Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 February 2021
What can reveal more about the culture of a milieu or of an epoch than the style of its books? It is this exciting rhetorical question, posed by Leon Delaissé in his landmark article published posthumously in 1976, which captures the spirit of the explorations undertaken in Books Before Print. Its chapters show that medieval books are not merely objects that played a given role in society, for example, as tools or resources in religious practices and in education, but also that they themselves, through their material design, act as vehicles for the preferences and habits of the people who made up medieval society. As the case studies on the previous pages have shown, captured in the materiality of manuscripts are the data enabling us to make sense of their medieval users and settings of use. This is an important and advantageous legacy of the manuscript: that its observable features act as built-in historical evidence of a culture that has long vanished.
That this is even possible is because each medieval manuscript represents a single, custom-tailored production process, resulting in a one-of-a-kind—truly unique—book, as explained in the General Introduction. The motivations of scribes to opt for certain features were in large part sparked by the culturally and financially inspired preferences of the reader or the community that was to own the manuscript. Their needs were communicated, often verbally, and translated into specific material features. This system is unique to handwritten books. Printed volumes can also contain features that are unique to a specific copy, but to a much lesser extent. Readers in the age of print could write annotations in the margin and perhaps add a custom-tailored binding, but they could not mould the individual printed book to their own tastes and preferences. It was the printer who decided what physical features to include (dimensions, design, typeface) and he or she did so, obviously, for the entire print-run at the same time, probably without direct input from individual readers. In other words, printers designed a book with an ideal, not a real, reader in mind: true personalization arguably stopped when the quill was replaced by the press.