4406 entries. 94 themes. Last updated December 26, 2016.

1. From Gutenberg's Movable Type to the Digital Book, and Other Studies in the History of Media

1.F. How Printing Changed the Ways that Books were Used, and Manuscript Production Persisted

Compared to the extremely gradual rate of change that had occurred in the form, function and usage of manuscript books since the papyrus roll, and the slow rate of technological advance that generally characterized the Middle Ages, the introduction of printing in the second half of the fifteenth century caused changes which were significantly more rapid, even if they were not as disruptive to the manuscript book production trade as we might have assumed. Previously I discussed how printing changed the graphic form of the codex. Even more than these changes to the form and function and function of the book, the growth of information as a result of printing, and the increasing availability of books to wider and wider markets had significant impact upon society. As more and more printed books were available on an increasingly wide variety of subjects, at lower cost, to an ever-widening market, the nature of reading and study gradually changed, both for scholars and the literate public. One admittedly indirect method of measuring the growth of information resulting from the introduction of printing is to compare present German library holdings of medieval manuscripts, created over many centuries, with their holdings of fifteenth century printed books. Compared to their holdings of 60,000 manuscripts which survived from the entire Middle Ages, or roughly nine hundred years, German libraries preserve 135,000 fifteenth century printed books produced in the forty-five years from 1455 to 1500. A significant increase in information production, and survival is evident from these totals, but they cannot be used to show a quantifiable ratio of the increase because the number of surviving medieval manuscripts is inevitably the result of considerable information loss over the nine hundred years of the Middle Ages.

". . . many more incunabula have survived from the second half of the 15th century than manuscripts from the entire Middle Ages. Of circa 28,000 fifteenth-century editions known today (the number of publications printed is bound to have been much larger), German collections preserve a total of 135,000 copies. As a result of two decades of work on the 'Inkunabelcensus Deutschland', these are now recorded in the London database of the 'Incunabula Short Title Catalogue' (ISTC). By contrast, the number of medieval manuscripts in German libraries is estimated circa 60,000. Holdings of the Bayerische Staasbibliothek at Munich display a similar relationship: about 20,000 copies of 9,700 fifteenth-century editions are kept alongside circa 10,500 medieval Latin and 1,800 German manuscripts - roughly a sixth of the total German holdings" (Wagner, Als die Lettern laufren lerneten. Medienwandel im 15. Jahrhundert [2009] 15).

With more and more information readily available as a result of printing, it became increasingly unnecessary for scholars to commit to memory a significant percentage of the information that they were likely to use, as some had done during the ancient world and the Middle Ages, partly because books were scarce and expensive, partly because papyrus or parchment for storing permanent notes remained expensive, and partly because of an intense pre-occupation with a relatively small number of texts considered to be essential. Because production was an Egyptian monopoly papyrus was always expensive. Production of parchment was not limited to a single region like papyrus, but its production was labor intensive, making it costly.

In the lower right corner, Stromer's paper mill as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493.
Though the first paper mills were built in Europe as early as the twelfth century, initial demand was small, and paper did not truly become affordable, and widely available for note-taking, until production increased as a result of printing in the second half of the fifteenth century. The change from an intense focus on reading a few texts to reading a wider range of texts, as they became more widely available after the development of printing, was characterized by Robert Darnton in 1986 as a switch from "intensive" to "extensive" reading. Though the switch may have begun as a result of the proliferation of books after printing, it only gradually spread over portions of society, as even today many people have access to relatively few physical books, though it could be said that with the availability of the Internet anyone with a connection now has access to the "universal virtual library." For centuries many people had "only a few books--the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two--and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness." 1.F.1 Darnton, "First Steps Toward a History of Reading," Republished in Darnton, Kiss of the Lamourette, 154–87. Concomitantly, with the growth of available information in printed form it became impossible for scholars to memorize significant portions of all relevant information on key topics, and more and more necessary to consult books for reference, and to keep notes or commonplace books, instead of primarily using a few essential works as information to be memorized. 1.F.2For a detailed study of the workings and function of memory among medieval scholars see Carruthers, The Book of Memory. A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (1990). For a contrasting view, emphasizing note-taking as a means of information management and retention, see Blair, Too Much to Know. Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (2010), especially 75-76 ff, quoted in the database at this link.

