Titles/Title Pages/Incipits/Colophons

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How do you identify a book? In current times, most people would answer this seemingly obvious question with “the title.” But relatively speaking, the title, and its associated technologies of the title page, incipit, and colophon have only been around for so long; each of these technologies had to be invented. Prior to these inventions, books were designated by other means. For example, clay tablets were identified by numbers, ancient Hebrew texts by the first few words (comparable to an incipit), and even the oral stories of Greece and Rome were titled after the fact, most likely by scribes or grammarians. [1] Following this age, titling devices were invented. Tracing the trajectory of titles, title pages, incipits, and colophons throughout book history proves valuable not only historically, but when looking toward the current digital incunable age.

History of Titles, Title Pages, Incipits, and Colophons[edit]

There are four main ways to identify a book, and each have their own unique place in book history. Incipits derive from antiquity and much like a title, are used to introduce the reader to a text, taking place as the first few words of a text. But unlike the title, incipits employ the author’s voice, and serve as an almost conversational introduction. [2] The incipit was very common in ancient and medieval manuscripts but has since lost popularity. However, a well-known work, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, begins with an incipit, “here begynneth ...” [3] Like the incipit, the life of the colophon traces to antiquity. The colophon contains information about the publication of the book, and prior to the invention of the title page was placed in the back of the manuscript. With the advent of the title page, the colophon moved to the back of the title page. Despite the shift, the colophon remains in existence today, just in different forms than its initial conception. For example, some websites have colophons containing the XHTML. While the existence and use of incipits and colophons has faded due to the inventions of titles and title pages, incipits and colophons still remain important book technologies.

Titles derive from the Latin word Titulus, translated as “inscription, label, notice, title of honor, fame, pretext.” [4] Despite the antiquated name, titles were not used in antiquity, instead reaching popularity during the arrival of the printing press. Prior to the printing press, title placement was “haphazard until the appearance of the title page between 1475 and 1480,” with titles previously appearing most often in the colophon. [5] While there is no consensus regarding the inception of titles, which in itself speaks to the initial insignificance of titles, there are theories about why titles and title pages arose. One well-regarded theory asserts that printers would leave blank pages around the books in their shop because they did not want to get them dirty; however, they needed something to identify the books with when giving them to the customers, and thus the title and title page emerged. [6] The title page generally contains a “title, subtitle, author, publisher, and edition.” Title pages arose coincidentally with the printing press, around 1500. The first books printed by the printing press were called incunables. Incunables mark a transitory phase as they include parts of medieval manuscripts, such as incipits, as well as the beginnings of modern book technologies, such as title pages. Printers often distributed title pages as flyers to advertise their press. [7] With the regular use of the title page, titles soon became an indelible feature of books as well as an attribute of books that has garnered much scholarly debate.

Scholarly Insights on Titles[edit]

Many scholars have written about titles and entitling. The breadth of work on this topic leads to the following conclusion: since there are a great deal of scholarly observations, titles have already accumulated much more intense meaning than their original intent. Circling back to the previously cited theory about the emergence of titles and title pages, it can be assumed that titles did not arise out of an important literary and interpretative need, but rather a functional need, which then grew in interpretative and thematic importance.

Scholars’ interpretation of the function of titles juxtaposes the insignificance of the title’s initial emergence. John Fisher is one scholar who deeply interacted with titles. His thesis on titles states:

“While titles are names, they are a good deal more than just names. They are not necessarily descriptions, although they can contain descriptive elements. They are names for a purpose, but not merely for the purpose of identification and designation, in spite of the important practical role which indexical names play in the designative process. The unique purpose of titling is hermeneutical: titles are names which function as guides to interpretation.” [8]

