Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 February 2021
Books Before Print
It is easy to forget, but there were books long before Johannes Gutenberg started printing them in the middle of the fifteenth century. Books before print—commonly called “manuscripts” or, fancier, “codices”—were first made in the Latin West during the fourth century CE, when they started to replace the revered roll, a process that took until well into the fifth century. This transition was prompted by the growing length of texts, resulting from the increasing popularity of Christianity, a religion built on long stories and lengthy discussions. So when in ca. 1455 Gutenberg's Bible rolled off Europe's first printing press (a craftily converted wine press) the “new” object he produced had actually been around, in handwritten form, for over a thousand years.
In fact, if we look closely at Gutenberg's printed bible (Figure 1), we have to conclude that it looks almost exactly like the handwritten bibles produced by scribes in his vicinity, especially the large lectern bibles. As a businessman, Gutenberg knew not to change the look of books and potentially upset his clientele of readers. And so he adopted the manuscript's relative dimensions (the width of the page being 70 per cent of its height), layout (two columns), materials (like scribes, Gutenberg used both parchment and paper), reading aids (chapter titles, running titles at the tops of pages), and even the shape of handwritten letters: his printed textura was a direct copy of the written version used by scribes. In this early period of print the similarity to the handwritten book was so profound that one wonders if readers could actually see the difference, or if they even cared. The only real novelty, using moving type instead of a quill to produce letters, is difficult to observe unless you have an expert eye.
This book is devoted to the millennium of the quill, the era of the ancestor of the printed book, and, specifically, the manuscript (from the Latin manu scripta, “written by hand”). Most chapters tap into what is arguably the most notable feature of manuscripts: their individuality. While printers, producing several hundred copies at the same time, targeted a generic audience rather than a specific person, medieval scribes usually knew who would ultimately read the books they were making.