Note, your browser is not standards-compliant, the content of this page is still accessible, but the full design will not be visible.

HomeCopernicusBraheThe Problem of the Planets - Astonomy Books Online -

A Note on the Typography of 16th Century Books

Two elements of the typography of 16th century books may confuse modern readers. One is the use of abbreviations devised in the manuscript period to speed up the writing process. The other is the typographic form of the script "s"-in handwriting a pair of loops above and below the baseline, in type a tall stroke that can be confused with the letter "f" but lacks the complete crossbar of that letter. By convention only the normal "s" can be used to end a word. This practice continued throughout the hand press period, dying out only around 1800.


A list of the abbreviations used in the manuscript period runs into the thousands. Fortunately, because in the printed book each such character represented a laboriously-cut piece of type, their number was reduced to a few standard ones. One of these remains in use today, the "ampersand" ("et per se"), which is a quickly-written version of the Latin "et" or "and." Its origin is more obvious in some typefaces:
Ampersand Sample

Here are some examples of common abbreviations with the proper transcription:

Typography Sample 1

"Itaque non" Two very common abbreviations, the first reducing the "ue" after the "q" to a quick squiggle, and the second, a line over a vowel representing an "m" or an "n" depending on the word.

Typography Sample 2

"Hocremotiss.angulo terrae" Here the two types of lowercase "s" are evident. Note the crossbar on the left only. In addition, in the diphthong "ae" at the end of "terrae" the "a" is reduced to a squiggle below the "e".

Typography Sample 3

"Nostri labores, si me non fallit" This passage shows the use of the script "s" as it is kerned, or overlapped with other letters. It also offers an "f" in "fallit" for comparison.

Typography Sample 4

"subterfugere iudicium" A script "s" and a lowercase "f" in one word, and an example of the line over the vowel as an "m" in "iudicium".

Other typographic issues

The alphabet at the time had 23 distinct letters, "i" and "j" being interchangeable, particularly in Roman numerals: "xvijj". In addition, "u" and "v" were interchangeable, and the letter "w", when it appeared, was simply the combination of two "v"s, as "vv" or "VV"


Transcribe the script "s" as a modern "s", never as an "f". Expand abbreviations, putting, if you want to be precise, the inferred letters in square brackets: "itaq[ue] no[n]" Transcribe other letters according to their modern usage.

Lehigh University Digital Library