As more books became more readily accessible at lower cost in the second half of the fifteenth century they stimulated the growth of literacy. Common sense supports this, but the evidence of surviving early imprints is also very powerful, confirming the connection of printing to education from the earliest beginnings of the new technology. Probably the most widely printed title in the fifteenth century was the small Latin grammar book by the Roman grammarian Aelius Donatus entitled the Ars minor, a staple of medieval education.

A 1454 fragment of Aelius Donatus's Ars Minor, preserved in the Scheide library.
When I checked in January 2011 the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue of fifteenth century imprints listed 436 different editions of this small work under the author Donatus, nearly all of which very heavily used, and nearly all of which existed in only fragmentary form. Printing this small but essential work was one of the earliest projects of the first printers, both in movable type and even by the blockbook process, and because so many of the surviving imprints are fragmentary it is reasonable to deduce that there were probably numerous other printings of this text for which we have no surviving examples. At least 24 different editions were issued in Mainz during Gutenberg's lifetime, most of them set in Gutenberg's proto-typeface, named the DK-type after Donatus and Kalendar (also called the type of the 32-line Bible), or in the type of Gutenberg's 42-line Bible. Of these not a single complete example has survived from the printing office of Gutenberg or his immediate successors. These early works of only 28 pages seem to have been nearly read out of existence. All the known fragments of these earliest printings were printed on vellum, presumably to make them as durable possible in the face of heavy use, since vellum tends to be stronger than paper. Such fragments may survived as scraps used as endpapers, or some other element in early bindings.

The number of early printings of Donatus's Ars minor is evidence of the central role that Latin played in medieval education. Slightly more than seventy-five percent of surviving fifteenth century imprints were in Latin. Because of the manageable number of fifteenth century imprints (roughly 27,000) various analyses have been done of their subject matter. By far the highest percentage, 45%, concerned religion or theology in some way, supplying the established church market which clearly represented the bulk of sales. Between 14% and 20% of imprints concerned either canon or civil law, supplying both the government and church market. Approximately 10% of imprints concerned medicine and practical or theoretical science, supplying the medical and technical market. Another 20% concerned lower levels of education, as did the multitude of editions of Donatus. The remaining 10% were generally literary, of which a little more than half, roughly 6% the total, were editions of classical texts, including 1475 editions of Latin authors.1.F.3 These statistics come from Jones, Printing the Classical Text (2004) 10-15.

Along with the wider spread of literacy resulting from the greater availability of books, it was inevitable that people, whether they knew Latin or not, would also want to read works in their own language. As the sixteenth century unfolded, the percentage of works printed in the vernacular increased, and by the middle of the sixteenth century the number of works printed in Latin was roughly balanced by the number of works printed in a variety of vernaculars.1.F.4 Hirsch, Printing, Selling, Reading 1450-1550 (1967) 132. As more and more documents were printed in the vernacular, printed works were used for reasons possibly unimaginable prior to printing.

A 1522 edition of Luther's 95 Theses.
The ability of printing to circulate information rapidly and persuasively to a wider range of society through broadsides, pamphlets, and books resulted in profound social changes, among which Martin Luther's prolific authorship, beginning in 1517, of printed pamphlets in German promoting the Protestant Reformation was most prominent, stimulating an enormous outpouring of publications on religion and its reform. By 1520, 32 tracts by Luther were published in more than 500 editions, and within a few years a quarter of all German publications appeared under his name. Before Luther's death in 1546, more than three million copies of his writings, excluding his Bible translations, were printed. It has been estimated that 150,000 items were printed in Germany during the sixteenth century, a significant percentage of which were Reformation tracts. It has also been estimated that after the controversies of the Reformation quieted, the number of publications in Germany actually declined in the seventeenth century to between 85,000 and 150,000. I.F.5Flood, "The History of the Book in Germany," Suarez & Woudhuysen (eds) The Oxford Companion to the Book I (2010) 227.

