Chapels, Devils, Monks, & Friars

The Irreverent Language of Printing History

Robin Davis, Fall 2010. Written for Bonnie Mak's “History of the Book” course
Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois

Note: hover over Source! (Bibliography at bottom of page) to see a source; hover over This is a note! to see a note.


Historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have a certain proclivity for describing dramatically the significance of historical events, and the advent of printing is no exception. “The Origin of Printing: A Cantata”, inserted after the glossary of John Johnson’s Typographia, or The Printer’s Instructor (1824), reveals perhaps the most overblown praise of the trade:

Hail noble Art, by which the world,
Though long in barbarism hurl’d,
Sees blooming Learning swift arise,
And Science wafted to the skies. ...

Then all who profess here that heaven-taught Art,
And all who have Learning and Science at heart.
Come join in my ditty, and each bear a part.
To sing in the praise of good Printing,
And to sing in that noble Art’s praise. Dodd poem in Johnson vol. II, 679-80

Here, printing tames and civilizes, rescuing humanity from its ignorance and setting “Learning” and “Science” free from where they had been cloistered in castles and monasteries. In the prefaces to tomes related its history, printing is frequently referred to as a “noble art”Johnson vol I, i; Luckombe, i, 6; Timperley, 133, 784 or a “divine art”Johnson vol I, 1; Luckombe, i, iv; Timperley, 110. Indeed, the earliest printers — while there might have been a controversy over who was the “inventor” of Western printing — seem to be subject to universal exaltation on par with that of the saints or Prometheus. Note: “Those who are conversant with the history of printing, cannot be unacquainted with the learning, virtue, honourable exertions, and ardent and daring zeal of most of the early printers, who, by the number of beautiful and correct impresssions [sic] which they gave of the ancient authors, (and thereby laying the foundation of classical and polite learning,) have secured to their memories the everlasting respect of all lovers of liberal and enlightened education. Who can read the biographies of many of the early printers, without awarding to them that admiration which the most eminent benefactors of mankind deserve?” Source: Timperley, iii-iv

Undoubtedly, their mark on human history is indelible. But how did those within the trade understand and contextualize their contribution? We turn to language in later centuries to see how those who practiced printing interpreted it.

Like any profession, printing has its own specialized vocabulary, rife with tradition and custom. From the mid-15th century until the late 19th, the operation remained essentially the same: the printer composed the copy using type made of wood or lead, then printed it with ink onto paper using the press. Almost immediately after its invention, printers began publishing printing manuals, detailing such technical particulars as how to properly cut a sheet into sixteen pages, how to apply ink evenly to the rollers, how to register the page, et cetera. These manuals were often accompanied by glossaries. Printers are rather prolific — they have a penchant for using the press for their own literary gain. We will examine a selection of printers’ memoirs from 17th to the 19th century Britain as well as the manuals and glossaries to find our way into the loaded language of printing.


The history of printing, that “divine art”, was intimately twined (or twinned) with the history of Western Christianity. The first printed books were Bibles and psalters, and the Reformation relied largely on printed pamphlets to disseminate ideas. Religious texts were now being produced by tradesmen rather than monks. The manuscript production room of a monastery contained its own organization reminiscent of an assembly line (scribes, rubricators, illuminators, et al), which was subject to the oversight of the dominant social structure of the monastery. In the printing house, too, there were various positions in the production line (compositors, pressmen, warehouse-keepers, et al). These employees together constituted the chapel, which was developed partly for efficiency and partly out of social necessity. Joseph Moxon, in Mechanick Exercises: Or, the Doctrine of Handiworks, Applied to the Art of Printing (1683), expounds:

Every Printing-house is by the Custom of Time out of mind, called a Chappel; and all the Workmen that belong to it are Members of the Chappel : and the Oldest Freeman is Father of the Chappel.Moxon, 356

The chapel, which either referred to the printing house or a meeting of its employees, was much like a union specific to each shop. Under the Father of the Chapel (the foreman), the journeymen made professional decisions and settled disputes between members, which could happen frequently in tense environments.

