Fairie Queene



Finely ornate and textured accordingly, the Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser is a lens into the design mentality of the late 1500s. While I only held a copy of the original text, there was still much that could be gleamed from the copy of the epic that I read. The first thing that is apparent is the materiality of the book. The book has a thick ornate cover designed in fine gold colors, religious iconography, and a floral decoration. This design is embossed on the front adding additional texture to the hide of the cover. The thickness and weight give the book a grandiose feel, while the embossed texture and color creates beauty. Knowing the work that went into creating these articulate designs during this time, it makes the book feel like a treasure. The pages themselves have a weight to them, not thick per say but still heavy enough to be slightly noticeable. The pages also had a grainy texture where you could feel the page as you moved your figure down the page.

The book had a very set hierarchy and arrangement for both its text and pictures. Not once in my research did I find where the book strayed from its self-imposed ruleset. The use of imagery seemed to be complimentary to the text and was used in such a way as to indicate hierarchy. Books were indicated by full visual spreads while chapters were indicated by a horizontally space art piece and a stylized letter. In relation, the body text follows various rhyme schemes and aligned to the inside of the book. This creates a visual language that is flowery, distinguished, and orderly. The conventions seem to paint this book as some sort of fantastical chivalrous knights tale. Interestingly enough, the use of perspective is largely only viewed in the full-page spreads. This creates an extra dynamic to these spreads. The supplementary art in contrast is two dimensional, allowing it to mesh with the text better. The epic itself is almost entirely in black and white with little exception.

Sixth Book Introduction

I’ve recently become interested in more classical designs due the relation they have with culture of the time. Due to the lack of modern technology, the spread of ideas was much different than in the proceeding years. Furthermore, the idea of design weren’t the same as today. Designers didn’t see themselves as such. The idea of a cognitive design influenced by design didn’t exist. However it was very much present through the trading of ideas and art from. Having looked at the “Cloister’s Apocalypse” (c1300) prior to reading the “Fairie Queen”, I can see some similar treatment to type, indents and even imagery. While the similarities aren’t immediately obvious, there is an immediate similarity in feel when comparing the two. However the two books are very much different in their design philosophies governed by the technology of their times.

Heading | Body text treatment

Also I found myself more impressed with the materiality of the print due to its historical relevance. The epic came out after the letterpress was invented by Johannes Gutenberg and was considered ‘the largest work of English poetry ever seen through the press by a living author at its time’. (Zurcher 1) I found this impressive given that it ornate design led me to believe this work was a singular piece.  When asking “What makes this book special and important enough to collect,” its time and relevance as a design piece cannot be ignored. “Faerie Queene” is very much a product of the technology at the time, cultural values, and writing trends. The book is at once an epic, poetry, and a cohesive art piece. Such a product wouldn’t naturally come about in today atmosphere. When considering the antiquity of the letterpress at the time, the variety of fonts and illustration becomes more impressive. Brink states that Spense made it a point “read proofs in the printing house, thus ensuring that the texts of his poems were presented as he wished for them to appear.” (Brink 1)  This can seen in the clarity of the text and the intricate follow of form present in the epic. The value of the writing is hence in its design in relation to its age and printing quality. Though the grand nature of the story and its poetic nature also cannot be ignored.



Indeed, it is important to understand the relationship between Edmund Spenser, his work and societal perceptions at the time. As Zurcher mentions, at the time “Victorian critics first proposed that the “stigma of print” kept early modern aristocratic and even gentlemen writers from the soil of the printing house.” (Zurcher 54) Records don’t show a preposition from Spenser when it comes to the printing house but rather a focus simply adapting to the medium. scholarly accounts motion that Spenser had a tendency to modify text right to the moment of imposition. (Zurcher 57) This leads to the conclusion that Spenser was “caught between stability and ephemerality, between the importance of getting the text right, and the necessity of letting it go wrong.” (Zurcher 57) This shows an early understanding of design in relationship to the tools being utilized.

hierachy of visuals and text


Finally, I previously brought up the French book Cloister Apocalypse for its similarities at the time. However, it should be noted that there is a big difference in use of color and font between the two. The reason comes from technology; Cloister Apocalyse, like many stories of its time were not created to be mass-produced. Therefore the use of gold leaves and color adorn the pages. “Faerie Queene” lacks color due to its association with the letterpress. Throughout the Cloister Apocalypse, the reader can find light ruler lines to keep the text straight and the text is more ornate while lacking uniformity. For the “Fairie Queene” calligraphy becomes an art form adorning title text, whereas body text becomes more clear. This creates a greater distinction between the body and title. I feel in understanding the relevance of the “Fairie Queene” in its role to graphic design, it important to compare and contrast it to other design pieces that preceded it. From this we can truly appreciate the differences intentionality can have on a design piece alongside the tools and the design techniques available at the time. This helps to create a timeline in the history of Graphic Design

Font Treatment for Cloister’s Apocalyse (c1300)

Font Treatment for Fairie Queene (1590)












Brink, Jean R. “Materialist History of the Publication of Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene.’” The Review of English Studies, vol. 54, no. 213, 2003, pp. 1–26. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3661532. Accessed 6 Feb. 2020.

Zurcher, A. (2016). Publication and the Book Marketplace. In A. Escobedo (Ed.), Edmund Spenser in Context (Literature in Context, pp. 53-62). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781316218662.008

Zurcher, Andrew. “Printing ‘the Faerie Queene’ in 1590.” Studies in Bibliography, vol. 57, 2005, pp. 115–150. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40372109. Accessed 6 Feb. 2020.