Fisher posits that titles have a deeper purpose beyond just a naming device to aid in the identification of literary works. Titles, according to Fisher, guide readers through the work, allowing them to interpret the work via the title. Fisher’s fellow scholar, Hazard Adams calls titles “marginal,” but adds that “their marginality is central,” agreeing with Fisher that titles have a larger meaning, as “synecdoches,” representing the whole work. [9] Adams also interacts with the Jerrold Levinson’s commonly cited four theses on titles, the first of which is paramount to this important juxtaposition of the contemporary importance of titles despite their inconsequential birth. Levinson’s first thesis advances that “titles of artworks are often integral parts of them, constitutive of what such works are.” [10] While Adams spends much of his paper arguing that Levinson’s first thesis does not go far enough, and that in fact titles of artworks are “always” “integral parts of them,” this argument in and of itself shows how much stamina titles have gained from their initial place in the literary community. [11] Finally, S.J. Wilsmore also claims that titles have an interpretative function, as well as a naming duty. He further argues that a “literary work often possesses its title essentially in that it could not be the same literary work without it.” [12]

Analysis of Scholarly Work[edit]

From a current literary standpoint, it is hard to argue with Fisher, Adams, Levinson, and Wilsmore. Titles do currently have a deep interpretative meaning, with authors going so far as to place their central themes around the title, and write the title into their works. While Fisher, Adams, Levinson, and Wilsmore’s arguments speak to the present function of titles, their theories and arguments surrounding the title contradict the theory about the title’s initial emergence. The title arose out of a need from printers, and was a device not at all important to classical oral stories like The Iliad, for example. Essentially, a title is more than just a few words. Titles were created out of a necessity, but have since thrown away their humble beginnings and risen to prominence. However, implicit in the arguments of these twentieth century scholars, is the fact that titles expanded beyond their original intent as soon as the Copyright Act of 1710 recognized titles as the “guarantor of texts legally.” [13] This act highlighted the title’s ever-growing importance by asserting that “one’s legal claim of property in a work could and would be recognized only if its title had been registered with the Company of Stationers.” [14] Thus, while Fisher, Adams, Levinson, and Wilsmores’ analyses certainly contrast the insignificance of titles throughout book history, as soon as the title became popular it was already afforded much more importance than its initial design.

Affordances and Limitations of Titles[edit]

Despite this contrast, titles perhaps have contributed to the spread of reading. Many people recommend books, as well as find out about books, via their titles. Titles may function as advertising devices, as people often share information about books by referencing the title. Titles also allow for certain themes to emerge, as many take the title into account when analyzing the meaning of certain works. Yet, titles foreclose other opportunities. Some may argue that the fall of the incipit led to the fall of author-consumer discourse, as it is much less common now for authors to insert themselves in their works; however, authors still have the ability to directly address their readers. More than anything, because titles often serve as a marketing ploy, they allow for the phenomenon of judging a book by its cover.

Analysis of Objects from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts[edit]

Returning to a time when it was nearly impossible to judge a book by its cover, Rare Book Rooms and Special Collections, such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, demonstrate the transitory qualities of incipits, titles, title pages, and colophons through incunables and early printed books.

An examination of three manuscripts from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, allows for a comparison between the role of titles, title pages, incipits, and colophons in the transitory time of printing (around the 1500s). Libro della vita Viduale’s [1490] first identification comes in the form of a title page, home to just this title and an ornate woodcut (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The title page of Libro della vita Viduale.

Cataloguers at Penn think Libro della vita Viduale to be by Girolamo Savonarola, but there is no name on the title page. However, Libro della vita Viduale’s incipit announces the commencement of the text as well as the name, Hieronymo, which is thought to be Savonarola (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Libro della vita Viduale's incipit, announcing the commencement of the text.

Penn’s catalogue of this work believes its publication to be in Florence by Bartolommeo di Libri, around 1490, which was otherwise not denoted in the book. Such information would be typical of the colophon, or the back of the title page, but for this incunable no such information exists on the manuscript. However, digitization allows for such information to come to light. Iuuenalis Persius [1501], a very early printed book, follows the tradition of Libro della vita Viduale by having a title page just containing the title (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The title page of Iuuenalis Persius.