The lot of a journeyman printer was often a hard one. Composing the text took a fair amount of focus to follow the copy and simultaneously load the composing stick with the corresponding type, letter by letter. It was difficult enough in English, and doubly so in other languages. Operating the press took physical stamina and an inordinate attention to detail. On top of that, conditions, while variable, seem to be more often described as unpleasant. Generally, the employees worked long hours in confined spaces for meager wages and with little chance of promotion. As in any workplace with such circumstances, the tension was potentially great.


Accordingly, the chapels established rules and regulations to keep everyone well behaved. A breach of chapel law was fined a solace. “Solace” has historically meant comfort or consolation, as it is used now, but until the 17th century, it also carried connotations of contentment, either innocuous or subtly sexual. The OED’s second definition of solace is “Pleasure, enjoyment, delight; entertainment, recreation, amusement. Obs.” None of the printing glossaries examined gives an etymology for the printer’s solace, but since it was commonly enough to buy a beer, it is probably closer to the obsolete definition.

Chapel rules varied, but there were some that were common. Moxon lists nine:

1. Swearing in the Chappel, a Solace.
2. Fighting in the Chappel, a Solace.
3. Abusive Language, or giving the Ly in the Chappel, a Solace.
4. To be Drunk in the Chappel, a Solace.
5. For any of the Workmen to leave his Candle burning at Night, a Solace.
6. If the Compositer let fall his Composing-stick, and another take it up, a Solace.
7. Three Letters and a Space to lye under the Compositer’s Case, a Solace.
8. If a Press-man let fall his Ball or Balls, and another take it up, a Solace.
9. If a Press-man leave his Blankets in the Tympan at Noon or Night, a Solace.
Moxon, 357

Clearly, these rules were created to increase efficiency, cleanliness, and safety in the workplace. Rules five through nine do so practically, pertaining to how journeymen treated the equipment used during the workday. But the first four rules are moral: they address the how workers treated each other. In a 1994 essay entitled “Chapel Members in the Workplace,” Jan Materné explains the necessity of the chapel regulations: “By way of a common box system of fines, gifts and contributions, good social conduct and a certain code of behaviour for skilled craftsmanship could be enforced ... Aberrant individual behaviour had to be held in check by collective regulation.”Materné, 61-62 The Plantin-Moretus press in 17th-century Antwerp probably exemplified the best-case scenario for the social code of the chapel. “Their aim,” Materné writes, “was not to relieve their colleague of his hard-earned wages, but to nurture feelings of friendship within the group.” Their codependence was not merely professional, but also financial, as they had a sick fund and a common social fund, referred to here and elsewhere as the “good of the chapel.”Contat, 80; Jacobi, The Printers' Vocabulary, 54; Luckombe, 498; Timperley, 515 The relationship between the employees and the master of the printing house was not confrontational — in fact, it might even be termed paternal or at least familial. We will proceed to survey how the system of solaces worked in various other chapels in England in the memoirs of Thomas Gent, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Manby Smith.

Thomas Gent

The fraternal and traditional nature of the chapel also meant that printing houses were prone to rituals as seen in other men’s clubs. Thomas Gent, an accomplished printer, wrote his memoirs in 1744 at the age of 51. They provide a glimpse of chapel customs of 18th century London, some of which were the same as those at Plantin-Moretus, and some of which must have been quirks particular to the shop. Upon securing employment with a certain Mears in Blackfriars around the year 1713 and paying “Ben-money” (the bienvenue, typically contributing to the good of the chapel or buying beer on one’s first day), Gent, at the insistence of his master, attends a ceremony in his honor:

...I was obliged to submit to that immemorial custom, the origin of which they could not then explain to me. It commenced by walking round the chapel ... singing an alphabetical anthem, tuned literally to the vowels; striking me, kneeling, with a broadsword; and pouring ale upon my head: my titles were exhibited much to this effect, ‘Thomas Gent, baron of College Green, earl of Fingall, with power to the limits of Dublin bar, captain general of the Teagues, near the Lake of Allen, and lord high admiral over all the bogs in Ireland.’ To confirm which, and that I might not pay over again for the same ceremony, through forgetfulness, they allowed me godfathers, the first I ever had before... and these, my new pious fathers, were the un-reverend Mr. Holt and Mr. Palmer.Gent, 17

Strange rituals such as these serve, of course, to bond the members of the chapel to each other by shared experiences. And these customs are humorous: they mock British social customs — the act of knighting, meaningless hereditary and military titles — as well as the religious tradition of song and the rite of baptism, complete with godparents. Yet the humor masks an underlying seriousness. Mears, the master, insists that “it must be done.”Gent, 17 The initiation ceremony was an institution, a compulsory part of the structure of these printers’ lives. Gent’s tone in describing the event is difficult to gauge, but there is skeptical turn to his writing, likely because he was a man of strong Christian faith. The antics in one chapel were an offense to another. Gent also reveals that despite the pomp (the “vanity of human grandeur”, he terms it) of the initiation, he was discharged only a few weeks later. The ceremony had the look, sound, and feel of a spiritually significant event, but none of the gravity.

Benjamin Franklin

In 1724, at the age of 18, Franklin moved to London to buy type and ended up working for some time as a compositor there. He had been apprenticed to his brother, James, in his youth, and was now pursuing an independent practice. American printing houses had different, perhaps less boisterous, customs than their counterparts in Europe. Nowhere in Isaiah Thomas’s The History of Printing in America or John Clyde Oswald’s Printing in the Americas is “chapel” or “solace” mentioned, and in the footnote to the following anecdote, William Temple Franklin defines “chapel” and adds, “It is very properly rejected entirely in the United States.” Benjamin Franklin knew what a chapel was, but his encounter with chapel law was a lesson in transatlantic social skills:

Watts [the master], after some weeks, desiring to have me in the composing-room, I left the pressmen; a new bien venu or sum for drink, being five shillings, was demanded of me by the compositors. I thought it an imposition, as I had paid below; the master thought so too, and forbad my paying it. I stood out two or three weeks, was accordingly considered as an excommunicate, and bad so many little pieces of private mischief done me, by mixing my sorts, transposing my pages, breaking my matter, etc., etc., if I were ever so little out of the room, and all ascribed to the chappel ghost, which they said ever haunted those not regularly admitted, that, notwithstanding the master's protection, I found myself oblig’d to comply and pay the money, convinc’d of the folly of being on ill terms with those one is to live with continually.Franklin's Memoirs, Amazon Kindle loc. 671

The rules that Moxon listed, originally set down to bring order to the workplace, function here as justification for what was essentially bullying. What is most interesting is Franklin’s use of the word “excommunicate.” It’s an apt metaphor to describe his status, but it is also in keeping with the religious terminology of the printing house. Traditionally excommunication meant being cut off from religious rites; in this context, it probably meant being excluded from collective activities or funds in addition to being maltreated. Because he hadn’t served his apprenticeship in England, Franklin lacked a background in the social dynamics of British printing houses, making him an outsider from the start. His consternation when confronted with the pricey formalities of London’s printing trade also serves as a subtle reflection or prophecy of the American attitude toward British demands; here, fairness is not as important as adherence to an accepted and revered code.

Charles Manby Smith

In the examples we have looked at, the chapel had the dynamics of a family, fraternity or religious body. The chapel functioned as a microgoverment. About a century after Gent and Franklin’s experiences, the chapel still had a solid social protocol. In his autobiography, journeyman printer Charles Manby Smith describes the consequences of losing his temper to a coworker who had been making fun of his erudition:

...I foolishly walked into his frame [printing area], hauled him out, and with a blow between the eyes felled him to the ground. For this I was “chapelled” on the spot—that is, I was tried by a general jury of the whole room for a breach of the peace, and fined five shillings by sentence of the “father” of the chapel for striking a comrade.Smith, 200

To be sure, the jury of this 1834 London print shop was stacked against the unpopular Smith, who had upstaged them in his first week by taking very little time to correct proofs in Latin he had composed, as he knew the language and they didn’t. This, in itself, is worthy of comment. Historically, printers were a learned bunch. Literacy, often in multiple languages, was a given job requirement. But perhaps as literacy rates rose, the journeymen were increasingly valued more for their technical skills rather than literacy. The educated Franklin had rubbed his coworkers the wrong way, and here, Smith’s colleagues were mockingly calling him “The Professor.” After being “chapelled”, he saw no way to escape his social troubles but to leave. The Printers’ Trades Union had already been established in London to oversee conditions in printing houses, setting workweek limits and other regulations, none of them pertaining to workplace behavior.Smith, 198 The chapel was the judicial system that determined print shop morality. And an interesting linguistic phenomenon has occurred in Smith’s memoirs: chapel has become a verb.

Etymologically, the printing house definition of chapel is debatable. Some traditions say it was because William Caxton set up his shop near or in connection with Westminster Abbey.Gent, 17; Jacobi, 19 Moxon guesses that men of the church called printing houses chapels because they printed sacred texts, and De Vinne agrees.Moxon, 356; De Vinne note in Moxon, 428 La chapelle was the French equivalent, probably a re-definition of the word as influenced by England,Materné, 56 giving some weight to an association with Caxton. Either way, the verbification of chapel represents a break from the word’s original connotations. It has become a neologism whose roots lie solely in the printing house. Note: And technically, it must be said, in nautical language as well. The OED definition for chapel, v.2, is the turning around of a ship. Chapel, v.1, is a “nonce-word” in Shakespeare denoting burial in a chapel. This is a testament to the pluralism of words, however, and bears no effect Smith’s usage of “chapel” — for which there is no OED definition. The increasingly secular nature of printed works, coupled with the solidification of chapel traditions (already a “Custom of Time out of mind” by 1683Moxon, 356), pushed the printers’ chapel further and further away from a Christian one.


While the European system of chapels and solaces may not have translated into American culture, both sides of the Atlantic used the same or similar printing jargon to describe shop operations for centuries. One enduring term was the printer’s devil, which earnest (not historical) usage the OED has recorded as recently as 1993. Note: OED, “printer’s devil” entry in “printer”, C2. According to the OED, it was used in an article in the Coloradoan about a resident named Mr. Fraker, though the idiom is encased in scare quotes. Moxon defines it thus:

Devil. The Press-man sometimes has a Week-Boy to Take Sheets, as they are Printed off the Tympan: These Boys do in a Printing-House, commonly black and Dawb themselves [are covered with ink]; whence the Workmen do Jocosely call them Devils; and sometimes Spirits, and sometimes Flies.Moxon, 373

The word was used off-handedly but still carried a certain stigma of a tyro, as can be seen in these snippets from Jacobi’s Gesta typographica (1897):

Editor (to foreman) — Isn’t the ink running a little gray? Foreman — That’ll be all right, sir, after a few hundred more impressions. The devil upset an oyster stew on the forme at lunch time.

An editor wrote “An Evening with Saturn,” and it came out in the paper “An Evening with Satan.” It was mighty rough, but the foreman said it was the work of the “devil.” And it looked that way.

It makes one shudder to read the advertisement of a printer for a boy of “good moral character,” when it is well known that he means to make a “devil” of him.Jacobi, Gesta typographica, 113, 86, and 98

Printers’ devils were pitied, for these junior apprentices, usually twelve or thirteen years of age, were given the mundane or messy tasks that no one else wanted to do. But it’s an amused, distanced pity, not an empathy, that characterizes texts where devils appear. Smith writes of “the overworked devil being found proof against ‘kicking up,’ fast asleep on the floor.” Smith, 227 Franklin writes of the “poor devils” in the pressroom who lacked the foresight to save their money. Franklin, loc 654 Here, Franklin probably deploys a double entendre, using the common turn of phrase to refer to all of his coworkers who “keep themselves always under” by spending too much on beer. His condescension is clear: he does not think of them as his equals, as intelligent men. This patronization, as seen in other writing on printer’s devils, may provide some insight into the etymology of the term. Being young boys freshly employed, they arrive untrained — and perhaps untamed. “Devil” recalls other wild animals, as in the sea-devil, creatures without minds or morals. An initiation ceremony at the end of a printer’s devil’s apprenticeship, like Gent’s upon his entrance to the printing house, signifies an acceptance as a journeyman, able to take part in the chapel; and more broadly as a man, on equal social footing with the others.

But the view of the devil as subhuman or beastly springs from the supernatural origins of the word. When Moxon defined the printer’s devil, his country still enforced harsh laws concerning witchcraft. In 1604, “An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and dealing with evil and wicked Spirits” was passed under James I, by which anyone accused of witchcraft would be tried in a court of common law and could be sentenced to prison or death.Stephens, 509 Note: Officially referred to as statute 2 Ja. I c. 12. It would not be repealed until 1735, when those punishable were only “such persons as pretend to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft” (Stephens, 789). A fear of supernatural forces was prevalent in British culture at the time printing houses became commonplace, and printing itself did not develop unaffected. At its emergence, the “divine” art and those who practiced it were viewed with suspicion, for how could so many perfect copies of the same book appear so rapidly? Books themselves were supernatural objects. Sacred texts could save and condemn, but more menacingly, sacred texts could become corrupted with ease. Errors in the copy could be (and were Note: E.g.: “Printers’ Bible: n. a Bible in which ‘printers’ appears in place of ‘princes’ in Psalm 119:161.” Instead of “Princes have persecuted me,” this 1612 “Authorized Version” read “Printers have persecuted me without a cause.” OED, “printer”, C2) made in the process; human (divinely uninspired) errors were replicated through entire print runs and sometimes subsequent editions. Note: Of course, this is true for manuscripts as well (see Lachmann) but on a lesser, more foregivable scale. A holy power pushed the pens of monks, but only the need for money propelled journeymen and devils to run the press. “We must root out printing,” the Vicar of Croydon is supposed to have said in the early 16th century, “or printing will root out us!”Timperley, 235; Johnson, 606 The printing press was a threat, and the ink-blackened imps were, in the view of some fearful clergy, pushing a satanic agenda. Though Moxon says that printer’s devils were so called “jocosely,” religious fear and entanglement riddle printing history, manifest even in amusing epithets.

Other printing historians have a more specific hypothesis for the origin of the printing devil: Johann Faust. Faust (or Fust, or Faustus) was, according to some accounts, the bankroller for Gutenberg’s first Bible. When Gutenberg could not repay his debt, Faust took him to court and was granted all of the printing equipment. With it, he opened a new print shop with his son-in-law Peter Schoeffer and began to print religious materials as well as broadsides.Winship, 3; Timperley, 119 Other sources also credit Faust with the invention of printing, or of single-letter metal type.Luckombe, 2 A popular story about Faust as a printer tells of his sale of Bibles and subsequent arrest by the French authorities “under suspicion of dealing with the Devil; because the French could not otherwise conceive how so many books should so exactly agree in every letter and point.”Luckombe, 4; Wall-Randell, 261 After explaining the art to them, he was released. Of course, a sorcerer named Faust immediately brings to mind the play Doctor Faustus, written by Christopher Marlowe around the year 1592, in which the title character sells his soul to receive an encyclopedia of all knowledge and magical power. Marlowe’s famous character originated in The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus, an English translation of a German book, Faustbuch.Wall-Randell, 262 The Faustus of the latter is not Faust the printer, but rather Jorg Faustus, the self-proclaimed sorcerer of the early 16th century who became part of German folklore. Marlowe’s Faustus may be a conflation of the magician and printer. It is impossible to determine how entwined the truth and fictions of the Faustuses are, either in the play or in cultural memory, and this is telling. If “the printing press is a gift from God,” Sarah Wall-Randell submits in an article about the early modern overlap of technology and magic, “then the Faustus who makes a pact with the Devil is Faust the printer’s evil twin, shadowing him through the archive.”Wall-Randell, 262 From here, it is unclear when “printer’s devil” first appeared in the English language, and consequently so is the question of whether it was influenced by Marlowe or Faustbuch. But perhaps the appellation’s staying power is due in part to the legend of the three Faustuses, men who sought knowledge and possessed mysterious books.

Monks & Friars

In the Middle Ages, the men with the most knowledge and books were the holy men of monasteries. Venerated as the blessed keepers of learning, they appear as mundane additions to the printer’s vocabulary:

Monk. When the Press-man has not Distributed his Balls [cushions used for inking the type], some splotches of ink may lye on one or more of them, which in Beating he delivers upon the Form; so that the Sheet Printed on has a black blotch on it: Which Blotch is called a Monk.

