Before printing – introduction

Why should a website devoted to printed leaves start with some handwritten ones? One reason is that without manuscript books there would have been no printed ones. Manuscript books prepared a readership for printed ones. Another reason is that, of the many processes involved in producing the first printed books, all but one were carried over more or less unchanged from the manuscript era.

Preparing vellum or buying paper, making ink, choosing an exemplar (an existing text to copy from), planning the page layout, decorating, illuminating and rubricating the text, binding the book and selling it – all these were common both to handwritten books and to the first printed ones. Only the technique of putting the letters on to the pages changed. Even the typefaces adopted by the first printers merely emulated what scribes were producing at the time.

Manuscript books were often lavish and hefty affairs, commissioned by church dignitaries or noblemen, with as much decoration as could be afforded, and designed for reading aloud. ‘In the Middle Ages’, according to an exhibit in the Hereford Cathedral Library, ‘a book was worth as much as a farm’. No wonder they chained them down. And no wonder Gutenberg would be willing to invest time and money devising a means of mass-production that would boost productivity by mechanising the work that scribes did so slowly. To achieve his goal he would have to take on financial risks on a scale no one-at-a-time manuscript bookseller ever had to face.

By the 13th century there was new demand for manuscript books, from prelates, students at the fledgling universities, itinerant friars and even lay people. What they wanted were handier books, often devotional texts, in a format that was portable and designed for personal reading. The books that met this demand were more affordable – then and now – than their grand predecessors. More of these smaller books, or parts of books, survive to the present day than any other mediaeval artefact, except perhaps buildings or coins, and it is leaves from two of these that are shown on the pages linked to this one.

One feature of manuscript books has survived six centuries of printing and is with us today, the upright shape of the page, known as ‘portrait format’. Christopher de Hamel has suggested that this reflects the shape of animals, or rather their skins, from which vellum was made. A trimmed skin, folded in half at the middle of the longer side, produces four upright pages, and papermakers followed suit. (Computer screens buck this trend, descended as they are from cinema and television and ultimately from the theatrical stage. Their landscape format makes life harder for anyone unwise enough to want to reproduce single printed leaves on screen.)