However, on the back of the title page, Iuuenalis Persius contains a note from famous Italian printer, Aldus Manutius, to Scipio, essentially saying that he made a shorter book (Manutius invented a new size format) (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Manutius' printer note on the back of the title page of Iuuenalis Persius.

In this instance, the title page contains some of its current information as the identity of the printer is known; however, it also demonstrates the liberty of printers during this time. Penn cataloguers believe the publication to be in Venice in 1501, which would have otherwise been unknown by just observing the manuscript. Libro della vita Viduale and Iuuenalis Persius were published within eleven years of one another. Both serve to demonstrate the coexistence of the title, incipit, title page, and colophon as identification devices. In addition, both these works are staples of the incunable period as printers and publishers had not yet figured out the standard for identifying the title pages, so the works wound up having a collision of different devices. It is interesting to think about: how would someone have identified these books at the time of publication? By their title pages? While the title page seems like an accurate guess, it is difficult to determine for certain.

Bartholomeu[s] de proprietatib[us] re[rum] [1495] is an example of another incunable that exemplifies the transitional period between incipits, colophons, titles, and title pages. It has a title page that contains a stamp of the title (Figure 5), as well as a line that reads like an incipit, “in the beginning of my boke,” housed in the Primus (Figure 6).

Figure 5: The stamp of Bartholomeu[s] de proprietatib[us] re[rum] on the title page.
Figure 6: The Primus of Bartholomeu[s] de proprietatib[us] re[rum].

In addition, each chapter has its own explicit, for example “thus endyth the fourth boke of this volume,” followed by a Latin phrase, denoting the beginning of the next book (Figure 7).

Figure 7: The explicit at the end of book four of Bartholomeu[s] de proprietatib[us] re[rum].

Bartholomeu[s] de propreitatib[us] re[rum] has an explicit at the end of the whole book (Figure 8), noting the end, followed by a printer’s ornament, (Figure 9) paralleling a printers’ signature, and a reprint of the title.

Figure 8: The explicit of Bartholomeu[s] de proprietatib[us] re[rum].
Figure 9: The printer's ornament at the end of of Bartholomeu[s] de proprietatib[us] re[rum].

Besides notes on the spine, which were added later by librarians when binding the book for the collection, there is no other information regarding publication. Since our current digital era strongly parallels the transitory phase which the incunables inhabit, in that the world is transitioning from print to digital, it is important to compare the digital facsimile of Bartholomeu[s] de propreitatib[us] re[rum] to the manuscript. Housed on Early English Books Online, the digital facsimile is in almost all regards the same as the physical manuscript. For example, the digital image of the title page stamp is the same as photo of the manuscript (Figure 5). However, due to the diligent bibliographic efforts of librarians there is more information concerning the publication of the manuscript. It contains the estimated place of publication, printer, and date: Westminster, printed by Wynkyn de Worde, in 1495, an additional title, De proprietatibus rerum, as well as the translator, John Trevisa. While the physical manuscript is identified by a call number in the library, the rise of the digital age and digital cataloguing allows for more information to emerge about the publication that would otherwise remain unknown due to the time when the manuscript was printed. In this instance, cataloguing and searching devices are now the contemporary, or even futuristic versions of title pages, as they serve as ways to discover previously unknown information regarding the book. While such information would be available on a library webpage that has this manuscript, a digital facsimile allows for the heightened reading of rare manuscripts that would have previously been foreclosed due to the scarcity of these texts.

