Colophons in the Early Modern World: An Interview with the Editors

by | Jan 24, 2023 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

This interview discusses the recent volume Scribal Practice and the Global Cultures of Colophons, 1400–1800, edited by Dr Christopher Bahl (Durham) and Dr Stefan Hanß (Manchester), the latter a member of The Bodies, Emotions and Material Culture Collective. Professor Sasha Handley and Dr Rachel Winchcombe invited the editors to this interview.


Sasha Handley (SH): What is a colophon and why is its history so significant for our understanding of early modern society and culture?

Stefan Hanß (STH): Colophons are everywhere! Seriously, once we started working on colophons we realised that they can be found in almost every early modern manuscript and print—in different shapes, with different content, written in different manners, but used by protagonists across different cultures.

Colophons are often defined as a signing off note, a finishing stroke, or the tail of the text. They provide us with some of the text’s most important information, for instance, the date and place of its composition, or the identity of the scribe and sometimes also of the commissioner and printer of the text. For us, however, colophons are more than just a codicological unit.

Christopher Bahl (CB): Colophons were first and foremost a social exercise of knitting relationships; a social game of revealing and concealing clues about the text’s social universe, performed by scribes across the early modern world. Unbundling the social history of colophons helps uncovering the cultural rules of such games—if understood as a practice, colophons can be entry points for historians to examine the making of scribal communities and identities in diverse early modern cultural contexts.


Rachel Winchcombe (RW): How challenging was it to come up with a new, broader definition of the colophon that worked for non-European contexts but also remained coherent?

CB: It was a challenge to reflect on established definitions, but it was first and foremost a joy—and very much the result of ongoing, thought-provoking conversations with researchers and friends from different disciplines, with the contributors who have written such inspiring chapters, despite the pandemic.

At times, our vocabulary is shaped by European traditions that go back to the early modern period. Colophons are such an example since codicological terminology relies on Greek vocabulary that served Renaissance European humanists to mould very specific cultural traditions. Until the fifteenth century, the colophon has been mainly termed subscriptio, a Latin term that survived in administrative contexts. Later, European humanists consciously started to situate themselves within the Greek tradition. In English prints, the term “colophon” appeared for the first time only in the early seventeenth century. It was Robert Burton who defined the colophon as a “finishing stroke” and “crowning touch” in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).

The noun then entered codicological terminology and became a common term for studying a wide range of cultural contexts; it was applied to Arabic manuscripts, for instance, or to Chinese block-printing.

STH: This matters because it favours a specific interpretative tradition; a tradition that implies cultural hierarchies as much as it neglects the social and cultural diversity of early modern scribal traditions. Treating colophons as scribal practices thus matters to us, as editors, when considering the implications for global approaches.

Three steps were key along the path to establish a new, inclusive, and coherent definition of colophons.

First, we acknowledge that codicological terminology builds on a Renaissance European tradition and that other cultural traditions have a much richer and more diverse vocabulary to address such scribal practices. Chinese print culture, for instance, offers a far more elaborate vocabulary of colophonal signs.

Second, the volume’s global approach re-balances early modern book history’s overwhelming concern for printed texts—manuscripts remained important across the globe, and especially with the rise of archives, empires, and the increasing professionalisation of scribes. Thinking about colophons in terms of both manuscripts and prints also shifts traditional narratives. It is widely believed that colophons disappeared with the spread of print technology and that colophons became replaced by the imprint or title page. As we show, the history of colophons is much more complex. Neither can they be reduced to a precursor to a modern title page or imprint nor did print culture diminish the significance of colophons. On the contrary, the invention of print added yet another layer of possible textual and social experimentation.

Third, we study colophons as cultural practices and thus social acts: strategies of signing and inscribing deeply embedded in the institution of patronage and cultures of praise shared across the early modern world that made this kind of text a social currency for manoeuvring through societies. This approach allows for far more inclusive, open, and connected stories to be uncovered and told, and contrary to previous studies’ concern for colophons as finished, polished products, this volume shifts the attention towards the work in progress side of colophons as acts of social negotiation. Through colophons, scribes negotiated their own standing in hierarchical societies and crafted colophons as cultural memory.


