Tag Archives: type faces

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!”

Doves Press: the case of the drowned font

During the week of 5-9th December 2011 Radio 4’s Book of the Week was “Just my type” a book about fonts by Simon Garfield (Profile Books, 2011).  During the second episode they related the case of the “Drowned font”. 

Doves Press was set up by T.  J. Cobden Sanderson in 1900 in partnership with Emery Walker.  The press had its own type face cut by Edward Prince who had worked previously for the Kelmscott Press  and cut type for William Morris, including the Golden Type.   Cobden Sanderson and Walker acromoniously split  in 1908, with a legal agreement that stated Cobden Sanderson would own the Doves type until his death, when it would then revert to Walker.

As time passed Cobden Sanderson came to fear that the type would be used for items he would not approve of, and that would bring shame to the previous good name of the press.  And so, between 1913 and 1916 he disposed of the type in the river Thames, throwing it off Hammersmith Bridge, in ‘pages’ (blocks of type), wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.  He did this at night so as not to be seen, and it was only at his death that his deeds were discovered by the reading of his will which bequeathed the Doves’ type to the river: “…to and from the great sea, forever and ever.” 

Emery Walker subsequently brought legal proceedings against Cobden-Sanderson’s wife Anne, and won an out of court settlement of £700.

Here at Cardiff University in the Rare Books Collection we have 44 items from the Doves Press, so you have plenty of chance to come and have a look at this special font for yourself.

[The  example below is from ‘The tragicall historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke’ by William Shakespeare, Doves Press, 1909]