Archive for November 2, 2020

Track and Trace & Ligatures

Posted in Covid-19, History with tags , , , , on November 2, 2020 by telescoper

I was interested to see (on Twitter) the above example of track-and-trace from 1665, at the height of the Great Plague of London. I’m not sure how effective this notice was…

Other than its historical context, looking at this piece of text reveals some interesting things about how it was printed.

Note the liberal use of the symbol “ſ’”, for example. This character is sometimes called the “long s”*. There’s a full Wikipedia article on this and I have posted about it before which means there’s no point in repeating here, but I will just mention that the long s was used widely in manuscripts after the distinction arose better upper case and lower-case letters (which was around about the end of the 8th Century) wherein the lower-case form, the “short s” (i.e. s),  was used exclusively at the end of words or before an elision, and the long s everywhere else. It survived into the era of printing, not just in English but also in other languages including German. In fact “ſ” forms the left-hand element of the ligature “Eszett”, written  “ß”, of which the other part is “z”.

Note the use of a ligature that looks like the Eszett at the end of the word “Sickness”. This is not actually an Eszett but is instead a ligature formed from the long s and the short s. I haven’t seen many examples of this in old printed books but I’m by no means an expert in 17th Century orthography but I’m given to  understand this was used in fonts based on the Antiqua class of typefaces, typically used for printing Latin text. I suppose the piece above was produced by a printer used to that form of material. That doesn’t narrow it down much, though, as many scholarly works were published in Latin at that time.

The number of esses (both long and short, as well as capital “S” in “Sickness” and “Swelling”) is quite considerable given its brevity. The last sentence contains quite a tongue-twister too: “said sign shall”!

There is another ligature “ct” in the word “infected” in the heading. This is quite common in old printed works, especially in Latin.  Here is an example from Newton’s Principia; see the word “rectam” in the statement of the Second Law of Motion:

The combination “ct” is quite common in Latin, as is “ss”, as are many other digraphs, including “et” (the ligature for which gives the symbol &; “et” means “and” in Latin).

Ligatures were introduced in handwriting, partly to embellish the script and partly to save time. Joining two letters together is a way of eliminating a duplicate stroke of the pen and avoiding having to lift it from the paper. When printing presses were introduced, ligatures were found to make typesetting with movable type easier because one block would replace frequent combinations of letters. It also allows the compositor to reduce the spacing between the characters, saving paper and also making the text easier to read.

*Incidentally, for the mathematically inclined, the long s is also the original form of the integral sign, introduced to mathematics by Leibniz to stand for “summa” (sum), which he wrote “ſumma”.