What are the origins of putting epigraphs in a work?

Wikipedia has this example from 1700, but no explanation on when or why epigraphs came into vogue.

Facsimile of the original title page for William Congreve's The Way of the World published in 1700, on which the epigraph from Horace's Satires can be seen in the bottom quarter.

Title page


3 Answers 3


The first known epigraph was used in Froissart's "Chroniques" about 1404 and «Calendarium» of Regimontan at 1476.

Э. стали применяться в лит-ре с нач. 15 в., впервые, насколько известно, в кн. «Хроники» («Chronique», написана к 1404, опубл. 1495) Ж. Фруассара, «Calendarium» Реджомонтано (Венеция, опубл. около 1476), «Максимы» (1665) Ф. де Ларошфуко («Наши добродетели — это чаще всего искусно переряженные пороки»).
- Russian source

Epigraphs began to be used in literature from the beginning of the 15th century. The first known appearance of an epigraph is in the “Cronique” books (written in 1404 and published in 1495) by J. Froissart, “Calendarium” by Reggomontano (Venice, published circa 1476) and “Maxims” (1665) by F. de La Rochefoucauld (“Our virtues are more often all skillfully dressed vices”).
- Russian to English translation

An image of a page with an epigraph from “Chroniques” is available courtesy of the British Library:

  • 1
    Hello, welcome to Literature.SE! This looks interesting; but can you please provide some sources to support your claim? Almost all good answers will provide some sort of backup for their claims. An image would also be nice, like the one provided in the question :). (And are you absolutely sure that's the first? If so that would be interesting to know how.)
    – Mithical
    Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 21:17
  • @Mithrandir, my source was in russian "Literary dictionary" Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 21:30
  • Would you mind editing to include that, with perhaps a quote and a translation? :)
    – Mithical
    Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 21:30
  • No, nobody can be sure, but it's one of the first printed books, so it can be. Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 21:34
  • 1
    @HasmikGaryaka You say that the page from Chroniques contains an epigraph. Could you indicate where the epigraph can be found? The text in red appears to be a description of the events depicted in the miniature, not an epigraph. Commented Oct 11, 2021 at 12:29

Geoffrey Chaucer places an epigraph at the head of the prologue to the Pardoner’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales (c. 1400). Here’s folio 136 verso from the Ellesmere Manuscript (c. 1400–1410) with the epigraph highlighted:

Manuscript page with decorative leaves and knots along the top, left and bottom margins in red, blue, pink and green ink. At the top are the last sixteen lines of the Physician’s Tale, then “Heere followeth the prologue of the pardoner’s tale”, then the epigraph, and then the first twenty-four lines of the prologue.

The epigraph reads “Radix malorum est cupiditas ad Thimotheum 6ᵒ”, that is, “The love of money is the root of all evil” from 1 Timothy 6:10. This is the text that the Pardoner always preaches upon, as he says at the start of his prologue:

Lordynges quod he in churches whan I preche
I peyne me to hau an hauteyn speche
And rynge it out as round as gooth a belle
Ffor I kan al by rote that I telle
My theme is alwey oon and euer was
Radix malorum est cupiditas

I think that Chaucer’s use of an epigraph here is intended to reflect the way a sermon is written. A sermon begins with a short biblical quotation, sometimes placed on its own at the head of the text. Here’s a manuscript example, folio 191 recto of the ‘Winchester Anthology’ (British Library Add MS 60577), with the biblical quotation from Ecclesiastes 4:2–3 highlighted:

Manuscript page.

Laudavi mortuos magis quam viventes Sed feliciorem utroque indicavi qui nec dum natus est

A sermon of the late bosshop of winton John Whit made before quene Elysabeth

Thes be the wordes of Salomon the fowrthe chapter of the booke of prechars callid ecclesiastes. They may be englished thus. I can commend the state of the dead aboue the state of the liuing, but happiar then any of them bothe ys he that was neuear borne.

(This sermon must have been composed between Elizabeth’s accession in 1558 and Bishop John White’s death in 1560. I would have liked to give an earlier example but had to make do with what I could find digitized.)

So a plausible origin for epigraphs is as short biblical quotations at the heads of sermons, which led to the placement of biblical quotations at the heads of other kinds of literature, as in Chaucer’s prologue to the Pardoner’s Tale, which led to epigraphs in full generality.

  • This is a great answer!
    – TheCaptan
    Commented Oct 26, 2021 at 16:58

I do not claim that this is the earliest example of an epigraph, but as it is earlier than the examples mentioned in the existing answers it is worth posting.

Maimonides wrote دلالة الحائرين (Dalālat al-ḥā’irīn), translated into Hebrew as מורה נבוכים (Moreh Nevuchim) and English as Guide for the Perplexed, at the end of the Twelfth Century. The work begins with a short letter to his student for whom it was written, followed by a preface. The preface begins with an epigraph of three Biblical verses:

"Cause me to know the way wherein I should walk, for I lift up my soul unto Thee." (Psalm cxliii. S.)

"Unto you, O men, I call, and my voice is to the sons of men." (Prov. viii. 4)

"Bow down thine ear and hear the words of the wise, and apply thine heart unto my knowledge." (Prov. xxii. 17.)

My primary object in this work is to explain certain words occurring in the prophetic books. Of these some are homonyms, and of their several meanings the ignorant choose the wrong ones; other terms which are employed in a figurative sense are erroneously taken by such persons in their primary signification. There are also hybrid terms, denoting things which are of the same class from one point of view and of a different class from another. It is not here intended to explain all these expressions to the unlettered or to mere tyros, a previous knowledge of Logic and Natural Philosophy being indispensable, or to those who confine their attention to the study of our holy Law, I mean the study of the canonical law alone; for the true knowledge of the Torah is the special aim of this and similar works.

(Friedlander Translation)

To preclude the possibility that these verses were added by a more recent copyist/translator, below are several medieval manuscripts in which you can see the epigraph. Note how in every single one the epigraph is visually distinguished from the main text. Thus, even if they had no official term for this, it seems that they were well aware that it wasn't part of the regular text.

The National Library of France, Paris, France Ms. hebr. 685

Image of manuscript with epigraph circled

The British Library, London, England Harley 7586B

Image of manuscript with epigraph circled

The British Library, London, England Add. 14763

Image of manuscript with epigraph circled

The British Library, London, England Harley 7586A

Image of manuscript with epigraph circled

The British Library, London, England Harley 5507

Image of manuscript with epigraph circled

The National Library of France, Paris, France Ms. hebr. 687

Image of manuscript with epigraph circled

The Palatina Library, Parma, Italy Cod. Parm. 3208

Image of manuscript with epigraph circled

Laurentian Library, Florence, Italy Ms. Plut.III.12

Image of manuscript with epigraph circled

  • This is another great answer!
    – TheCaptan
    Commented Oct 26, 2021 at 16:59

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