Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Purpose of Catchwords

In Medieval manuscripts it’s not uncommon to find the first word of each page written at the bottom of the previous page. These repeated words are called “catchwords” and they continue well into the age of print. My vague sense is that they stopped being used around the 18th/19th cent. in printed works.

Catchwords in Erasmus’s 1516 edition
I had always assumed that these catchwords were a type of reader’s aid. I assumed that the idea was that you can have the next word, in whole or in part, at the ready as you turn the page. In this, it’s a bit like a pianist who needs to know what the notes are on the next page so that the music doesn’t stop during the page turn. This explanation, however, doesn’t make  sense of why these catchwords are found on the verso where no page turn is needed. But I just assumed they were included there since the eye has to move from the bottom to the top of a page.

But Michelle Brown has cleared up the reason for me. She says that catchwords are actually a printer’s aid not a reader’s (see Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts, p. 36). They are meant to help facilitate the arrangement of quires during book binding. Brown says they were introduced in Europe by way of Spain, Italy and France around 1,000 and that they may have entered through Islamic influence.

So, there you have it. I’d still like to know more about how they developed and why they became obsolete in printed books. If anybody knows more about the history of this little device, let me know.


  1. Is there something that catchwords accomplishes that page numbers doesn't?

  2. If I recall correctly, catchwords predate pagination.

    1. That seems right. An example being the Vilna edition of Talmud Bavli?

  3. Even if this is not their purpose, I do kind of like them as a reader's aid. Helps you keep the flow of thought as you turn the page.

  4. E.M. Thompson also noted the 11th century for the appearance of catch words. I would like to know which manuscript has them that early, if anyone has that information, especially if it is dated. In dated manuscripts, I have only seen them much later.

  5. Notably some (very late) Greek MSS also have catchwords at the bottom of some pages. These should not be counted in a collation unless differing from what appears at the beginning of the following page.

  6. One of the values of these catchwords is that we can see whether the quires are still intact. Some of the books I've looked at, written early in the 19th century, still have them.

  7. Dr. R.,
    I never cease to be amazed at the breadth of your knowledge 馃槑

  8. The catchwords in Matthaei's NT, 1803-1807, are of interest. Here a nice example:
    In vol. III, p. 488 are two catchwords: aka in the body tekst, thn in the apparatus. thn refers to p. 489 a full page with apparatus. aka refers to p. 491. On p. 490 is one catchword (voca), that refers also to p. 491, the apparatus.In this case the catchwords are for convience of the reader or printer, not for the bookbinder. On p. 492 there is no catchword in the apparatus. As a rule, when the last line in the apparatus ends with a perios and blank space, a catchword is not added.
    Have a look at p. 578. The catchword 13. refers to the apparatus, below the liturgical note in the small font. Compare p. 380-381.

  9. Why are there two catchwords on one page in Erasmus' NT of 1516? Are they read-on signs for the reader?
    Compare with Erasmus' edition of Hieronymus, vol 9: . Here we see a catchword (ex ea quae)at the end of the Vulgate tekst and anotner (in Numeris) at the end of Jerome's commentary.

    As side note: When you are looking to the page, please turn back some pages < and <, etc., and you will find the Esuebian Canones composed by Bruno Amerbach. These tables are translated into Greek numerals and so published with minor alterations in Erasmus NT 1519.