Looking back at the impact of printing in the fifteenth century on the more specialized field of medieval scholars' use of books, Richard and Mary Rouse analyzed changes in book usage as a result of printing, including the elimination of glossing as a method of studying and commenting on texts, and the reduction of the process of copying out portions of books for individual use. While numerous manuscripts had been formatted for glossing, the typographic design of few printed books was set up for that purpose. Availability of less expensive copies of texts obviated the need for copying out lengthy portions of texts necessary for individual study, though writers continued to do so, perhaps for different purposes, in commonplace books, mostly for personal use, well into the twentieth century. The history of writing commonplace books has been traced to the zibaldone, or hodgepodge book, a practice of making personal collections of useful information on a wide variety of topics, usually in the vernacular, by writing in paper codices in small or medium format, beginning in Italy in the fourteenth century. By the seventeenth century this was such a well-established practice that it was taught to college students. Though the From Cave Paintings to the Internet database began strictly as a timeline roughly ten years ago, in its present form it might be thought of as a kind of digital commmonplace book, or figuratively as a set of commonplace books on different themes. Another change in book usage as a result of printing that the Rouses observed was that after printing was well established major painters who had specialized in medieval manuscript illumination gradually turned their attention away from books to panel painting. 1.F.6“(1) With the growth of print as the normal medium of the page, the main medieval vehicle for relating new thought to inherited tradition disappears--namely, the gloss and the practice of glossing. To be sure sure glossed books like the commentaries on the Decretum, the Liber sextus or Nicholas de Lyra on the scriptures are often printed; but the printed book is not itself an object in which one writes long glosses. Perusal of Chatelain, Paléographie des classiques latin (Paris, 1884-92), will uncover pages of Virgils, Lucans, Juvenals and Horaces, the set texts of the trivium, covered with interlinear and marginal glosses of all dates. The manuscript books had in fact been laid out to be glossed, namely, with the text in large letters down the center of the page, surrounded by white space. In contrast, one can think of only a handful of printed books in which the page has been set up in type to be glossed by hand. What effect this had on processes of thought, methods of instruction, and the structured comparison of new ideas to old, would be interesting to work out. (2) With the advent of print the book becomes a monolithic unit, compared to its handwritten predecessor. Medieval books, particularly those individualistic owner-produced volumes of the fifteenth century, are frequently made up of numerous pieces varying from one to several quires in length, which were initially kept in loose wrappers and were bound together by the institution which inherited the volume. A person interested in a given text could copy out what he wanted and no more: thus, of the two hundred manuscripts of the Lumen anime, only half can be classified accordng to one of three restructurings they represent, while the other half are all hybrids, adaptations to the needs and desires of the individual owner-producer. In contrast, although printed books are on occasion copied by hand or sections of them are copied out, the average printed-book library is comprised of whole books. Not until the advent of the Xerox machine were individuals again easily able to make up books in sections or produce tailor-made collections. It would be interesting to know what effect this had on patterns of reading. (3) Up to about 1450, the main vehicle par excellence for painting was the manuscript book: the monuments of medieval painting are in Gospel books, Psalters, Pontificals, Breviaries and Books of Hours. The advent of printing forces painting out of the book. It is a desperate wrench. Owners of incunabula have them filled with beautiful minatures, printers hire illuminators to adorn books with initials and frontispieces, or to water-color woodcuts printed in Books of Hours, but it is a losing battle. By 1500-1520, the Book of Hours as the fifteenth century knew it is in the death throes of mannerism and sterility. With the exception of the producers of woodcuts—Holbein, Duerer, Pieter Breughel, all of whom also painted—not a single major artist thereafter did his major work in the medium of the printed book. While panel painting as an art form clearly antedates the invention of printing, the transition to the printed page must have encouraged the growth of the new medium which was so important to Netherlandish art in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries” (Rouse & Rouse 1991, op. cit., 465-66). As the Rouses mention, certain major artists with experience in printmaking continued to produce book illustrations. During the 1520s Albrecht Durer, who began his career as an illustrator of printed books, and derived a higher percentage of his income from printmaking than from painting, published three books which he designed and illustrated himself. These included his famous works on proportion and letter forms, on the proportions of the human body, and on fortification. Durer, however, had never illuminated manuscripts.