To compare Bartholomeu[s] de propreitatib[us] re[rum], Libro della vita Viduale, and Iuuenalis Persius, when looking at the history of titles, title pages, incipits, and colophons reveals the transitory quality, coexistence, and ambiguity of these devices. All three of the manuscripts contain a very simple title page, with just the title on it. The front covers of the manuscripts are blank, and are also not necessarily the covers of the original manuscripts. While Bartholomeu[s] de propreitatib[us] re[rum], and Libro della vita Viduale contain incipits, Iuuenalis Persius, lacks an incipit. Bartholomeu[s] de propreitatib[us] re[rum] contains an interesting sort of colophon via a printers stamp, while Iuuenalis Persius took a colophon to mean a letter from the printer. Meanwhile, Libro della vita Viduale foregoes the contents of a colophon all together. The differences and similarities between these manuscripts and early printed book show the height of innovation in terms of titling.

While these discrepancies were in fact typical of the time, today a non-uniform style of identification would be considered an aberration. In the late 1400s and early 1500s, printers were just beginning to make title pages, while older identification devices such as incipits still persisted. However, there was no common formula, as there is today. This strictly parallels comparisons between printed books and digital narratives. While books today have a pretty solid format of the title on the cover page, as well as a title page, online journal articles, for example, can be identified by their DOI, as opposed to their title. In addition, ISBNs secure and standardize specific editions and formats of books. Unlike a library call number, which references a book in a specific institution, ISBNs function as a more universal system, comparable to titles. When books are purchased the ISBN guarantees an edition, verifying the work. In this way, ISBNs are also similar to title pages or information in the colophon, as the printer and publisher information presented by these technologies serves in a way to verify the work. However, dissimilar to title pages or colophons, ISBNs function as a tool that helps readers find and distinguish works; a tool that evokes information that may have been available in bookstores at the time of early printed books and incunables, but not within books. ISBNs are a prime example of a technology made to persist in a changing era, as each edition of the book has its own individual number. Therefore, as new formats are invented for books beyond the traditional hardcover, paperback, and contemporary ebook, ISBNs will be able to keep up and books will continue to be secured and standardized no matter how they are presented. However, this also means that as new technologies emerge, the once standard of books will be thrown into an upheaval, not unlike the one demonstrated by Bartholomeu[s] de propreitatib[us] re[rum], Libro della vita Viduale, and Iuuenalis Persius.


As these rare manuscripts and book have shown, titles, title pages, incipits, and colophons are devices that were invented and that went through transition phases. These identification devices may now need find ways to persist in an ever-innovation-centric digital era. The digital era may even render titles and title pages unnecessary, just as titles and title pages caused the importance of incipits and colophons to fade. While such identification devices may not be as prominent as they once were, it is important to note that current and new technologies, such as ISBNs, will not completely replace titles, title pages, incipits, and colophons, but rather add new layers of identification. Each identification technology, from incipits to ISBNs, serves a slightly different function, and therefore are not simply replaceable. But, the current digital era requires the significance of digital identification technologies, like ISBNs, to overtake that of antiquated technologies such as colophons. One such digital identification technology could be blockchain, "an open, global ledger that records transactions on a distributed database," which can now certify records in addition to Intellectual Property rights. This means that blockchain could even certify individual copies of books, enabling an ownership mark of the reader. Blockchain could also eliminate the need for printer information, edition number, or the legal aspects of the title, as the title page often contains such copyright information. Will blockchain’s encryption code be the newest identification instrument for books?


