Manuscript Circulation and/vs. Printed Book Production

(and the gradual shift from oral/aural to literate-print-silent-reading conventions of performing literature)

        What you are reading on your screen is a product of technological developments  in the 1980s which created the first significant change in the way we acquire written information since the fifteenth century.  Technology is never "value neutral," but rather we always must pay for what it gives us with losses in other parts of our lives.  People living through the changes can detect the costs and benefits as things they consciously experience when encountering the new or discarding the old way of doing things.  Ask people who learned to read before the Internet what they liked about the experience, and they'll talk to about taking books to the beach or up in trees to read, reading late at night by flashlight under the bedcovers, loving the smell of paper and glue, delighting to hold in their hands a new book for its freshness or a used book for its mystery, and paying unusually close attention to the dried flowers or love notes or news clippings they used for bookmarks.  Those pleasures are lost to readers of this page.  In return, you get the choice to follow or ignore hyperlinks, surprising images in vibrant color, and (if I were more a resource intensive web writer) music and full-motion video. If you are born after a huge technological change, its effects will seem "natural" or "normal"; you probably will not notice them.  However, if we are to carefully study early literature, we cannot assume that text production and text consumption in those distant days worked the same way they do now.  You already should have learned to treat with considerable suspicion the Norton Anthology's convenient presentation of literature in its "supermarket" format.  These works were not originally read as a single cluster of pre-selected, often heavily edited and excerpted, prefaced works, glossed with footnotes by scholarly editors whose identities and assumptions you must infer from the editorial assignments indicated on the flyleaf at the front of the volume.  To think about literature produced before mass-market printing will help us to discover new ways to think about what literature does for its writers and readers. 

        Before you read every assignment, ask yourself how it was originally "performed" by its readers.  Did they find it by opening a manuscript made of vellum or was it made after 1475 and possibly delivered to them in printed pages which they took to a bookbinder and paid to have bound?  Was it discovered on a printed paper "broadsheet" anyone might buy for half a penny after mass literacy rates finally started to climb around 1550-1600?  Or did they hear it sung in a luxuriously furnished chamber by a musician who knew all the songs from memory?  Who else would have been in the room with you--warriors somewhat drunk on mead, aristocratic men and women who spoke and read three to five languages, merchants and guildsmen and their wives, all ambitious to prove their sophistication and newly acquired status as literary consumers, or peasants who heard but never could read the work?  Was it even performed in a private space, or was it performed outdoors on stage by costumed actors impersonating characters, or indoors in a public theater whose actors were all adolescent boys, or even in one of the bawdy post-Restoration theaters in which women actually began to play parts on the stage?  Or, in the rarest of cases, was it one of those "unusual" works that appear to assume their readers are reading them silently, as you probably are used to doing all the time?

        Even the materials in which the literature survived have enormous significance for readers and resemble only in esoteric ways the device you now are using to read.  Manuscript books, individually hand-made by scribes, were first produced upon the order of a patron, because they were so expensive and time-consuming to create.  Authors might produce a single copy of their original work, and a second, deluxe copy for a patron to whom it was dedicated in hopes that the patron might pay a scribe to make more copies of it.   Books produced to the order of patrons often contained many works by many authors, creating miniature libraries between their covers, and the patron might not even want all of a work, but only part of one, which accounts for the fragmentary survival of some MS tradition works.  Scribes wrote the pages line-by-line,  copying from an "exemplar" or source manuscript, having ruled the page to ensure efficient use of the space.  Paper was introduced as early as the late fourteenth century to replace the more expensive vellum or parchment, but it was not preferred.  Paper books were more fragile than those written on calf skin, and books were rare enough that they were intended to last for generations, not merely for the pleasure of a single user.  Books were so rare that a single fire in a well-stocked library might consume the only surviving copies of many authors' works, and it would be as if they had never written a word.  Worse still, because manuscript books were valuable rarities that could contain religiously or politically "dangerous" ideas, they were subject to deliberate destruction as well as accidental loss, as medieval illustrations of military pillaging and clerical book-burning illustrate.

        Most manuscript books are deeply personalized by the numerous owners they've had.   Annotations often crowd the margins, and later owners may add text, usually at the front, as in the case of the Exeter Book, or at the back.  The entire book may be rebound at some time in its history, and leaves may be inserted, lost, trimmed at the edges, or placed out of order.  This means that a manuscript book can be "made" at several different dates which scholars infer from the contents, the "hand" or writing style of note takers, ink and page chemistry, etc.  Although some books served practical purposes, collecting in a single-volume library all the texts its owner cared to have copied, others were produced to preserve single works, typically breviaries and horae (containing prayers sung at special feast days and at each day's hours of prayer), and the major works of philosophy, history, and literature upon which the culture was founded.  Of secular works, the so-called "Vulgate Cycle" Arthurian romances are commonly found in deluxe, illuminated volumes which probably were preserved for their enormous economic value as much as for their literary quality.  (Smaller, more practical books typically seem to have been "read to death" over hundreds of years, as opposed to grander volumes to which access would be restricted--paradoxically, readers are deadly for books.)  Click here to see a page from the digital facsimile of Yale MS 299, a 363-leaf manuscript of the Prose Lancelot (13th century), a beautifully produced web version of a beautiful piece of medieval technology.  Double click on any page to expand it to readable size.

