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History of the Book

This libguide contains resources pertaining to the history of printing and the history of the book as they were developed in Western Europe beginning in the Middle Ages.

Early Writing

                Cuneiform Writing










These images of Special Collections Cuneiform 1 (above left and right) show one of the earliest forms of writing. This tablet is slightly larger than one inch square and about one-half inch thick. From the mention of the ruler, Ibbi Sin, the tablet dates to Ur, Third Dynasty, about 2029-2006 BCE. The tablet is a receipt for one shekel of silver.  The tablet shown below, Cuneiform 2 in Special Collections, is also a record of a financial transaction, a bag of grain on deposit at a state granary.













Beginning in about 3300 BCE (the early Bronze Age) Sumerian writers used a stylus to inscribe logograms (symbols or characters that represent a word) into wet clay forms -- tokens or tablets.  These forms were left to dry, and thereby preserved the writing. Tablets were written left-to-right, right-to-left, in spiral lines around the tablet, or in a boustrophedon which is alternating lines right-to-left and left-to-right.


Special Collections' two papyrus documents are pictured above. MS106, on the left, is a receipt for a dike tax paid in the year 166 CE. The document on the right, MS105, is a list of books that was written during the 5th or 6th century, CE. Papyrus sheets were used as a writing surface from about the fourth millenium BCE. The material is made from the plant Cyperus Papyrus, a reed that grows along the Nile River. The plant's stem is triangular in cross-section, and it can be sliced into thin, flat strips or peeled apart in an "unwinding" fashion to produce one wider strip.  Papyrus makers wove these strips into sheets and pressed them. The process of creating papyrus sheets naturally incorporated water from the Nile River in which clay and aluminum sulfate were present. These substances formed a type of sizing, a substance applied during the manufacture of paper to prevent ink from soaking into the paper and "bleeding".



Medieval Manuscripts


The Codex

The term "codex" generally refers to the format of the book as we know it now: written or printed sheets that are folded into gatherings and sewn or fastened into a binding and attached to an outer cover.  Many scholars use the term "codex" to refer specifically to European books that were made prior to Johann Gutenberg's development of printing in the mid-fifteenth century. The first codices were likely sheets of written papyrus folded and attached together at a binding.  Papyrus scrolls were a common medium for writing during Ancient Rome, and research dates the codex used simultaneously with scrolls beginning in the first century CE. Over the next few hundred years, codices replaced scrolls as the preferred medium for written "books". By the end of the Roman Empire, parchment or vellum (both terms describe a writing medium made from animal hides. Some scholars distinguish the terms based on the particular animal's hide.) had replaced papyrus and was the writing medium for scribes during the European Middle Ages as well. Parchment is both easier to write on and sturdier than papyrus. Although it can become brittle in arid climates, parchment holds up well for centuries and with little degradation.

Parchment production was time consuming and laborious.  A single copy of the Bible in folio format (with pages approximately 12 by 17 inches) would have required the hides of about three hundred animals.  Calves, goats, and sheep were the hides of choice for making parchment. Skilled laborers, parchmenters, spent about three weeks producing parchment ready for the scriptora. First the hides were soaked to wash away dirt and grime. Next the hides were soaked in a lime solution for several days to loosen the hair. Then the hides were stretched on a herse and scraped to a uniform thickness with a special tool, a lunellarium. The skins were finally sanded with pumice so that ink would penetrate better. Parchment was used predominantly in Europe until the mid- to late-fifteenth century when paper replaced it.

A Book of Hours was a popular devotional used in Medieval Europe. Books of Hours were adapted from breviaries which contained the Divine Office used in monasteries to pray the Canonical Hours. These prayers were recited at seven specified times during each day: Nocturnes (12am), Matins (6am), Terce (9am), Sext (12pm), Nones (3pm), Vespers (6pm), Compline (9pm). The Book of Hours also contained a Liturgical Calendar of holy days, feast days, and days of religious obligation. Additionally the books included Gospel readings, the Litany of Saints, the Office of the Virgin Mary, the Psalms of Degrees, the Penitential Psalms, and the Office for the Dead. Books of Hours included as many colorful illustrations and illuminations as the purchaser was able to afford.




