This exhibit illustrates the changes produced by the invention of the moveable type printing press in the 1450s. Moveable type allowed books to be printed inexpensively, not only increasing their number and availability but also the level of literacy throughout Europe. During this time, paper replaced parchment, woodcuts replaced illumination, books became smaller, and the printer became an integral part of society, while the scribe slowly faded into antiquity. The transformation of the symbolic nature of the medieval mind into a more modern, literate style can be seen in this shift from script to print.
Illumination to Woodcut
Illumination not only served as illustration but added to the beauty and worth of a book. The scribe's skill was highly valued and sought after to render an eloquent edition of a revered tome of knowledge. Following the printing press, hand-illumination became impractical and expensive. Printers began using woodcuts- pictures carved into blocks of wood- which could be reused many times.
Johann Gutenberg: The Man from Mainz
Johann Gutenberg (1397-1468), a printer from Mainz, Germany, is credited with inventing the moveable type printing press. Although the Chinese are now acknowledged as the innovators of block printing, Gutenberg and another Mainz native, Johann Fust, began to use moveable type. This meant that the same letters could be used over and over. With block printing an entirely new piece of wood had to be carved for each page of a book. Many consider the Gutenberg Bible the best example of bookmaking and printing of all time. Only 47 of the 150-300 original copies made are still in existence today. It was partly due to this slow loss of originals that some were disassembled into their individual leaves and made available to a wider audience.
Books Too Fragile or Rare
Many times books that are centuries old are too rare or brittle to actively use. When this happens, facsimiles can be made. These allow researchers to continue to draw on the information he or she needs as it appears in the original without damaging it or having to perhaps travel thousands of miles to use it.
Between Pen and Print
For many years following the printing press printers attempted to replicate the beauty and intricacies of handmade books. The original script used in the Gutenberg Bible, for example, was patterned from the hand of the humanist scholar Petrarch. While the text was printed, many of its elements still were done by hand. Printers made pictures with woodcuts and then filled them in with colorful ink. Letters beginning paragraphs or sentences were written by hand. The art of the book had not yet been lost.
The Art of Bookmaking
Much work went into the making of books: stitching, tanning the leather used, stretching and curing the parchment, penning words and illumination- all by hand. Once paper and printing presses became common the amount of work put into a single volume dropped markedly. However, book bindings remained virtually unchanged.
Parchment to Paper
Paper began its journey to Europe from far off China (221 B.C.) on the trade routes. Around 751, it arrived in Islam and by the 10th century Islamic Spain had several papermills. Because it was associated with the infidels or saracens of Islam, paper technology did not sweep across Europe until after the 1450s. Low demand for books slowed this spread as well. Thin sheets of calf or sheep skin called parchment or vellum (a bit thinner and finer) were used until this time. The relative ease and low cost of papermaking plus the greater demand for books at that time led to its soaring popularity.
Some of the Materials Available in Archives and Special Collections
- Needham, Paul. Twelve centuries of bookbindings, 400-1600. (New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, c1979)
- Sermons by Gabriel Biel, 1499. Stamped vellum cover.
- French Bible leaf, ca. 1300, with scribal guidelines.
- 14th Century manuscript leaf on vellum.
- Avrin, Leila. Scribes, script, and books : the book arts from antiquity to the Renaissance. (Chicago: American Library Association, 1991)
- Henry, Francoise. The Book of Kells : reproductions from the manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin. (New York : Knopf, 1974. ). Considered one of the most beautiful illuminated books, the Book of Kells was produced by Irish monks in the early ninth century. Its intricate patterns and vivid colors demonstrate that the skill of illumination began earlier than the Renaissance.
The Astronomicon Caesareum of Petrus Apianus, ca. 1495-1552 (Apian, Peter. Astronomicum Caesareum. [Leipzig, Edition Leipzig, 1967]) , shows the extent to which a reproduction can be taken. Every detail of the original has been reproduced even down to the texture of the original parchment.
- Perottus, Nicolaus. Cornucopiae ad Lectorum. (Argentina: J. Pruss, 1506.) The chain on this 16th century Latin Lexicon kept thieves and overeager readers at bay. A common sight in the Middle Ages and Renaissance and testament to the value of books.
- Leaf from original Gutenberg Bible. Hosea 7:15-11:9,
Original exhibit created by Kevin Brooks