Skip to main content
The Collation

The Location of Plates in a Book

When consulting a book with plates (that is, inserted leaves printed separately from the text), it is best not to assume that they have been placed in the same location in all copies of the same edition nor that their location in the book reflects the one intended by the author or the publisher.

In our copy of Hiob Ludolf’s book on the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez,1 for example, the portrait of the Ethiopian abbot Gregory was inserted between leaves E1 and E2 (or pages 34-35):

Folger Shakespeare Library, DT383 .L8 1691 Cage (folio).

while in the Bavarian State Library copy, it is located before leaf A, after the preliminary leaves including the author’s preface.

In this case, we know that the binder of the Folger copy did not follow the instructions provided by the printer, which mention explicitly where this portrait is to be inserted, i.e. after the author’s preface.

Instructions from the printer as to where the plates should go. An English reader checked that all the plates were included in this copy  and handwrote ‘misbound’ by plate 2 of Abbot Gregory. Folger Shakespeare Library, DT383 .L8 1691 Cage (folio).

It is possible that the binder of this copy may not have read either Latin or German and may not have understood these printed instructions; but a more likely explanation is that an early owner of the book thought that a better place for Gregory’s portrait was near the section of the book giving an account of the abbot’s life.

In general binding instructions printed or engraved on plates were in a language understood by the binder, often in the language of the country where most copies of the book were to be sold and bound. In the first English edition of Nicolas Flamel’s book, for example,  the instructions to the binder on the folded plate are in English while the caption for the arch is the same as in the French edition.2

The instructions to the binder in the upper right corner of the plate in English indicate where to insert this single-sheet print while the text describing the arch is in French. Folger Shakespeare Library, STC 11027.

In many books, the only plate to be inserted was the author’s portrait. Its conventional place was then the beginning of the book either before, facing, or after the title page.

An example of an author portrait facing the title page. Folger Shakespeare Library, H3119 copy 2.


The same portrait (in a different state) inserted before the title page in another book by the same author. Folger Shakespeare Library, H3062.

Likewise a frontispiece was usually inserted before the title page, facing it, or placed afterward.

When the order and location of the plates mattered to follow the argument made in the text, at least a plate and/or a page number were printed or engraved on the leaf to be inserted. Sometimes more detailed information about the location of the plate in relation to the relevant text in the book was included. This was often the case of plates in scientific books and instructional manuals. The descriptive text accompanying these images could then serve both as binding and reading guides.

A plate in Abraham Bosse’s manual on intaglio printmaking including not only the figure numbers referred to in the text but also the plate number and the section of the book discussing the different ways of holding a burin depicted on the plate. Folger Shakespeare Library, 269- 737q.

In the Paris edition of Jean Errard’s treatise on military architecture from 1604, the engravings were printed on the same sheets as the text to which they were a useful visual complement.3

Engravings printed with the text in this 1604 Paris edition of Errard’s La Fortification Demonstree et Reduicte en Art. Folger Shakespeare Library, UG400 .EB Cage (folio).

By contrast, the engravings in the Frankfurt editions of this book from 1604 and 1617 were printed on separate sheets from the text and their order and placement vary from one extant copy to another. Their location reflects the various binding options presented in the advice to readers “either to insert the images within the text or to have them bound separately or at the end of the book as one wishes”.

Advice to the reader in the 1617 Frankfurt edition of Errard’s treatise. From the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek

The fact that the printer felt the need to write such a note, though, is an indication that at least some customers expected instructions on where to insert their plates.

Printing images with text, like in the Paris edition of Errard’s treatise, avoided having to select their location or to ‘misbind’ them in a book; but printing intaglio images with text could be difficult and time consuming. In Giovanni Battista Ferrari’s florilegium4 the intaglio prints look like they were printed on separate sheets from the text when in fact they were not and many of them include a page number as well as a gathering number. Sheets with text and images then would have been folded and put in gathering order like in any book containing just text.

An intaglio print in Ferrari’s book with a page number engraved in the upper right corner of the frame and the signature number ‘Dd2’ below the inscription. Folger Shakespeare Library, SB406. F4 1633a Cage.

In summary, it is best to keep in mind that the location of plates may vary from one copy of a book to another and that these variants may have happened for many different reasons (although I haven’t brought it up here, plates could also change of location when a book was rebound… but that’s an entirely different post!).


  1. DT383 .L8 1691 Cage
  2. Folger STC 11027
  3. UG400 .E8 Cage
  4. Giovanni Battista Ferrari, De Florum Cultura, Rome: S. Paulinus, 1633


Fascinating post, Caroline. If I might ask you a question that’s only marginally related to this, how common are cases where there’s *no* information either in the text or on the pages containing the images that would indicate where they are meant to go? I’m specifically thinking of John Derricke’s “Image of Irelande”, which has a set of woodcuts that are numbered, so it’s clear what sequence they are supposed to be in, but that’s it. In the only complete copy, those images have all been placed at the end of the book, but some of them do depict scenes that echo passages of the poem, so you could potentially have made a case for inserting them earlier – if it weren’t for the fact that the first one has what looks like a second title page. Would you take that as an indication that they weren’t necessarily meant to be bound up together and/or that the woodcuts may have come first and the book was written as a supplement to the images rather than the other way around?
(You can view the title page and the woodcuts here:,_with_a_Discoverie_of_Woodkarne)

Elisabeth Chaghafi — April 29, 2019


These are fascinating questions Elisabeth.

The woodcuts in John Derricke’s “Image of Irelande” indeed form a visual entity and look like they don’t need to be bound with the text they relate to. I was just reading about a map printed in the 1590s with a similar title layout as in the first Derricke woodcut, of which 2 copies are extant in a book and the others are extant as single sheet prints. This makes me think that the Derricke set may have been sold with or without the text (after all publishers were very good at offering their books with different features at different prices to their customers). One explanation for this business strategy (a bit unusual for this type of subjects I would think) may be that the woodcuts took longer to produce than planned (this was not unusual). As a result there was no time to print the text with the images. Another explanation could be that although the woodcuts were designed to go along with the text, because of their quality they started to have an independent life after their printing, i.e. owners chose to not bind them with the text.

These are just hypotheses to be further tested. Let me know if you do.


Caroline Duroselle-Melish — May 6, 2019


Thanks for your reply, Caroline. As far as I know, the most common theory is that the woodcuts were probably sold separately because they are of such good quality and would have seemed attractive to buyers in their own right (especially since they can be understood on their own, thanks to the broadsheet-like verses underneath). But basically it’s impossible to tell. The title page of the book claims that it was published three years after it was written, though, so I’m not sure whether waiting a couple of extra months for the woodcuts to be finished would have made such a difference to the author or the printer…

Elisabeth Chaghafi — May 7, 2019


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *