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I suspect "both" as you describe it below is indeed the answer. I 
posted hoping for an authoritative confirmation, and the fact that 
this phenomenon appears in other texts suggests, helpfully, that this 
isn't the local hack of an individual printing house or compositor, 
but is indeed a wider convention that would have been intelligible as 
such (rather than signalling "oh, they ran out of superscripted c's 
again...")

Thanks again for all the helpful thoughts--

best, Julia

At 11:23 AM -0500 5/14/08, Steven Dast wrote:
>Can't it be both?  That is, a typographical practice in which the
>mystery character is conventionally used, but understood by
>compositor, printer and reader to be standing in for a small raised
>"c."