In spite of the competition from printed books, manuscript illumination did not suddenly end with the introduction of printing; luxury manuscripts continued to be produced, though probably in reduced volume, especially compared to the explosive growth of printed book production. For unique books, or very small editions, manuscript book production continued to a limited extent for three centuries after the invention of printing because it was often less expensive to hire scribes to produce a book than to print it in a very small edition. In the first decades of the sixteenth century, by which time printing had spread over most parts of Europe, the Parisian miniaturist and illuminator Jean Pichore ran a large and successful workshop, creating illuminated manuscripts for the greatest royal and ecclesiastical patrons on secular as well as religious subjects. Pichore is of special interest to the study of the impact of printing on manuscript book production since in addition to the usual manuscript luxury books of hours, which were the most popular of luxury manuscript volumes, he and Remy de Laistre also adapted to the new technology, producing and publishing printed books of hours illustrated with metal engravings. Until the 1480s Bruges and Ghent had dominated the production of illuminated manuscript books of hours, after which the locus of production transferred to Paris, where, in addition to the manuscript trade, between the late 1480s and 1550 a variety of illuminators and printers produced roughly 200 printed editions of books of hours, adapting the illustration and page-layout formulae of the traditional illuminated manuscripts to printing. Doing so enabled them to meet the production demands of the wider market for books resulting from the introduction of printing, and to offer an increased selection of books of hours, perhaps for immediate delivery rather than to order, and presumably at lower cost. With their complex page layouts and elaborately engraved illustrations these printed books of hours were nevertheless expensive relative to ordinary printed books in similar format; along with copies on paper, they were frequently printed on vellum, perhaps hand-colored, and elaborately bound. Zoehl, Jean Pichore Buchmaler, Graphiker und Verleger in Paris um 1500 (2004) catalogues many illuminated manuscripts by Pichore and other members of his workshop, and also catalogues his printed books of hours and compares them to works by his contemporaries. Zoehl's work, incorporating information from Tenschert's catalogue mentioned below, includes 255 illustrations. Nicolas Barker published a valuable analysis of aspects of the Parisian production of printed books of hours in a review of a catalogue of a large collection formed by Heribert Tenschert: "The Printed Book of Hours," The Book Collector, Vol. 53, No. 3 (2004).

A painting from a 1508 edition of Plutarch's Vies de Romulus et de Caton d'Utique. Source: Sotheby's
On December 7, 2010 a superb manuscript produced in Paris circa 1508, of Plutarch's Vies de Romulus et de Caton d'Utique in the French Translation of Simon Bourgoyn, with 54 paintings, each approximately 280 x 180mm by Jean Pichore, the Master of Philippe de Gueldre and another artist, sold at Sotheby's London for 505,250 pounds (roughly $799,000). Spectacular illuminated manuscript books of hours continued to be produced as luxury volumes well into the middle of the sixteenth century, including a few illuminated by great artists. One of the greatest examples is the Farnese Hours illuminated by Guilio Clovio in 1546, preserved in the Morgan Library and Museum. (I last revised Section 1.F. on May 28, 2011.)

back to top