The evolution of the book: A brief history

For over 1,600 years, the book has existed as a collection of rectangular sheets of parchment or paper with text and/or illustrations, folded into pages, bound together, and covered by a binding. In Western Europe, the book transformed from an expensive, hand-made product for the learned, rich, and powerful to a cheap, industrially-produced commodity for everyone.

Before the book

Paper, parchment and even the book format itself are relatively recent creations. In Graeco-Roman antiquity, people mostly wrote on papyrus (made from the Cyperus papyrus plant). Papyri containing long texts were not bound but rolled into scrolls.

The oldest text at the St John’s College Library: P.Oxy. 1676
The oldest text at the St John’s College Library: P.Oxy. 1676

St John’s oldest text is this papyrus found in a trash pit of Oxyrhynus, Egypt. In this 3rd century CE letter, Flavius Herculanus informs Aplonarion that (s)he was sorry she and her husband hadn’t been at his son’s birthday party. The digitisation of this letter shows the material of the dried papyrus plant in detail.

The medieval book

Medievalists like to speak of manuscripts (< Latin manus ‘hand’ + scriptus ‘written’) rather than books, emphasising that medieval books were written by hand. All materials were produced by hand, most importantly parchment, which was made from animal skins. It not only replaced papyrus, but because it could be folded and bound it was crucial for the success of the book format. The basic steps of the manuscript production remained the same throughout the Middle Ages.

This video from the Getty Museum will guide you through the key stages (for more details check out the from the British Library’s videos):

Making manuscripts

Though the basic processes remained the same, conventions and styles in handwriting and decoration gradually evolved over time and within regions. Nowadays scholars use these developments and variations to determine a manuscript’s date and provenance (their origin and history). Have a look at these six ordinary medieval manuscripts and consider how they are alike and how they differ from one another:

In Western Europe, the success of the book was facilitated by the spread of Christianity. Learning and book production were the domain the Church, monasteries in particular. Schools at the time were monastic schools and university students studied theology before anything else. The predominant subject matter of books was theology. St John’s famous early 12th-century Computus from Thorney Abbey, Cambridgeshire, shows how mathematics, astronomy, and even cryptology were used for theological purposes, namely the calculation of the Easter date.

You can browse through this fascinating manuscript here.

As written documents became more important for ruling kingdoms, royal scriptoria were established for day-to-day administrative and legal matters. With the increase of literacy among royal and aristocratic circles, a demand for books of all kinds of subjects evolved. A late medieval example of that development is this volume of French astrological texts, once commissioned and owned by King Charles V of France (1338-1380):

14th c. (MS 164)
14th c. (MS 164)

By the 13th century, “commercial” scriptoria, where writing could be commissioned, had gradually emerged. Universities especially contributed to the spread of secular scriptoria (or ateliers) and the emergence of an international book market. In the late Middle Ages, manuscripts were mass produced, as evidenced by St John’s late 15th-century Statutes of England:

St John’s late 15th-century Statutes of England
St John’s late 15th-century Statutes of England

Over 20 copies of these statutes written by the same scribe who wrote St John’s copy have survived to this day. In addition, other surviving manuscripts’ decorations can be associated with the same London atelier in which this manuscript was decorated and illustrated.

The printing press

Johannes Gutenberg invented printing with movable types in Mainz (Germany) in the 1450s, when the commercial mass production of books and a flourishing international book trade already existed. Coming from an artisan/ merchant background, Gutenberg could in today’s parlance be described as an entrepreneur and as such he wanted his invention to earn himself and his financiers money.

The success of his invention rested on the movable types, i.e. individual letters made from lead which could be arranged to print one page, separated and then re-arranged to print a different page. Moreover, worn types could be quickly replaced with the help of a matrix (or mould). This allowed printers to create an infinite number of each letter in the exact same type. Fortuitously, paper, which was a rare commodity in Europe between the 11th and 14th century, had become more widespread during the late Middle Ages. Produced from cloth fibres rather than animals, it was faster, easier and cheaper to produce in large quantities.

Watch this video produced by the Cambridge University Library to see how the 15th-century printing press worked.