This image at left shows a page from a Book of Hours made during the 14th Century.











This image on the right shows a page from a personal-sized Bible made near Paris, France at about the middle of the 13th Century. (Special Collections MS 300)

The illumination between the two columns of text depicts the narrative in the Book of Genesis of God creating the world in seven days.

Illuminated Manuscripts like the one pictured at right derived their name from the colorful and expensive illustrations set in the text. These illustrations were used to help the reader navigate the text. Although this particular manuscript was paginated at a later date, medieval Bibles did not have page numbers or chapter and verse numbers. An illustration such as the one at right would have indicated to the reader that the story of Genesis was at hand.

The illustrations were created after the scribe had written the text.  Carbon-based writing inks had been developed in parts of Asia before the European Middle Ages. Although these inks were available to European scribes, scribes from about the 5th Century CE through the Middle Ages generally used an oak-gall ink, sometimes called iron-gall ink. The ingredients were iron sulfate fermented with a tannic acid, usually obtained from oak galls, to which a binder was added. This ink was the scribes' and readers' preferred ultra-dark ink.







The image on the right is a close up of the same page of the Bible shown above it.

The illustrator first scratched in "blind" sketches of the illustrations. The next step was gilding with thin sheets of gold leaf. The artist applied an adhesive to the areas where the gold leaf would be and removed the parts of the leaf that did not adhere. The remaining image was painted with inks and paints made from minerals and plant substances. Lapis lazuli was ground to make blue paint, and malachite was ground to make the green. Colorfast red hues were more difficult and expensive to create, and various minerals, insects, and plants were used to create reddish colors. Minium was a less expensive red color that was made from heat-treated white lead.
























The image at left is from the same Bible as shown in the images immediately above it. The rubrication is the writing in red. It is another navigation device for the reader. Here it indicates the "end of the prologue" and the "beginning of the Book of Job." In many medieval manuscripts readers will see letters with a red mark inside them. This rubrication indicates the beginning of each verse. The scribe who wrote this copy used punctuation, but it was not necessarily common practice to do so.






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The image on the right shows an historiated initial in this leaf from the Prologue to the Book of Job, Job 5:9 (Special Collections MS 317) that was made in Paris about 1220 CE.  This upper-case U is also an image of Job suffering  and conferring with others in the scene, perhaps Eliphaz and Job's friends? Because the illustration relates thematically the text at hand, the initial is historiated.














This image at right shows rubrication and margin art. In this case, one would refer to the initial as an illuminated initial because it does not contain an image thematically pertinent to the content of the text.
















Comparing a folio-size manuscript Bible leaf to a leaf from one of the Bibles that Johann Gutenberg printed (in the two images below) illustrates the crossover from writing as it appeared in medieval manuscripts to printing as Johann Gutenberg developed it with his press and moveable metal type.  The dimensions of both leaves are about the same, 44 x 30 cm (17 x 12 inches, approximately). The leaf from Gutenberg's printed Bible features remarkable similarities to the leaf from the Medieval Bible: two columns of text, rubrication to indicate the beginnings and ends of the books of the Bible, a similar style of letters in the handwriting and in the typeface, space for illuminated and/or historiated initials, roughly equal margins, column headings, and a lack of verse numbers and pagination. Scholarship about Gutenberg is scant at best. But some facts have been ascertained. He had his press in Mainz, Germany for three years. During that time period he printed 180 copies of his Bible. Each Bible was two volumes and comprised 1280 pages.  A medieval scribe made one copy, on average, of the same Bible in about one year. Some scholarship indicates that Gutenberg led in the switch from parchment or vellum to paper as the pages of books.


















