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Invisible John

Having spent a week discussing covers—without even genuinely scratching the surface—we were led in that process to ponder what is on the cover, namely the title. Looking at that subject we’ve presented an extreme aspect of titling in the last post, namely the use of title bars that only machines can effectively render into meaning. Today we’ll go to the other extreme and examine a long and entirely accessible title such as those that prevailed before modern times.

Mind you, in the golden olden days the cover was almost always fashioned of leather. The leather may have been patterned by special presses, but the words on the outer portion of the book were kept to a minimum, and usually only on the spine—to save money on the expensive process of gilding. The marketing pitch, therefore, went on the inside cover instead, and our ancestors were no less skilled at unfurling at least as rich a texture of persuasion in words as we are inclined to produce in images.

To illustrate the ways of the past, we proceed, with the help of The Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Company, to bring you a wondrous sample. It is a book published in 1659 with the following catchy title:

Invisible J O H N made Visible:
OR,
A Grand Pimp of Tyranny portrayed,
IN
B A R K S T E A D ’S
ARRAIGNMENT
AT THE
BARRE
VVhere he stands impeached of High
Treason, and other gross misdemeanours, as
the late Tyrant’s Bum-Bayliff in his most Arbitrary, Op-
pressive and Tyrannical Invasions of the Rights
and Liberties of English-men, within the late
cantonized County of Middlesex, the
City of London Tower, &c.
Whereunto are added,
FIVE QUERIES,
TO THE
Parliament, Council of State, and Army,
Occasioned
By the preceding Plea for Justice; but not
unworthy of their perusal.

Here is what this title looks like in the original:

Equally worthy of perusal is the rich array of other similar titles presented for sale by the Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts company at its site here. And if you’re up to it—and we mean in the possession of what slangs calls the reddies—you may become an owner of Invisible John at a bargain price of just $850.

But who was this Invisible John? Herewith we make him visible. He was Colonel John Barkstead, a figure in the Second English Civil War (1648-1649), one of three violent conflicts that ultimately raised Oliver Cromwell to assume the Protectorate of England. Barkstead was one of the judges who condemned King Charles I to death. After the Restoration, which began in 1660, Barkstead fled to the continent—and hence became invisible—but on a visit to Holland he was captured, returned to England, and executed in 1662.

Isn’t it interesting to see how the contemporaries presented the reactions to current events in their own time—as messy, complicated, and violent as the events in ours? But a time without the vast resources of communication, with moving images and complex music played in the background, as is the case today?

The portrait of Invisible John is from Wikipedia here.

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