SH: You talk in your introduction about colophons as ’embodied matter’ that helped to broker physical and affective connections between scribes, readers, and manuscripts. Do you have an example from the book that illuminates this?

STH: Colophons address the human component of texts: the people involved in their production, and their imagined relationship with those who are going to hold the text in their hands in the future. Colophons thus bridge spatial, temporal, and bodily distances. The colophon crafts an imaginative space that makes the scribe present; a bodily presence that precedes and transcends the scribe’s bodily absence that the reader experiences while reading the text.

It is not by chance that early modern contemporaries defined colophons as the scribe’s “crowing touch.” In 1635, John Swan even compares an author’s colophon with God’s touch, the climax of creation, stating that God “comes to the Creation of Man and makes him the colophon or conclusion of all things else.”

Such sentences were more than mere metaphors. Early modern protagonists considered colophons as embodied matter that established mutual physical connections. These bodily, sensory, and material components made colophons “enlivened texts”: carefully crafted social acts that called to be touched, heard, and remembered as much as to be seen or read or sung aloud. As a scribal practice, colophons were not static accessories but rather “accessories in motion,” to adapt a wording of Aby Warburg, that animated texts through communicative interventions.

CB: The book discusses many of such examples. In colonial Peru, for instance, the shape and content of colophons of printed sermons resembles hymns at times, so they most certainly invited a very physical, sensory engagement of the readers, inviting them to sing the colophon as part of the sermon. When travelling the world, Stefan’s chapter shows, sixteenth-century Jesuits like Francis Xavier read fellow Jesuits’ letters and their colophons again and again, at times even “with tears of delight,” remembering “past days.” Colophons were a powerful emotional and communicative tool to cultivate this order’s experience of community and closeness, in spite of the bodily absence and distance of members of the order. David Zakarian shows in his chapter that Armenian colophons served the commemoration of the dead, and that colophons thus established very personal, bodily, and kinship relationships. Focusing on early modern German and Dutch sources, Hannah Murphy shows that the idea of writing related scribal practices with craft cultures that aimed at mastering techniques and materials as much as the body.

SH: Albrecht Dürer’s engraving of Erasmus (1526) is another great example for the extent to which contemporaries reflected upon the “crowning touch” of colophons. The writing humanist’s hand covers the text’s “finishing stroke”, an act of a “crowning touch” itself. Yet a colophon of a different kind is revealed in the upper part of the engraving. “The likeness of Erasmus of Rotterdam, done by Albrecht Dürer to a lively effigy”, the Latin text reads, and it follows in Greek: “His writings shall present a better picture of the man than this portrait”. By stating the year and artist, this engraving illustrates how colophons could be transferred from manuscripts into the arts. Scribal practices demanded artistry itself, and Dürer translated the colophon into a relatively new technique—engraving—that required artists to dedicate themselves to “finishing strokes” and “crowning touches”. His skills in tactility and embodied making and ingenuity are foregrounded in the engraving’s entire programme and mirrored in its colophonal exercise.

Albrecht Dürer, Erasmus, 1526. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


RW: Is the history of colophons an inclusive history? In both of your individual chapters you consider the issues of hidden meanings and anonymity. Is omission thus as important as inclusion for understanding the social and cultural functions of colophons?

CB: Our collaborative work has demonstrated that looking at scribal practices allows us to investigate histories of professional communities, who are not usually at the centre of attention. However, I don’t think that a focus on scribal practice necessarily offers an ‘inclusive history’ because the social parameters change from case to case. Still, we think that studying colophons and their authors allows us to write more inclusive histories of book cultures and intellectual histories.