The invention of paper is credited to Cai Lun who made the first plant-fiber paper in China in 105 CE. Paper travelled along the Silk Road literally and by way of paper makers from China who'd been taken prisoner of war by Arabs in a military battle. Arabs replaced papyrus and parchment with paper by the middle of the 8th Century CE. Paper came to Spain with the Arabs during the early European Middle Ages, and the first paper mill in Europe is considered to have been founded in Xativa, Spain in 1150, and by the fifteenth century several paper mills existed in western regions of Europe. Producing paper is faster than producing parchment or vellum. So-called "rag paper" is made with used linen or cotton rags, and its longevity can span hundreds of years if it is kept in good climate conditions. Pulped rags or plant fibers (mulberry is still commonly used in fine papermaking today in China and East Asia) are mixed in a solution with sizing and "laid" in a screen which gives the paper its characteristic line pattern. A wire fashioned into a shape and built into the wires of the screen gives the sheets a watermark, the equivalent of a trademark for papermakers. Stacked to dry, sheets can be ready for printers within a few days. Compared to the much more laborious process of making parchment sheets, papermakers can produce many more sheets of paper than parchmenters within the same time frame.  Because Gutenberg was printing at a much faster rate than scribes were copying Bibles, parchment was not a reliable source. Gutenberg printed his first Bibles on parchment and then printed them on paper.

By clicking on the images of these leaves below, the reader can magnify parts of the images in order to see details more closely. The CU Libraries' Digital Library contains images of materials in many of the Libraries' collections. Images of most of the medieval manuscripts held in Rare and Distinctive Collections are available within the Medieval Manuscript Leaves section of the Digital Library.

Early Printing


Aldus Manutius

Aldo Manutio, a.k.a. Aldus Manutius, was born, by varying accounts, around 1449 or 1450 and lived until 1515. Between the 1450s and 1500 printing houses and presses increased in number because of increased demand for books, and the number of European cities with printing houses increased from a handful in the mid-1450s to nearly 150 by the year 1500. Books printed between the mid-1450s and 1500 are referred to as incunabula, a term that describes the technology and art of mechanized printing still in its "infancy" or early stages. Scholarship considers the date of 1501 to be abitrary. It is notable that many presses post-1500 were printing editions of several thousands of copies instead of hundreds, and Manutius' press had the distinction of printing large editions of carefully edited scholarly titles in elegant and high-quality format. Aldus Manutius founded a press in Venice, Italy, in 1494, The Aldine Press. Manutius printed editions of Greek and Roman classics, and he worked closely with Renaissance scholars to produce these works. His press employed punch-cutters (skilled workers who cast fonts of metal type), and he developed several typefaces, including Roman typefaces. He created italic typefaces, and he was the first printer to print books in an octavo, the size of book that is the mass-produced paperback book today. To understand this innovation, it may be useful to the reader to understand the size of paper printers use.  Sheets of paper for printers are about 22 by 30 inches, and the printer decides the imposition of the pages on each sheet. Gutenberg printed his Bibles as folios. A folio is a sheet folded in half and has four pages printed on it, two on each side of the sheet. The fold is where the folio is sewn into the binding. A quarto is the sheet folded in half twice, into fourths, with eight pages printed on the sheet, four on each side. During the second half of the 14th Century, books were either folios or quartos, and they were large and cumbersome to hold while reading.  Manutius developed an imposition by which the sheet of paper is folded three times and has sixteen pages printed on it, eight on each side. The size of the resulting book is more portable and easier to hold while reading. The images below are of one of Special Collection's books that Aldus Manutius printed.



Aldus Manutius printer's mark. The dolphin and the anchor were two of various symbols used during the Renaissance to express the ideal: "Make haste slowly."














Manutius studied Euclidean Geometry in order to discern the size of margins that most please the eye of the reader, shown in this image at right with his italic typeface.



















