Cataloguing Early Printed Greek

As a cataloguer, I create detailed descriptions of books. More than just transcribing titles and authors, I try to anticipate all of the ways in someone might search for a particular book and add notes, subjects, and name headings accordingly. At the risk of stating the obvious, this means that I need to be able to read the thing that I’m cataloguing.

Because I work with rare books, I encounter materials published in many different countries, over several centuries, in many different languages. This can present some interesting challenges, such as reading Fraktur or other Blackletter typefaces, deciphering centuries-old handwriting, or simply reading a language I’ve never studied.

At Cardiff University, most of our rare books are in English, Latin, or Welsh, but it’s not at all unusual to find books in French, Spanish, German, Italian, or Greek. With the aid of a good dictionary and Google Translate, it’s not too difficult to muddle through most languages, but Greek has the added challenge of being written in an entirely different alphabet. Luckily, there are tools to help cataloguers convert non-Roman scripts into their nearest Roman alphabet equivalents, but Early Modern Greek isn’t nearly as simple as the Library of Congress’ Romanization table would have you believe.

When printing with movable type was invented around 1450, early printers consciously imitated the style of manuscripts, including common ligatures and symbols of abbreviation which had been in common use for centuries.


Left: Manuscript Book of Hours (Italy, ca. 1460-1480). Right: Bible (Basel: Johann Amerbach for Anton Koberger, 1498). Both use abbreviations, as in, “orbem terra[rum]” on line 3 on the left and “In principio creavit de[us] celum et terra[m]” on the right.

The earliest Greek typefaces were no exception, and were based largely on the uncial and minuscule hands used in manuscript books.


Between 1490 and 1503, however, the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (1449-1515) began to design a series of Greek typefaces based on the everyday Greek cursive of the day. 


This page from Aesop’s fables (Basel: Froben, 1524) shows the similarity in appearance between the handwritten annotations and the printed text.

When copying entire books by hand, standardised abbreviations are a valuable time saver, and were used even in formal book hands. In cursive though, the letters are shaped more for speed than elegance, and ligatures and abbreviations abound. Even so, to a contemporary reader, the cursive style would have been more familiar and faster to read than its formal counterparts. Manutius’ Greek books proved such a commercial success that other printers soon began to imitate the new typeface.


Two impressions of the first lines of Homer’s Iliad, the left one printed in 1664 using a variety of ligatures, the right one printed in 1931 using the modern 24-letter alphabet.

By the middle of the 16th century, most symbols of abbreviation gradually fell out of use in Latin and other vernacular printed texts. Not so with Greek; 16th century type designers continued to develop a profusion of new symbols for the most frequent combinations of letters.

In 1541, King Francis I of France commissioned the creation of a new Greek typeface. Designed by Claude Garamond, it became known as Grecs du Roi and remained in use well into the 18th century. Modelled after the handwriting of Angelo Vergecio, the King’s librarian at Fontainbleu, Grecs du Roi retained many of the complex ligatures that had characterised the Aldine Greek type. Robert Estienne, Royal Printer for Greek under King Francis I, recorded that his largest case of Greek type consisted of more than four hundred and thirty different characters, most of them ligatures.

The prospect of deciphering such a staggering array of symbols is enough to cause despair in even the most dedicated cataloguer. Fortunately, there is help in the form of William H. Ingram’s 1966 article, “The Ligatures of Early Printed Greek,” which spells out approximately 400 different ligatures. With Ingram’s list in hand, there’s no excuse for this cataloguer to say “It Greek to me!”

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