STH: Inclusion and omission are indeed both important, as well as the fine-tuned in-between practices that allowed practitioners to situate their own understandings when writing a colophon. Reading an article of Jeremy Johns and Nadia Jamil has been a truly eye-opening experience for me when reflecting on the hidden meanings of colophons. Johns and Jamil have shown that signatures (‘alāmāt) in Norman Sicily could contain hidden messages, such as Quranic references or a royal eunuch’s hidden profession of Islam. In twelfth-century Norman court culture and its trilingual chancery, signatories’ ‘alāmāt could reveal and conceal messages to a diverse readership with different degrees of proficiency in deciphering these signatures’ (hidden) meanings.1

This made me wonder how protagonists could use the dynamics of cross-cultural encounters to craft highly personalised colophons that spoke to a variety of audiences in different ways. As I show in my chapter, the colophons of Muslim converts living in sixteenth-century Italy, for instance, or Indigenous Brazilians living in sixteenth-century Portugal seem to have been designed with a double audience in mind. A convert’s colophons, for example, could address Christian readers in Rome while also opening hidden channels of communication with Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire. And the signature of an Indigenous Tupi at the sixteenth-century Portuguese court, I show, can be anchored in specific Tupi notions of subjectivity, community, and belonging. I also discuss the Indigenous use of colophons in juridical documents in colonial New England. Here, such scribal practices became a means for both colonisers and colonised—and everybody in-between—to position, comment upon, and dynamise cultural encounters when speaking to different audiences in different ways. Such documents do not represent the interaction of literate experts with passive illiterates; they rather allude to experimental interactions of practitioners who, on both sides, tried to make sense and use of the colophon’s power to negotiate social relationships. Narragansett signature-marks, for instance, were not arbitrarily chosen and spoke to both an English and Indigenous audience, as well as conflicting interests within such groups.

Often, signatures are the only marks that marginalised groups left themselves in the archival record. Aiming to examine their experiences, historians have a moral obligation to take their participative engagement with colophon-making seriously.


SH: The book has an interesting structure – what you call a ‘rhizomorphic arrangement’. Can you explain to our readers why the way a book is structured is important for a book like yours that deals with global history?

CB: This volume’s chapters are presented in alphabetical order of their authors’ surnames. In practice, each reader can decide for a variety of chapter sequences, including a reverse alphabetical order. This way, there are various reading paths and we invite readers to explore their very own paths when reading the chapters in a sequence of their interest; and rereading them in again different orders. The volume’s chapters are of course sign-posted throughout and thereby form an integral part of the volume’s argument.

We decided for this arrangement since a geographical grouping of the chapters would define spatial orders whose definitions often conceal that these regions, at least in the early modern world, were deeply interconnected—often exactly because of those early modern scribal practices which are examined in this volume. We also acknowledge that the early modern world varied in cultural and religious terms far more than such modern geographical labels could possibly imply.

We invite readers to engage with the volume in rhizomorphic ways—an epistemological approach that is widely established in philosophy and literature. Rhizomorphic reading is non-linear and accounts for the reality of complex pluralities in the past and present, as well as the dynamism, insights, and reflections that can be generated through non-linear reading practices.

This also does justice to early modern colophons that were often written and in fact demanded to be read in rhizomorphic ways. Across the early modern globe, colophons provoked different forms of repeated engagement; they were held, adapted, repeated, and transformed from different angles; in different ways; at different times; again and again, and again. Early modern colophons, in all their variety, often functioned as dynamic and productive fields of rhizomorphic energy that could potentially establish, disrupt, or draw people and texts into relationships across space and time.


RW: Did The Bodies, Emotions and Material Culture Collective or Manchester’s public collections shape your thinking about the book in any significant ways?

STH: The Collective is such a very much appreciated platform of exchange. Also when writing this volume, the members of the Collective made time for conversations and generously offered the opportunity to exchange and test ideas. They reminded us of the emotional, sensorial, and bodily qualities of colophons, as well as their material aspects. Also the unique Special Collections of Manchester offered thought-provoking inspiration along the way. Christopher even presented some of his research on the Persian manuscript collection of The John Rylands Research Institute and Library at Affective Artefacts, the Collective’s interdisciplinary flagship seminar. During an inspiring collections-based workshop, Christopher furthermore guided the audience through a variety of colophons in Rylands manuscripts, and the stories of cultural, social, and textual transmission that they reveal. We thank all the members of The Bodies, Emotions and Material Culture Collective for their companionship throughout the years!


1 Jeremy Johns and Nadia Jamil, “Signs of the Times: Arabic Signatures as a Measure of Acculturation in Norman Sicily,” Muqarnas 21 (2004): 181–92.