The title page is a device of the printed era, stimulated by practical necessity, by the growth of the book-trade as an industry and by the evolution of the publisher as an intermediary between printer and bookseller. At a time when the production of texts by hand, uniquely, usually through commission, was a small-scale business, there was no need for something that we might recognise as a title page.
'In the beginning was the word, and the word was …' the incipit. The incipit, which, in Latin, means 'to begin', is the technical term we give to the first few words of a manuscript text. It serves as an identifier to the reader and was often given prominence by the flourish of larger script, or by a different coloured ink. Manuscript 224/239, our copy of a thirteenth-century Bible, commences with the Prologues attributed to St. Jerome, addressed to 'Fratus Ambrosius …' this in vivid scarlet, the figured initial of the scribe settling down to the task in hand. The counterpart to the incipit was the explicit, the few words that were sufficient to indicate to the reader the conclusion of the transcribed work.
Printed books were speculative enterprises, intended to be attractive to an educated readership. At the onset of printing, in the latter part of the fifteenth century, the scribal practice of signing off found its equivalent in the colophon, though someone of the time would not have known it as such, the word being a seventeenth-century invention. The colophon became the bibliographic description of the book and was created by a printer as indication of his contribution to the process. Our incunabula Schneider 82, a Bible printed at Paris in 1476, and 79, another Bible printed at Basel in December 1498, show the transition in progress. Schneider 82 has an incipit and decorated initial; Schneider 79, twenty years its junior, bears incipit, initial and colophon.
In the sixteenth century, the information in the colophon moved to what became the title page and the colophon itself disappeared, but why? The clue lies in the shift to larger scale production as the publishing industry expanded. Once the printer was done the unbound texts were sent to that parvenu, the bookseller intermediary, for retail. To avoid the opening leaf's becoming sullied printers started to supply a blank fly-leaf as protection; this obscured the identity of the book so a title page developed by way of identification to the bookseller, gradually becoming an integral part of the book. The printer pressed his interest by way of the printer's device. However, as the influence of the bookseller-cum-publisher expanded and the function of the printer became ancillary, the title page began to include the full address of the bookseller and the printer's device fell from grace.
Schneider 79 shows the transition to a title page format in its tentative guise, the half-title, an indication to the seller of content. F.3.9, a Bible from Basel in 1538, has further evidence. At the start of Genesis we see a space with a guide-letter for an illustrated initial, the last remnant of the incipit, which was never provided; we have a title page with the printer's device of Hieronymus Froben. The colophon supplies full bibliographical detail. M.8.7, Lombard's commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul, from Paris in 1537, has already transported bibliographic detail to the title page; the colophon reduced to no more than an explicit. A hand-held candle in the printer's device lends a lustre of confidence in the new European book-trade, but one in which the bookseller and publisher were to predominate.