The history of written literature is long and fascinating; in Medieval times, manuscripts were made in a laborious and expensive process of using animal skins for pages, feather quills for pens and colored inks to make exquisite bibles and other religious texts.
The literary culture of medieval times was very different than today; since books were rare and literacy was low, texts were passed on orally through reading or memory (Mary Swan, 2003). Manuscripts were enormously expensive and the manuscript writers were accomplished artists and mostly monks who composed their work in the cloisters.
A typical medieval manuscript began its life as a stretched and treated animal skin (parchment). Next, an outline was sketched then penned using a feather quill of the highest quality. The ink was made of metal gall (usually iron), or oxide, which was a mixture of tannic acids with coppers and thickened with gum Arabic. The main ingredient was oak apple, derived from the leaves and twigs of an oak tree (Diane Victoria Horn, 1997). This mixture of ink containing acids actually etched the parchment and the pigments of ink filled in the etchings and could be reapplied over time to keep the manuscript in pristine condition.
Next, gold leaf was applied and burnished, followed by the copying of the text by scribes. The last to be added were the decorations and illustrations, which were elaborate. Finally, the book was bound, the parchments sewn by hand and covered with wood such as ash or beech or oak.
The making of a manuscript could take anywhere between days (in the case of a professional scribe paid by the job) or years (in the case of monks, who had other obligations and penned books when duties were done).
Because of the amount of time and care involved to make a manuscript, not to mention the employment of highly skilled artisans and scribes, manuscripts were prohibitively expensive to buy and were largely confined to church altars. Bibles were the most copied manuscripts, and eventually churches took a vested interest in teaching nobles and their children to read, using these manuscripts. The manuscripts bore no date of completion, nor the names of the men who made them (Horn).
In medieval manuscript culture, originality of text was not the aim of the scribes as it is today with contemporary authors. The scribes simply made copies, embellishing them with the decorations and script of their culture and time (Swan). Unlike today, collections of books were unheard of in terms of the general populace.
The churches protected the manuscripts, even as they are today, in museums, cathedrals and the Vatican. These priceless treasures bear the skill and devotion of craft and skill by those who made them. Looking at an original manuscript, one is awed by the care and level of expertise evident in the pages of elaborate decorations.
We will now move forward in time to early mass production of books, which began in the 16th century when the codex replaced the roll and book printing and binding was transferred from churches and monasteries to universities and later commercial publishers (David Fernando, 2002).
Where in medieval times manuscript bindings were lavishly decorated with ivory, precious gems and gold, subsequent books were leather-bound and decorated with stamp embossing and gold leaf. As book production increased, the use of cloth replaced that of parchment, and paper later replaced cloth.
In modern times, bookbinding reflects the art and architecture of the time; books are still hand-bound and very expensive, requiring these editions to be safely stored to prevent damage. Many hand-made books are used as journals, with hand-bound blank pages contained within leather or decorated wood covers.
In moving to the 21st century, we now find books readily available at a low cost. The current culture is attracted to books by author and genre, and a book begins as a decision by a publisher to print it.
The use of digital technology to reproduce books gives them a rapid distribution and the artwork used is wide and varied depending upon the publisher’s decisions. An original manuscript is put through the process of editing and finishing. Stored electronically and ready to be printed, in a method called offset printing.
Today’s books require a certain amount of care and proofreading before going to print, and in stark contrast to manuscripts of old, texts are now fiercely protected under copyright laws and originality is imperative to sales.
With the advent of digital texts, e-books, and paperback copies, books are largely taken for granted and handled carelessly without regard to craftsmanship. What was once revered as forbidden territory to be handled lovingly and carefully is now so much a part of everyday life that books are given away, sold to second-hand bookstores, discarded easily or donated to libraries and schools.
As with many modern items, books have made the transition from belonging to the few to the many, and what was once reserved for serious study is now used for everything from learning to entertainment.
Ferdinando, David, “Book Binding Trade.” Ferdinando Family History Site. December 2002, 25 November 2005 http://www.ferdinando.org.uk/book_binding.htm#manuf%20today
Horn, Diane Victoria. “Leaves Of Gold: How Medieval Manuscripts Were Made.” 2000 – 2002. Philadelphia Museum Of Art. 26 November 2005
Swan, Mary. University of Leeds. “Medieval Manuscript Culture.” The Literary Encyclopedia. 4 Sep. 2003. The Literary Dictionary Company. 27 November 2005. http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=1324