Imposition: writing on undivided quadrifolia Lesson 10 - Dr. Dorrit van Dalen

Once in a while, you will come across an old printed book in which the pages still need to be cut apart along the top before you can read them. It makes you realise that book pages are printed four (or eight or even sixteen) at a time, on each side of a quadrifolium, before it is folded and sewn or glued into a book and finally cut. This printing technique is called “imposition” and is commonly used for modern books. When the multiplication is mechanic, this takes some planning only once, but the rest of the process is much faster. To write a manuscript on quadrifolia takes utmost attention for each sheet. Text had to be imposed in such a way that, after folding and cutting, the pages were found in the right sequence.

Imposition a
Quadrifolium, uncut

A few uncut quadrifolia with Latin text have been found in European codices (sometimes as scrap-material strengthening a cover for instance), mostly from the 15th century. They prove that European codices were sometimes put together in the same way modern books are printed. But it is a matter of debate whether imposition was ever common practice in manuscript culture.

It is not clear why or how imposition was done exactly. Did one fill the eight spaces in the sequence of the sense of the text, or in the sense of the sheet, writing first on side 1 and then on side 2 of the large sheet? The first method is called “natural sequence” or “sense sequence”. Its disadvantage is that the scribe has to flip a quadrifolium four times, and turn it four times to fill spaces 1 to 8 in the right order. Each time he or she must wait to let the ink dry.

Imposition c

The second method is called page sequence. Its disadvantage is that the distribution of the text is even more prone to mistakes than in the first method, even if the scribe follows a model. Codicologists of European books tend to believe that writing in the sense-sequence was the preferred method.

There is no almost no evidence of imposition in the Arabic tradition. A Leiden manuscript from the Maghrib, however, has three quadrifolia with writing on them that are still intact.

About this manuscript

Title: Riḥlat al-munā wa’l-minna.

Classmark: Or. 14.050

Subject: Riḥla, travelogue

Author: Aḥmad ibn Ṭwayr al-Janna

Copyist: Aḥmad ibn Ṭwayr al-Janna

Format: Unbound codex

Extent: 76 folios, leaf height 225 mm, width 175 mm

Date of creation: Monday, 12 Rabīʿ (=1552 H/1834 CE)

Language(s): Arabic

Script: Maghribi

Aḥmad ibn Ṭwayr (or Uṭwayr) al-Janna (ca 1787-1848/9) was born in Wādān, in today’s Mauritania, and died there too. His fame is based on the travelogue, The Journey of Hope and Blessings, for which this manuscript seems to have been a draft version. Although a large part corresponds with the full text of later versions, the end of the text in this manuscript consists of notes. (See lesson "Mouvance", a fair draft.) That Or. 14.050 is not a finished work is also clear from its physical aspect. Considering the two together – the text and its carrier – brings one close to Ibn Ṭwayr in the process of composing his book.

Most of the text is written on bifolia of paper produced in the Islamic world (it has no watermark nor chain lines). Sheets of paper were often sold folded and these particular ones may have been sold as quadrifolia (height 450 mm, width 350 mm) that were folded twice. The last three quadrifolia of this manuscript have been written on, but they have remained uncut.

Imposition thumb

It strongly suggests that the rest of the text was also written before the sheets were cut into bifolia. That was not common practice in the Arabic tradition. And in the Islamic bookmaking tradition in Africa books were not bound at all, but single sheets were held together between covers of leather or carton, which were tied with a leather string, or kept inside a leather portfolio.


It is possible that he learned to write on undivided folios from European examples in North Africa. And he may have considered it a good way to reduce the risk of losing sheets of paper, especially while travelling. But working this way, Ibn Ṭwayr made a few mistakes, writing text in a wrong section of the sheet, for instance on f 7v.

The bifolia and quadrifolia of Or. 14.050 have all been pierced with one hole in the middle of the fold. One hole would not have worked for binding. Apparently, the sheets were only strung together provisionally, for the time of the journey.

More about this manuscript: Lesson 6, Mouvance, and the Maghribi paleography exercise.

Further reading
J.P. Gumbert, ‘Skins, Sheets and Quires’ in Derek Pearsall, New Directions in Later Medieval Manuscript Studies, York, 2000, pp 81-91. Avalaible online via Leiden University Libraries. And here is an incomplete version of the article.
Margaret M. Smith, ‘Imposition in manuscripts: Evidence for the use of sense-sequence copying in a new fragment’ in Linda L. Brownrigg (ed.), Making the Medieval Book: Techniques of Production, Oxford 1992. pp 145-155.
J.J. Witkam, Inventory of the Oriental Manuscripts of the Library of Leiden University, Vol 15.


  1. Why did the scribe of this manuscript cut most pages, but not the last ones? What reason can you think of why the manuscript was left in this state?

  2. Make a model of a quadrifolium and number the eight sections as in the pictures above. Then go the manuscript in the viewer and consider the mistaken placement of text that should have been on f8verso in space number 4 of your model. Does this indicate that writing was done according to sense-sequence or page-sequence?


  1. Look at the catchwords (custodes, taʿ qibāt) written on the bottom of some of the folios. At what stage in producing the manuscript do you think they were written?