The print workshop in the fifteenth century

A good supplement is this shorter video from the Folger Library. 

Printing 101

Printed books did not replace manuscript books overnight. Printing and manuscript production co-existed for at least 50 years. As the appearance of the book changed only very slowly, it can be a challenge to distinguish between a manuscript and an early printed book. What do you think, manuscript or printed book?

What do you think, manuscript or printed book?
What do you think, manuscript or printed book?
Click here to find out the answer!

This is St John’s oldest printed book: Cicero’s De officio, printed by Peter Schoeffer and Johannes Fust, former associates of Gutenberg’s, in Mainz in 1465.

William Caxton (1422-1491) brought the first printing press to England in the 1470s. Today Caxton is best known for his editions of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. After Caxton printed the first edition in 1476, a customer complained that the text did not match their manuscript copy. Caxton used that customer’s manuscript (now sadly lost) to produce a second edition in 1483 with slightly different readings and the addition of woodcuts. The Canterbury Tales include vivid descriptions of all classes of the late medieval society. These are reflected in the books’ woodcuts and an early owner of the St John’s copy commissioned an illustrator to colour them by hand.

Early woodcuts in books were rather clumsy, because text and woodcuts remained separate entities. The first printed book to successfully integrate woodcuts with text was the so-called Nuremberg Chronicle in 1493.

Have a look at this hand-coloured copy in the Cambridge University Library and this video from the Victoria and Albert Museum about how woodcuts were made in the early days of printing:

How was it made? Woodcut printing 1450-1520

A surprisingly late development of book production is the title-page, which became a standard feature only around 1500. This development introduced an interesting shift in emphasis from the printer (the artisan) to the publisher (the businessman).

Books in the Industrial Revolution and Digital Revolution

Although books were not written by hand anymore, they were still produced by hand. Moreover, printed books, although more widespread and cheaper than manuscripts, were still products for the rich and educated. The next key development in book production arrived with the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine. The era of industrial printing began in the first half of the 19th century. Next to the steam engine the crucial invention was a rotary cylinder, which replaced the flat surface for paper when being printed.

This video tells the early story of industrial printing.

Books were finally set to become products for the masses. The ability to print millions of copies in a comparatively short space of time and with comparatively little effort made books cheaper and affordable (first for the growing middle class and eventually for the working class, too). Industrial printing spread and enabled new discoveries, scientific and political progress, literature etc. around the globe.

Up to the late 20th century, this would have been the end of the story. In the late 1990s, however, the so-called Digital Revolution introduced e-books (electronic books), which soared to popularity in the first decade of the 21st century due to increasingly convenient and affordable reading devices.

Today, books are virtually never written by hand anymore, but just like manuscripts and printed books existed side-by-side for a while, printed books and e-books co-exist today. Do you think future generations will still have printed books?

Your task

St Johns’ oldest book is this late 9th-century Brittany Gospel, written in a style of handwriting (script) called “Carolingian minuscule”. This most important of all scripts was created during the educational reform initiated by Emperor Charlemagne (748-814) as a uniform standard to supersede all “national” scripts. Even today’s basic letter forms (except for our round ‘s’) echo this script.

St Johns’ oldest book is this late 9th-century Brittany Gospel, written in a style of handwriting (script) called “Carolingian minuscule”.
St Johns’ oldest book is this late 9th-century Brittany Gospel, written in a style of handwriting (script) called “Carolingian minuscule”.

Can you identify individual letters or even entire words? Try to transcribe the section below using today’s alphabet, and discuss anything you find interesting or noteworthy about this transcription.

Can you identify individual letters or even entire words?
Can you identify individual letters or even entire words?

Petra Hofmann
Petra Hofmann

Dr Petra Hofmann, College Librarian, St John’s College

After having worked 10 years at other Oxford colleges, I joined St John’s in 2018. As part of my job, I support the College’s teaching, outreach and access events whenever possible by making the library’s Special Collections available. With my academic background in English medieval literature, I particularly enjoy working with John’s extraordinary collection of medieval manuscripts.