Two editions of The Faerie Queene were printed in Spenser’s lifetime, one in 1590 and the other in 1596. Both editions are what are known as quartos. This is a description of the physical size of a book. Books were printed on large sheets of paper about the size of a modern broadsheet newspaper. These were then folded and bound together to turn them into books. When a book was printed in quarto, each of these large sheets of paper was folded twice - into quarters - to produce four leaves (a leaf has two sides, each of which is one page).
A quarto is about the size of a modern paperback. In the 1590s, that would have made The Faerie Queene seem like a relatively small and cheap book. On the other hand, it was normal for important and expensive books to be printed in a larger format called a folio (like the famous ‘First Folio’ of Shakespeare’s plays) where each sheet of paper was only folded once. Soon after Spenser died, collected editions of all his poetry began to appear in this folio format. These would have been significantly more expensive than the first quarto editions.
The size and format of a book are important. In modern bookshops, we can see how different sorts of books, intended for different sorts of readers, will look and feel different. If the early quarto editions of The Faerie Queene were like modern paperbacks, and later editions were like expensive hardbacks, what might that have meant for the way people thought about Spenser’s poetry, both in his lifetime and after his death?
Beginning to print Spenser’s poetry in folios was an important statement about his importance as a poet. It reflected publishers’ beliefs that there were now plenty of customers willing to pay for more expensive editions of his works.
More about The Faerie Queene
The lost key: Hear how Spenser removed the preface which explained what The Faerie Queene means.
Visit Poet's Corner: Go on an adventure to Westminster Abbey and take pleasure in a painting.
The Secret Life of Books: Find out more about the other books in the series.