Of Pilcrows


This is a blog about how we read books, about how books teach us to read, and how books—in both their physical and digital forms—can be used in the literature classroom.

The title Of Pilcrows echoes the titles of essays by Montaigne and others—meditations on a variety of subjects, including friendship, vanity, drunkenness, and experience. This blog therefore seeks to present meditations on the material features of particular books in all states of production, reception, circulation, collection, disrepair, etc., with a special focus on their pedagogical value. You are likely to read a lot here about playbook typography and page design as I spend the next few months at the Folger Shakespeare Library surveying the first two hundred years of English playbooks for typographic experiments and other developments in dramatic mise-en-page—and the few months after that processing my findings and writing my first book.

Typography, broadly conceived as the features of page design, is inherently pedagogical, and the pilcrow ( ¶ ) was among the first pieces of symbolic type to be appropriated from the manuscript tradition with the purpose of teaching readers how to encounter and navigate the printed text.

The pilcrow was used by scribes and later printers to guide readers through scripture and other kinds of texts. It developed from the majuscule C (for capitulum), which was widely used to signal new chapters or verses in manuscript bibles. The pilcrow came to be used in both sacred and secular texts to mark new units of reading and functioned as an indispensable reading aid in medieval manuscripts and, later, in early printed texts.[1] In short, it made it easier for readers to find and follow the principal stages of an argument or narrative.[2]

Although I am not teaching this coming academic year, my ears and eyes are always open for new approaches to using book historical methods in my teaching of Shakespeare, early modern drama, and (perhaps somewhat surprisingly) writing. I will share some of those ideas in this space and hope that those of you who decide to follow me here will share yours, as well. As you will read in my next post, I am particularly interested not only in how to teach book history but also in how to teach with book history, a set of practices that embraces both the presence of bookish and textual objects in the classroom as well as the ever-growing number of book-oriented digital projects and tools available to us and our students online.

[Image from the teaching collection at Rare Book School, Charlottesville VA.]


[1] Malcolm B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 302. See also Keith Houston, “The Pilcrow,” in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), 3-23. Houston also keeps a fascinating blog, where he writes about punctuation and symbolic type (www.shadycharacters.co.uk).

[2] Pilcrows were deployed in a number of special ways in the printed drama of the 16th century, but more on that anon.