        Manuscript books were read differently from books produced later in print culture.  When books are rare and few were literate, most books were designed to be read aloud.  This is perhaps the most profound difference between the way Geoffrey Chaucer's contemporaries might have performed a reading of his work and the way modern students typically experience it.  The gorgeous visual illustrations in manuscripts ("illuminations") are only one sign that persons other than the literate reader were expected to view the text.  Manuscripts often were outfitted with "catch-words," which repeat at the bottom of the left-hand page (verso) the first word or phrase at the top of the right-hand page (recto) to enable the oral performer to seamlessly continue reading aloud the sentence which crosses the page break.  Episode glosses in the margins, the ancestors of the Norton footnotes, helped readers find their place in long narratives, and in some texts, the names of important characters were written in red ink ("rubricated" from "rubio"/red).  Even long after print culture had spread cheaper books to a wider audience of literate readers, and reading silently, alone, became more common, the habit of reading aloud persisted in certain circumstances, and oral performance of some texts survived because people loved to do it--especially in the case of the lyric and drama.  Certainly you can find signs that silent reading was expected in lyrics by Wyatt and Shakespeare and Herbert--acrostics and spelling puns visible only to the person holding the manuscript, metaphors which depend for their effect upon one's looking at the inked letters on the page, "shaped" poems whose visual form contributes to their meaning.  However, they were early experimenters with silent reading, and most of their lyric work clearly was intended to be orally performed.  Think about the voices of English literature gradually becoming silenced between about 1500 and 1800--is silent reading, with its inwardness and isolating individuality, such a benefit when compared with a group of friends sharing works of literature together?

            The early book was valuable enough that it may appear in the wills of its owners, and this is one of the important ways early book ownership has been traced.  The contents of manuscript books are overwhelmingly religious, but even in religious books, secular poems and prose may turn up in the margins, front- or end-papers.  The next most popular types of manuscript book appear to have been scholarly works (philosophy, history, and literature, mainly Latin classics) and practical works (law, medicine, etc.).  Most manuscript books contain Latin texts, but especially by the fifteenth-century more surviving volumes preserve the vernacular languages of medieval Europe, including Middle English.  This tells us who the main customers were for the manuscript book: clergy and their parishioners, scholars, lawyers, doctors, teachers and students.  Late manuscript book producers in England (c. 1350-1450) experimented with some speculative book-making when they had assured themselves a given customer base was a reliable market for a particular book.  University towns, major trade cities, and centers of government tended to support small clusters of scribes, limners (illustrators), bookbinders, parchment and paper dealers, and other individual craftspeople who produced such books as a collective enterprise, perhaps with the financial backing of merchants, who also were increasingly common as customers of booksellers as merchants' literacy rates increased.  Nevertheless, books were being produced no faster than a scribe could write, perhaps a few folio pages an hour.   Scribal contracts have survived specifying the rate of copying to be maintained, which was important because the patron often paid room board while the scribed lived with him and worked from his copytext.

            Printed book production changed everything about the relationship of books to their owners, with print runs of 300 to 1000 copies of a single volume of around 500 leaves in a few months.  Production costs dropped enormously, from perhaps 10 or 100 for a large, heavily decorated folio manuscript in vellum, to as little as four shillings for a folio paper volume of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (at 20 shillings per pound, or roughly 2% of the former cost).1  The availability of such inexpensive books encouraged the spread of literacy, and that built the printers' customer base at an explosive rate.   For the first fifty years of printing (c. 1450-1500), European vernacular book production remained rare except in England, where William Caxton, the first English printer, built his business predominantly upon vernacular English works.  These included first printed editions of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1478/1483), Troilus and Criseyde (1483), and several of Chaucer's minor poems.  Chaucer and his contemporaries, John Gower and John Lydgate, along with the then-unknown Caxton contemporary, Sir Thomas Malory, become the first members of the English literary "canon" simply by virtue of the fact that Caxton dedicated his press to printing hundreds of copies of their works.  (Note that Gower and Lydgate are not in the sixth edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1--the other side of canon formation explains why they are not.)

