A headpiece, a chapter device, or an ornamented initial is a decorative design at the start of a chapter or section in a book. It could be as simple as an unadorned line drawing or as complex and sumptuous as a piece of calligraphy; it can feature only one enlarged letter at its heart that’s intensely embellished, reflecting the spirit of the page it sits above.
Headpieces are common in illuminated manuscripts and were particularly popular in medieval books of hours—private prayer books that contained texts for different parts of the day. In these books, headpieces signify changes within prayers—for example, when one person started speaking and another stopped—or to highlight significant moments in biblical narratives.
A headpiece, a drophead or drop-cap, is an embellished letter that appears at the start of a book’s chapter, verse, or paragraph. These letters are typically large and adorned, often the text’s first letter. Headpieces were widespread in illuminated manuscripts and were especially prominent in medieval books of hours. They were commonly used to announce the commencement of a new text portion or signal the beginning of a new story. In some instances, they could be used to indicate who was speaking.
Scribes or illuminators would usually add headpieces. The letter would frequently be drawn or painted onto the page before applying the text. On certain occasions, it might have been appended afterward. Headpieces might even contain gold or silver and may include jeweled decorations or enamelwork when crafted for wealthier patrons.
In modern times, headpieces can occasionally be found in certain types of books—particularly those that aim for an antique feel—and sometimes appear in children’s books and comics. Their inclusion can give these works more elegance while also helping draw attention to where one chapter concludes and another begins.