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The Collation

“Extravagantly Large Paper”

While working on the exhibition “Age of Lawyers” (currently on view at the Folger Shakespeare Library), I came upon several interesting copies of Thomas Littleton’s Tenures, the first textbook written on English land law. There are five different copies of Littleton’s book printed in London 1588 and 1591 by Richard Totell.1 The text in all of them lies in the inner top quadrant of each page, creating unusually wide margins on each side and below the text. One copy (STC 15749 copy 1) is interleaved. In all the copies, the margins are covered with manuscript notes.


STC 15749.2 copy 1

STC 15749.2 copy 1, showing the large margins. (Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)


STC 15749 copy2

STC 15749 copy 2, with the large margins almost entirely filled with notes. (Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)

While the first editions of Littleton’s book appeared in the fifteenth century, starting in 1482, they multiplied during the following century (ESTC counts over 60 editions). Written in law French, a technical language based on Norman French (although translations of Littleton’s book were published, most of the editions were in Law French), Tenures would not have been easily accessible to the common reader; but for the community of lawyers, this textbook was one of the pillars of their education: they would read and re-read it. For printers, it represented a juicy market.

Peter Blayney has noted that in the early 1500s English printers realized what the uniqueness of English common law meant for them: they did not face continental competition when printing legal texts. This, of course, did not entirely eliminate competition between English printers as Richard Pynson and Robert Redman, among other printers, engaged in a fierce battle to obtain control of the English law book market.2 However, the law printing landscape changed in the mid-1500s with the emergence of a newcomer on the scene, the printer Richard Totell.

Tottell established his own printshop in 1553, in London, and shortly thereafter managed to secure printing privileges for legal texts. At first, the privileges were for any law book not already covered by a privilege, and later, they were expanded to cover any authorized law book. In 1559, this latter privilege was renewed and granted to him for life, securing his domination over the English law book market. From 1557 to the early 1590s (Tottell died in 1594), all editions of Littleton’s Tenures were printed by his shop.

The Folger copies of Tottell/Littleton illustrate how he refined his offerings to a market whose demands he knew well. Serious and well-off students wished to obtain a copy of the Tenures with wide margins, possibly interleaved, in which they could make heavy annotations. Since 1525, when Pynson had published an edition of this textbook in pocket size,3 the majority of Littleton’s editions were printed in a small format (octavo, duodecimo, sixteenmo) rather than in folio. Likewise, some of the Folger copies under discussion are in an octavo format. They were, however, printed on large paper to produce the wide margins, as shown in the images above.

Carter’s ABC For Book Collectors describes “large paper copies” of a text as special copies printed in small number after the main run of an edition for presentation or, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for sale by subscription.4 An example of a presentation copy on large paper at the Folger is a copy of Harington’s translation of Orlando Furioso from 1591.5

A copy on large paper of the Orlando Furioso with red ink ruling as a form of embellishment

A copy on large paper of the Orlando Furioso with red ink ruling as a form of embellishment (STC 746 copy 1) (Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)

Carter also writes that “extravagantly large paper makes an unsightly book, unless the type is reset to accord with the increased page-size; for the result is all too often a blob of type in an expanse of margin.” One may think Totell’s editions of Tenures on large paper are, indeed, “unsightly” but their wide margins were neither created for decoration nor to give the appearance of a fancy book: they were intended to be filled with notes by readers, as our copies illustrate.

Tottell went even further by printing some large paper copies with extra wide margins. These were printed in a quarto format (i.e. the chain lines of the paper in these copies run horizontally) using the standing type of the octavo format edition.6

A copy on "regular" large paper.

A copy on large paper with “regular” wide margins (STC 15749.2 copy 2). (Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)


A copy on large paper with extra wide margins

A copy on large paper with extra wide margins (STC 15748). The setting of type is the same as in copy STC 15749.2 copy 2, above. (Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)


Difference of height between the two copies

Difference of height between copies STC 15749.2 copy 2 and STC 15748. (Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)


The extensive manuscript notes in the Folger copies, written in both English and Law French, include references to cases and notes on readings.

Carefully written notes by the owner of this copy written in Law French

Carefully hand-written notes by the owner of this copy, in Law French (STC 15749.2 copy 1). (Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)

The various ownership inscriptions  in the Folger copies confirm that students and lawyers read and studied Tenures. From the chain of ownership in copy STC 15748, one may suspect that its extra wide margins and the notes written in it by previous owners were an attractive selling point for its successive purchasers.

STC 15748 owners

The ownership inscriptions on the title page above indicate that this copy of Littleton was purchased and owned by at least three different readers (STC 15748). (Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish)



  1. Sir Thomas Littleton, Les tenures de Monsieur Littleton … Imprinted at London : In Fleetestrete within Temple Barre, at the signe of the Hand and Starre by Richarde Tottell, Cum priuilegio, 1588, STC 15748; 1591, STC 15749 Copies 1 & 2 and STC 15749.2 Copies 1 & 2
  2. Peter Blayney, The Stationers’ Company and the printers of London 1501-1557, Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2013, vol.1, pp.54-55
  3. Sir Thomas Littleton (d.1481), Lyttylton tenures newly and moost truly correctyd [et] amendyd. [Londini : In edibus Richardi Pynsoni regii impressoris, Anno a Christi natu. 1525. quarto idus Octobris.] [1525], STC (2nd ed.) 15726
  4. John Carter, ABC for book collectors. 8th ed. [with corrections, additions, and an introduction by] Nicholas Barker. New Castle, DE : Oak Knoll Press ; London : British Library, 2004, p.139
  5. Lodovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso in English heroical verse, by Iohn Haringto[n]. [Imprinted at London : By Richard Field dwelling in the Black-friers by Ludgate, 1591]. STC 746 copy 1.
  6. More research remains to be done to determine exactly how these copies were printed.


The large-paper copy of STC 15748 (1588) shows Tottel going back to a method used by printers one hundred years earlier, printing by partial formes. For whatever reason, he seems to have wanted to produce copies of the octavo with extra-extra-extra wide and deep margins. He did so by rotating a sheet ninety degrees, placing it on *half* of the forme, either 1-4-5-8 or 2-3-6-7, machining that half forme with one pull, and then perfecting, again with one pull. He then cut the finished sheets across the top of the pages, giving him four bilfolia: 1.8, 2.7, 3.6, and 4.5, which he then quired. Because the sheet is rotated ninety degrees, the resulting leaves have horizontal chainlines and watermarks in the gutter, but the book is in fact an octavo.

We can tell this is what he did because the extra-wide margins meant the point holes occur, not on the fore edge as one would expect with an octavo, but about 1/3 of the way into the leaf. The sheets were larger than the half forme and extended beyond the center of the chase, which had grooves to accommodate the pins as they pierced the sheet. Hence the pins pierced the sheet not between leaves but in them. The Folger copy shows points holes in every gathering located about 120 mm down from the top of the leaf and 50 mm in from the fore edges, on leaves 5, 6, 7, and 8. The point holes on 5 and 6 occur in the same spot on the leaf, as do those for 7 and 8, demonstrating they were printed on the same press with the same pin offset.

What a fun book–thanks for “pointing” this out, Caroline!

David Gants — November 18, 2015


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