The image at right is from the title page of Hamlet in Special Collections' copy of William Shakespeare's Fourth Folio. The reader will notice the spelling error in "Prince of Denmark" where the P and R were transposed.  Typesetting was done by hand exclusively until it gradually was replaced by mechanized Linotype machines by the mid-twentieth century. Typesetters in a print shop set individual characters in a composing stick, in reverse and upside down. These lines of set type were moved into a galley for proofreading and then into the press for printing. Likely several typesetters would have set the lines for these pages. Since the book is a folio size, four pages were printed on each, two pages on each side. If the error were not noticed before the sheets were printed, the printer would have needed to consider the time and expense involved in resetting the line and reprinting the sheets since paper was still expensive.









The image at left shows part of the text from Shakespeare's Othello. In the typeface that the printer used, the lower-case letters s and f look similar but can be distinguished by the "nub" or cross bar in the f in the word "Confess", for example. And in that same word the "short" or rounded s appears immediately following a "long s". Printers generally used a long s unless the letter preceded or followed the letter f, ended a word, or preceded a hyphen or apostrophe. By the end of the 19th Century, the "long s" fell mostly into disuse.

The "long s", by some accounts, originated in Roman cursive handwriting.










The image at right from Othello, shows printers' and bookbinders marks for printing and binding books correctly sequenced.  At the far lower-right corner the reader sees the word "Are". This catchword indicated to the typesetters in the print shop the word that should appear first on the following page.  The catchword was printed in the same font size and typeface (perhaps in italic or boldface, too) as the first word on the following page should appear.

Different impositions place the pages on the printed sheet so that they are sequenced in order when the sheet is folded, thus on a folio sheet, the right position on the verso (back or reverse side) is "page 1", and the left position is "page 4". "Page 2" and "page 3" are on the recto (front side). When the sheet is folded and bound in the book the pages are sequenced correctly. In quarto and octavo impositions the pages are not in order on the printed sheet, and some are printed upside down. When the sheet is folded and trimmed, the eight or sixteen pages appear upright and in order. Since several typesetters might have set type for one sheet, the catchword indicated where a typesetter should continue.  Printers began printing page numbers for readers and did not consider them for sequencing. In many books from early printing, readers may see incorrect pagination on some pages. However, the narrative is correctly sequenced.

Printers and bookbinders were for several centuries separate industries. Printers printed the text for a book, and a bookbinder or bookseller (sometimes one and the same) purchased the sheets for a book and bound the books themselves to sell in their shops. To facilitate faster sequencing by the bookbinder and to allow the bookbinder to ascertain that no sheet was missing, printers included signatures at the bottom of page as necessary. In the image above the reader sees the mark Lll 2. This mark indicates to the bookbinder that this page should follow Lll. Pages 2 and 4 do not necessarily require signatures since they are the versos of pages 1 and 3.  Sequencing a book using this method is less complex in a folio such as Shakespeare's Fourth Folio since sheets have only four pages, but becomes more critical in quartos and octavos where sheets have eight and sixteen pages respectively.  In a folio the first sheet in the book might be signed A and A 2 on page 1 and page 3. The bookbinder would know to fold the sheet so that A precedes A 2. The next sheet is, logically, B and B 2. In longer books like the Fourth Folio, the number of sheets requires multiple runs through the alphabet, hence Aa and Aa 2, Aaa and Aaa 2, for example.



The image at left shows the title page of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, one of two first-edition copies held in Special Collections.

During the 19th Century, paper makers began using wood-pulp paper since it was faster to manufacture than rag paper. Wood-pulp paper required acidic chemical additives such as lignans. Regrettably these acids degrade wood-pulp paper with time, and the reader can see browning edges, brown spots in the pages (foxing) and brittle corners in the binding.  With proper care and stored in the correct climate, Shakespeare's Fourth Folio will likely remain intact much longer than Darwin's book shown here. 
























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Rare and Distinctive Collections


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