  1. Levin, “The Title as a Literary Genre,” pg. xxiv-xxv.
  2. Shevlin, “‘To Reconcile Book and Title, and Make ‘em Kin to One Another,’: The Evolution of the Title’s Contractual Features.” pg. 46.
  3. Shevlin, “‘To Reconcile Book and Title, and Make ‘em Kin to One Another,’: The Evolution of the Title’s Contractual Features.” pg. 45.
  4. Adams, "Titles, Titling, and Entitlement To," pg. 8.
  5. Shevlin, “‘To Reconcile Book and Title, and Make ‘em Kin to One Another,’: The Evolution of the Title’s Contractual Features.” pg. 44.
  6. "History of the Title Page."
  7. Shevlin, “‘To Reconcile Book and Title, and Make ‘em Kin to One Another,’: The Evolution of the Title’s Contractual Features.” pg. 48.
  8. Fisher, “Entitling.” pg. 288.
  9. Adams, “Titles, Titling, and Entitlement To.” pg. 7.
  10. Adams, “Titles, Titling, and Entitlement To.” pg. 9.
  11. Adams, “Titles, Titling, and Entitlement To.” pg. 9-10.
  12. Wilsmore, “The Role of Titles in Identifying Literary Works.” pg. 408.
  13. Shevlin, “‘To Reconcile Book and Title, and Make ‘em Kin to One Another,’: The Evolution of the Title’s Contractual Features.” pg. 67.
  14. Shevlin, “‘To Reconcile Book and Title, and Make ‘em Kin to One Another,’: The Evolution of the Title’s Contractual Features.” pg. 59.

Works Cited[edit]

“History of the Title Page.” Ackland.org. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. https://ackland.org/files/2016/02/HistoryoftheTitlePage.pdf

Adams, Hazard. “Titles, Titling, and Entitlement To.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 46., no. 1, Published by Wiley on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics, Autumn 1987, pp. 7-21, JSTOR https://www.jstor.org/stable/431304

"Adams, Hazard 1926-." Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Encyclopedia.com. 3 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

Bartholomaeus, Anglicus. Bartholomeu[s] de proprietatib[us] re[rum]. [Westminster : Wynkyn de Worde, ca. 1495]. University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. https://franklin.library.upenn.edu/catalog/FRANKLIN_9931380743503681

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Durant, Elizabeth, Trachy, Allison. “Digital Diploma debuts at MIT.” October 17, 2017. http://news.mit.edu/2017/mit-debuts-secure-digital-diploma-using-bitcoin-blockchain-technology-1017

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Early English Books Online. Bartholomeu[s] de proprietatib[us] re[rum]. http://eebo.chadwyck.com/search/full_rec?SOURCE=config.cfg&ACTION=ByID&ID=99842268

Fisher, John. “Entitling.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 11, no. 2. The University of Chicago Press, December 1984, pp. 286-298, JSTOR https://www.jstor.org/stable/1343396

Tucker, David H., Unwin, Philip Soundy, Unwin, George. “History of Publishing.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/publishing

“Incipit.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incipit

"International Standard Book Number." Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Standard_Book_Number

"Jerrold Levinson." Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerrold_Levinson

Juvenal. Iuuenalis Persius. [Venetiis, in dibus Aldi. mense augusto, 1501.] University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Library. https://franklin.library.upenn.edu/catalog/FRANKLIN_992801773503681

Levin, Harry. “The Title as a Literary Genre.” The Modern Language Review, vol 72, no. 4, Published by Modern Humanities Research Association, October 1977, pp. xxiii-xxxvi, JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3724776

“Printing.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Printing

“Title (Publishing)” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Title_(publishing)

“Title Page.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Title_page

“Title Pages: A Footnote to the History of Printing.” University of Rochester, River Campus Libraries. https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/2441

Savonarola, Girolamo. Libro della vita Viduale. [Florence : Bartolommeo di Libri, ca. 1490]. University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. https://franklin.library.upenn.edu/catalog/FRANKLIN_9922970203503681

Shevlin, Eleanor, F. “‘To Reconcile Book and Title, and Make ‘em Kin to One Another,’: The Evolution of the Title’s Contractual Features.” Book History, vol 2, 1999. Johns Hopkins University Press. http://muse.jhu.edu/article/3592

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Wilsmore, S.J. “The Role of Titles in Identifying Literary Works.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol 45., no. 4, Published by Wiley on behalf of the American Society for Aesthetics, Summer 1987, pp. 403-408, JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/431331

Further Reading[edit]

For information on additional book identification devices please see chapters and page numbers.