Books were printed on sheets which were large enough to contain at least two printed pages on each side. The four sizes of the paper sheet on which the great majority of books were printed were imperial (about 74 x 50cm), royal (about 61.5 x 44.5cm), median (about 51.5 x 34.5cm), and chancery (about 45 x 31.5cm) (Richardson 13). Once the number of pages of type sufficient to cover one side of a sheet had been composed, they were put together in a process known as imposition. A compositor arranged the pages so that they would follow in the correct sequence once the paper was folded and cut; following this, the compositor would then fix the paper into a rectangular wooden or iron frame known as a chase, fill the spaces with large wooden inner frames known as furniture and then lock them firmly with quoins. Each set of pages imposed for printing on one side of a sheet of paper is called a forme. Therefore, the combination of the chase, furniture and type when they are all ‘locked up’ and ready for machining is known as the forme. The forme containing the text, which will be on the inside pages of a printed sheet when folded, is called the inner forme; that which contains text on the outside is known as the outer forme (Richardson 11).

A single-page forme for printing. The black frame surrounding it is the ‘chase’, and the two objects each on the bottom and left side are the ‘quoins’.

A single-page forme for printing. The black frame surrounding it is the ‘chase’, and the two objects each on the bottom and left side are the ‘quoins’.

If it was felt that page divisions could be predicted, as in the case of some poetry, the compositor would sometimes set the text by formes. This would involve setting all the pages of one side of the sheet rather than their natural text sequence. This meant the types could be reused without waiting for the second forme to be composed and more than one compositor could work simultaneously on the same forme. This may have been more beneficial at times but faulty type was sometimes detected when ‘casting off’ or calculation of the number of pages was inaccurate. When this happened, the second forme which was to be composed had pages of an irregular length in order to fit in what had been previously set. According to Richardson, half sheet imposition or ‘work and turn’ was another way to reduce the quantity of type (11-12). Rather than dividing them equally between outer and inner forms together with the other pages destined to fill the sheet, this method involves putting the number of consecutive pages of the text which would fill one side of a sheet in the forme. This forme was printed on one side of a sheet and when the stack of paper had been turned over that side was printed on also. The sheet was then cut in half to give two identical set of half sheets.

After being printed on both sides, each set was eventually folded to form a gathering or quire. The different arrangements of pages on the sheet of paper and the corresponding folding’s of the printed sheet, gives rise to different book formats (Richardson 12). After the forme had been printed off, it was returned to the compositor who then cleaned off the ink and distributed most of the type back to the cases. The arrangement of every forme of a book remained the same so the compositor would retain certain hypographical parts; these included headings, repeated rules, ornaments known as standing type, and chase and furniture (Bernstein 58). These components made up the skeleton forme which was then reused for successive forms. The forme played such a vital role in earlier publishing as it became involved in each step by step process of the extended publishing routine.

Bernstein, Jane A. Music Printing in Renaissance Venice. The Scotto Press, 1539-1572. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.
Prytherch, Raymond John. Harrod’s Librarians’ Glossary and Reference Book: A Directory of over 9,600 Terms, Organizations, Projects, and Acronyms in the Areas of Information Management, Library Science, Publishing, and Archive Management. Aldershot, Hants., England: Gower, 2000.
Richardson, Brian. Printing, Writers, and Readers in Renaissance Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Contributed by Darren Mac Donnell.

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