The Wear of a Book Tells a Great Tale

by FreudianSlip on October 30, 2017 - 9:34pm

"The Trial of Witch-Craft, Shrewing the True and Methode of the Discouvery: With a Confutation of Erroneous Wayes" by John Cotta is a small 5 by 7-inch hardcover book written in English by John Cotta in the early 17th century. The book seems to be good quality, but on further investigation, it becomes apparent that it was rebound multiple times, and has a new cover. When you open the book, some pages are trimmed, showing how it was aligned every time the book was rebound the pages were aligned for the sake of making the book look better. The pages are moderately used, with lots of underlining and markings. The book doesn’t weigh much, and only has about 150 pages. This book gives us a great insight into book history and how knowledge was distributed. It shows that the size, shape, condition and handwritten notes on book can lead to very accurate conclusions on who bought and read which books.


Firstly, the size and shape of the book give us a lot of information about who would have owned the book and what it may have been used for. The book had only around 150 pages and was tall but not very wide. This lead to me to the realization that it was probably a pocket book, carried around a lot and kept close. Also, the book was rebound many times. This shows how it was used often, so much so that it had to be rebound more than once, with the whole cover and spine having to be replaced. Both of these observations led me to the conclusion that it was used many times by a scholar or someone learned during a witch trial. Since the book was small and not very long, I also think it was meant for mass distribution since it wouldn’t have been very expensive. This means that it was probably bought by many scholars, whether rich or not. “A new readability was created by a format easier to handle and by a layout the reproduced in the book something of the movement of the actual production, […]” (Chartier 105). Like Chartier says, this book was part of a wave of smaller easier to read books, that was distributed far more than older books.


Secondly, the two forewords at the beginning of the book and the underlining on most pages shows that it was probably used by a prosecutor or juror during a witch trial. The two forewords in the book address two different people: one to the reader and one to the Lord Chief Justice of England, so it was probably used as a reference book when identifying witches or witch behavior. Also, a noticeable majority if the book is underlined, reinforcing the theory that it was a reference book used in witch trials. There was also many Latin  phrases throughout the book meaning that the reader would have been a bit educated, because at the time of publication there weren’t any priests in England so scholars would have to learn Latin.  

This can be related to Charter’s triangle of meaning. He says that meaning is made up of three equal parts: the actual text – what the author wrote, the reader – their emotional and cultural baggage will affect how they read the text, and lastly, the medium – the reader will consider facts differently depending on the medium of the text. The size and shape of the book indicate the medium. The underlining and usage indicate the text, and lastly, we can deduce the reader and the meaning using the other two.

These discoveries are not rare, as there are many books with many different levels of usuage or age, but the fact that we can do these types of deductions is very important if we want to know our history. Records in the 16 hundreds are not the same as today, with their records being mostly through trials or anything involving courts. Today there are records for everything, that can be found anywhere. To truly understand the people in the 1600s, we must analyze books and art to see what people believed in and what kind of ideas circulated.


                                                                     Works Cited

Chartier, Roger. “Labourers and Voyagers.” Labourers and Voyagers. Early Modern Knowledge.