Building the Book From Manuscripts to the Printing Revolution

The Mount Royal University Archives and Special Collections holds a growing collection of books and leaves illustrating the early history of printing in Europe. This display highlights a small portion of this exciting collection.

Before Print: Manuscripts

Before the invention of the printing press and movable type, books were produced entirely by hand. Since ancient times, manuscripts (handwritten books and documents) were written by scribes on various media including clay tablets, papyrus, silk, wax, and bark. In medieval Europe, parchment made from prepared animal skins, was the preferred manuscript medium despite its expense. Medieval manuscripts were often illuminated, decorated with miniature illustrations, borders, and initials in in bright colours and gold leaf. Manuscript books had a large influence on the style and composition of early printed works.

Above: A fragment of a leaf from Pope Gregory I’s Moralia in Job, a work of Biblical commentary. This is the oldest manuscript in our collection and may date from the 12th century. The fragment appears to have later been reused as a limp binding for another work. Pieces of old or obsolete manuscripts were frequently reused to bind early printed works.

Background photograph: A leaf from a French breviary containing verses from the Book of Genesis, including the Creation of Man. The leaf features illuminated initials featuring floral designs in bright colours and burnished gold.

Back of a 16th century book cover and accompanying manuscript fragments that were re-used in the binding.
Other examples of manuscript fragments in our collection. Top 0102-06, 0102-14-01, 0102-05. Bottom 0102-14-02.
EARLY PRINT : incunabula
Johannes Guteberg revolutionized book production when he invented the printing press around 1440 and soon developed a robust and efficient system for printing books using cast movable type. The new technology allowed books to be created quickly, relatively cheaply, and in vast numbers, forever changing the way that ideas and texts were spread. From Gutenberg’s workshop in Mainz, the technology spread rapidly and within a few decades print workshops had been established across Europe, pushing manuscript production in Europe into decline.
Printed works created between the 1440s and 1501 are referred to as incunabula or incunables, which derives from the Latin word for “cradle” and refers to the fact that in this period, printing was in its infancy. Pictured here are two incunabula from the MRU Archives and Special Collections' Early Print Collection. Left: A leaf from the Decretals of Gregory IX, a collection of papal decrees relating to canon law that was printed in 1486. Right: A continuous bifolium (2 attached leaves, or 4 continuous pages) from a Latin Bible printed in Venice by Franciscus Renner of Heilbronn in 1480. The bifolium contains chapters 30-35 of the Book of Ecclesiastics.

Early printed works often tried to emulate manuscripts by continuing to include such design elements as rubrication (the addition of red text for headings or emphasis), large decorative initials, and illumination added by an artist after the book was printed. This leaf from a book of hours from Paris from around 1510 (0225-05) is printed but the initials and borders were painted in later by hand. This leaf is a terrific example of how traditional manuscript methods and new printing technologies co-existed for a time. As demand for printed books increased, hand-finishing declined, reducing costs.

EARLY PRINT: Bestsellers
The invention of printing with movable type increased the variety and number of books available for readers and helped expand book ownership and literacy to new classes of merchants and civil servants. Printing allowed large runs of a work to be printed quickly and cheaply, making books far more affordable.
A leaf from the Liber Chronicarum (Book of Chronicles) published by Hartmann Schedel in 1493. Commonly known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, the Liber Chronicarum is an illustrated history of the world from biblical creation to present. It is famous for being one of the first printed books to successfully integrate text and illustrations, containing nearly 2000 woodcut illustration including detailed city landscapes like the one above portraying a city in Hungary. The work was extremely popular and subsequent editions quickly followed the original print run. (0086-09).

New readership also led to changes in the type of books published. While religious books such as books of hours, psalters, and Bibles continued to be popular, the market for books on secular topics grew rapidly, leading to an explosion of histories, literature, medical and scientific works, books of rhetoric, herbals, and even cook books.

Image: A leaf from Hieronymus Bock's New Kreuterbuch von Underscheidt, Würckung und Namen der Kreuter, so in teutschen Landen wachsen (New plant book of differences, effects, and names of plants that grow in German lands), a herbal describing the properties and uses of plants. Herbals, along with medical and scientific texts, were often difficult to print because of their frequent and detailed illustrations and diagrams. The Kreuterbuch (0086-08) is notable because Bock chose to classify the 700 plants he covered according to their observed characteristics, an innovation that anticipated modern botany, whereas earlier herbals had categorized plants according to Classical Greek systems.

The Early Print Collection also contains examples of early printed works in English such as A Booke of Christian Prayers (1590), The Workes of… Geffrey Chaucer (1598), and leaves from histories and hagiographies. Of special note is a beautifully illuminated French book of hours, Hore beate Marie viriginis, printed in Paris around 1521.
Left to Right: Leaves from the Chronicles of England, 1577 (0225-01), Golden Legend, 1527 (0225-06), A Booke of Christian Prayers, 1581 (0225-02), and Hore beate Marie virginis..., ca. 1521 (0261-02).
The Early Print Collection supports teaching and research in a variety of disciplines at Mount Royal University. Please check back as new items are added to this collection.

Published January 5, 2020


Created with an image by Marcus dePaula - "untitled image"All other images provided by MRU Archives and Special Collections Drucker, Johanna. History of the Book. UCLA. Retrieved by September 2, 2020. https://hob.gseis.ucla.edu/index.html "Printing press type" [Photograph]. Retrieved September 2, 2020. Pixabay.com The Nuremberg Chronicle: Selections from the Rare Book Room. Duke Magazine. June 1, 2002. https://alumni.duke.edu/magazine/articles/nuremberg-chronicle