        Books could be "printed" before Gutenberg.  "Block books" were pressed, one page at a time, from woodblocks hand-cut to produce the entire page, illustrations and text together.  Later printers sometimes still used wood-cut images to illustrate their products, as in this image of the Canterbury Tales Squire, from Wynkyn de Worde's reprint of Caxton's edition.

caxton1.jpg (34214 bytes)

Gutenberg's great invention was moveable metal type, which could be rearranged infinitely in racks to print many books, and which lasted for years under ordinary use.  Paper was placed upon the page of type held in a sliding drawer, called a "coffin," which slid beneath a "platen" or pressure board that was driven down against the paper by the pressman's "pull" on a wooden screw.  The image below contains a seventeenth-century metal-screw press preserved in an ethnographic museum in Honfleur, France.  Aside from the energy-efficient substitution of a metal-to-metal screw and nut on the press's handle, the design is the same as Caxton's fifteenth-century press.

        The image below, illustrating a press operating team of Caxton's era, was reproduced on an English stamp commemorating the first book printed in English, Caxton's translation of the Recuyell of the Histories of Troie.

caxton stamp.gif (17671 bytes)

        The pressman stands with his right foot braced on a raised block below the press, and the force of the pull probably required both his hands rather than the single-handed pull shown by this artist.  The pressman's left hand here turns a crank (the "rounce") which would slide the type "coffin" beneath the platen before the pull, and which would slide it back out after the pull.  (Obviously this would not be done simultaneously with the pull!)  The man behind the pressman holds the ink balls, which were used to distribute ink over the type before next sheet of paper was placed upon it.  The two-man crew probably worked 10 hour days, at a rate somewhere between 30 and 60 pulls per hour, six days a week except for religious holidays.2   A young boy, known as a "fly" or (later) the "devil," was used to carry freshly printed sheets to drying racks, accumulating on his person a thick layer of ink that led to the later nickname.  This was an unpaid position, but valuable as a stepping stone to apprenticeship in the shop.3

        Early printers sought to imitate the form of manuscript books, some printing on vellum or parchment (i.e., calf skin), and all using type faces cut to imitate current scribal hands.  Gradually, the thinner, lighter fonts modeled on the manuscript hands of letter-writing continental Humanists, replaced the thick, dark fonts that, when they were regarded as "old-fashioned," became known as "black letter" or "Gothic."  When you next choose "Format Fonts" in your word processing program, take a careful look at how the letter forms are constructed.   Many of them are so old that some of their prototypical forms were designed by the early printers and type founders, and some still bear their creators' names.

        Attempts to calculate the full effects of the shift from manuscript production to printed books have always risked hyperbole.  That printing changed the world forever cannot be debated.  Was printing necessary for and essential to the Protestant Reformation, the rise of science, the French, American and Russian revolutions, and the notion of individual human rights?  Those theses have been argued at one time or another, though they all run the risk of a logical fallacy known as "print-determinism" (i.e., that somehow they had to happen once moveable type hit the presses of Europe).  What seems too obvious to debate is the effect of printed books on the individual reader, awake in the night, discovering whole worlds in those pages.  The spread of literacy beyond the clergy, scholars and professionals, who were the market for manuscript books, most affected the status of women, the emerging middle class, and the education of children of all classes.   Even the much-praised Internet and the WorldWideWeb, through which you read this, are merely secondary effects of the fifteenth-century technology of moveable type printing.  Following the early printers, who imitated manuscript scribes letter forms and bound their products to mimic manuscript volumes, web site designers create "pages," bound by hyperlinks rather than twine and leather, but organized into "network[s] of useful knowledge" like those constructed by the early printed book.4

        To continue your exploration of the previous era's literary technologies by hands-on exploration of Early Modern printed books from the Goucher Library's Rare Book Collection, visit the web page for the overview of the extra credit project, "Getting to Know Some Old Things Very Well."  You also may want to take English 241, "Archeology of Text," the next fall semester that it is offered.  Click here for its web site.   If English 241 does not fit your schedule, you also can find work-study, internship, and fellowship support for work in Special Collections at the SCA web page.

1. H. S. Bennett, "Notes on English Retail Book-prices, 1480-1560." The Library. 5th Series. v (1950) 172-8.

2.  Pollak, Michael. "The Performance of the Wooden Printing Press." The Library Quarterly. XXXXII (April 1972) 218-64; and "Production Costs in Fifteenth-Century Printing." The Library Quarterly. XXXIX (October 1969) 318-30.

3.  Moran, James. Printing Presses: History and Development from the Fifteenth Century to Modern Times. Berkeley: U California P, 1973.

4.  Linda Flower and John R. Hayes, "A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing," College Composition and Communication 32 (December 1981) 371.