [Oxford, Bodleian, Wood 800(3)]

The Table of this Booke set ovt not by order of Alphabete or numbre, but by expresse figure, to the eye & sight of the Christian Reader, and of him also that cannot reade.

Instead of keywords or chapter epitomes, then, the book’s table contains a series of woodcuts illustrating the key sections of the main text. It is a functioning table of contents – the woodcuts have locators beneath them, and if we follow the link from the above image to leaf B iiii, sure enough we find that this illustration is depicting a Protestant riot in Paris:

Oute with thy sword for the Gospell, sayeth the new Gospeller. There was a Companie of desperat & wicked personnes that ran lyke mad men up and down the streates of Paris with glistering naked swordes in theyr handes, and cried out, the Gospel, the Gospell: when they meant nothing els, but to bring a sort of cursed Sectes and wicked Heresies into the Realme.

And we can tell that the Table really was used as a table of contents because one of the copies in the Bodleian has been marked up by a reader, adding extra locators underneath the woodcuts. The Oration was printed without page numbers, and the printed table was instead keyed to the page signatures – marks primarily for the bookbinder’s use. This is not uncommon in early printed books, as I’ve noted in an earlier blog, but by 1566 page sigs are a rather old fashioned locator to use. So this reader has inserted their own page numbers in the corners of the pages, then added numerical locators, replacing the alphanumerical sig marks, to the table.

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There are even manicules on the relevant pages pointing to the indexed passage.

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So the visual table really did function as a table of contents, at least for the owner of Wood 800(3). But let’s pause here. The Table announces that its illustrations are intended for the benefit of illiterate people. But for ‘him that cannot reade’, the main text, of course, will be meaningless. Those locators are no use at all: the table needs to stand alone. Added to that, the table does not in fact contain only those ‘expresse figures’, the images. Instead, each woodcut is accompanied by a short scurrilous verse, like this rather magnificent couplet:

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Calvin in his chamber fiue yeres taught a Nonne
Tyll she was great with Gospell and swolne with a Sonne

So the table is really two things at once, or rather it is designed to function within two different modes of reading. On the one hand, as a true table of contents, designed to support extract reading. But the table is also intended to be something else entirely: not an index but an adaptation, distilling the main text into something like graphic novel form: a version of Frarin’s Oration to be read sequentially by illiterate readers using only the images, or literate ones able to enjoy the satirical interplay of image and doggerel.

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