Fryer. When the Balls do not Take, the Un-taking part of the Balls that touches the Form will be left White, or if the Press-men Skip over any part of the Form, and touch it not with the Balls, though they do Take, yet in both these cases the White places is cal'd a Fryer.Moxon, 377

The “monk”, a black splotch, was likely named for the Dominican order, which members wore black. The “friar”, a white patch, might have been inspired by the Carmelites, who, yes, wore white cloaks.From the OED, "Black friar" and "white friar", latter on a tip from Linde Brocato Interestingly, “monk” means the opposite in French:

Moine, s. m. Endroit sur une forme qui n’a pas été touché par le rouleau et qui, par suite, n’est pas imprimé sur la feuille. Boutmy, 87

There is no frère counterpart. The closest in meaning, according to Eugène Boutmy’s Dictionnaire de l’argot des typographes, is pocher, “Prendre trop d’encre avec le rouleau et la mettre sur la forme,” but it is “peu usité” by 1883 except in the senses of poaching (an egg) or giving someone a black eye.Boutmy, 91

None of the three memoirs we have examined use “monk” or “friar” with the meanings defined by Moxon. The terms might be too technical for writing that is focused on personal experiences; alternatively, they might have been uncommon, though their presence in Moxon’s glossary (as well as those of Hansard, Jacobi, Johnson, and Timperley) suggests established, continuous usage. Thus we won’t now look at the words in context, only in definition. But their existence is intriguing enough.

Monks and friars, by Moxon’s straight-faced definitions, were faults in the printing process. If a pressman saw a black splotch or a white patch, he would (if he were a good pressman) halt the press and amend the error, resuming impressions only when the monk or friar disappeared. Remaining, it would impede legibility, as it would come between the word and the reader. The terms serve as a heavy-handed metaphor: printing presses were eradicating monks and friars, replacing a key cultural role of the monastery, and freeing books from the cloister to be given to the masses. It is at least fair to conjecture that the general attitude of the secular printing house toward holy men is not only irreverent, but also that the monk and friars were wholly irrelevant to them.

Afterword: on etymology

There is something akin to mysticism in the field of etymology, as though finding the origins of a word will reveal hidden connotations or consequences. But the same fallacy at the heart of studying the history of reading also plagues researching the history of words. We cannot know to what extent a term’s origin affects its reception to the hearer or reader, especially not centuries ago. If Thomas Gent had been told by a superior to fix the friars on the page, would his mind flash first to the mendicants, or would he simply even out the ink on the press without much rumination? Unless he wrote about it — which he did not — that information is veiled to us.

Still, there are some inferences to be made. True neologisms are rare: words usually mutate or recombine to make new ones, or expand to include new meanings. In the printing terms examined, the latter is the case. But could newly assigned denotations eclipse old definitions?

The prevalence of the words “chapel”, “solace”, and “devil” — and to a lesser extent “monks” and “friars” — in printing literature suggests that for those intimately acquainted with the craft, the more pertinent meanings were privileged. These words were vestiges of the evolution of language. The new is understood only in the idiom of the present, and so the novel art of printing was framed in terms that recalled contemporary religious structures and ideas. In time, though, the connections became fainter. A word’s origins, while sometimes remembered, become arbitrary.

The specialized printing language as a whole fell mostly out of use by the end of the 19th century. Printing presses became more advanced. The Linotype machine replaced the compositor. Note: Mark Twain was an early (and unwise) evangelist for and investor in the Linotype machine. See ed. note in Twain, loc 14,616 The social structure of the printing shop evolved, and chapels and solaces were forgotten. Child labor laws eventually forbid 12-year-old boys from becoming printer’s devils. With the exception of historical examinations like the one we have conducted here, the words are essentially dead.

But other words that pertained originally only to the print shop or the language of books have assumed new meanings in the era of personal computing. Scrolling pages, bookmarking and highlighting, scripts and fonts — all of these words are recoinages. Presently, they straddle two worlds, the book and the screen. It is as if we have held the codex to the computer and merely pushed the vocabulary through it into another dimension.

Perhaps the beginnings and ends of cultural shifts are only truly marked by the expansion and contraction of language. Binaries like Renaissance/early modern, manuscript/printed book, religious/secular are all contained in the language of printing. And now another shift brings the reapplication of the language of print to the cant words of computing, a linguistic change that warrants more study. For in studying language, we can trace the trails, however faint, of new social thought.


* Denotes a book read on the Amazon Kindle, where instead of pagination one encounters “locations.” Each location is about four lines long, which means the Autobiography of Mark Twain, for instance, is 23,218 locations long. One hopes the pagination of Amazon's e-books will improve.

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