Medieval and Renaissance Book Production
By Richard W. Clement
Utah State University: Library Faculty and Staff Publications, Paper 10 (1997)
Introduction: There is a widely held, yet erroneous, belief that the invention of the book was concurrent with the invention of printing. Somehow it is assumed that the act of printing — that is producing a book by mechanical means — endows the finished product with that essence that embodies a book. After all, the hand-produced book is called a manuscript, not simply a book, and early-printed books are called incunabula, books in their infancy.
We are accustomed to think of the periods of manuscripts and printed books as distinct. Traditionally a scholar working in one of these fields has known little of the other field. Even our libraries have perpetuated this dichotomy: manuscripts are always separate from printed books, both administratively and physically. Yet historically this is a false dichotomy. The printed fifteenth-century book was a direct imitation of the contemporary manuscript book. Yet perhaps talk of imitation is misleading. Gutenberg never intended to imitate anything or mislead anyone: he was merely making books by a new means. The end product was really little different than the product of the scriptorium. It was the means of production which was revolutionary, not the book itself. The book, or more properly the codex, was invented in the first century AD, and has continued to this day with relatively few changes.
In the ancient western world the book was in the form of the roll, which was usually made of sheets of papyrus sewn or glued together. Papyrus sheets were made from thin lengths cut from the stalk of the plant, traditionally grown in Egypt, which were laid overlapping side by side in one direction and then in a similar fashion perpendicular to the first layer. This made for an exceptionally strong yet flexible surface. Its major drawback was that it was very difficult to write on the side on which the strips ran perpendicular to the direction of writing as the natural ridges of the plant disrupted the movement of the pen. There were various kinds and grades of papyrus generally distinguished by the width of the papyrus strips, e.g., Imperial was the best, Royal very good, and so forth.
The standard size of the roll was about thirty feet long and seven to ten inches wide; the standard sheet size was about ten by seven and one-half inches, and writing was in columns about three inches wide, called pagina. The width of the sheet had no relation to the width of the column: the writing runs right across the juncture of the sheets. At the beginning of the roll there was usually a blank column left to protect the roll, but nothing equivalent to a title-page. On the other hand there might be a colophon at the end which would contain information about the book. The title or author’s name was usually written on a label that was attached to the outside of the roll; it hung down from the shelf and served to identify it. Some rolls had rods attached to make rolling and unrolling easier and some were kept in leather cases. Because of the nature of the papyrus surface and of the roll itself, the text generally could only be written on one side, and the reader was forced to unroll one side and roll up the other as he read. From our modern perspective this seems a most cumbersome way to read, but it was obviously not so considered by the ancient reader.