How People Created Written Content Before the Printing Press

Before the invention of the printing press, books were created by hand in a labor-intensive process. In this early history of print, books were rare and regarded as highly valuable items. It’s difficult to identify the first “book”, as many cultures used parchment, papyrus, or other mediums to produce simple texts. Humans have used clay tablets and other hard materials to record words and images for thousands of years. This post looks at more traditional “books” produced in the Middle Ages, before the era of the printing press which began around 1436.

The Role of Monasteries

Monks within European monasteries produced most of the books during the Middle Ages. Many monasteries had a room called a “scriptorium” that was a dedicated space for monks to create manuscripts. The monks would

Researchers have found there are unique characteristics for the works created at different monasteries, with each offering distinct cultural and social elements that serve as identifiers. During the Middle Ages, most books were owned by monks or the very wealthy, due to the time involved in production and limited number of individuals who possessed the necessary production skills.

A Laborious Manual Process

The process included several painstaking steps. Making books during this era involved using multiple different materials, including wax, parchment, clay, papyrus, and other durable materials that would hold ink properly and last for centuries. Workers (usually monks) would divide different parts of the bookmaking process. This included smoothing the parchment surface, copying the texts, illuminating (drawing/painting) to correspond to the text, and then organizing and binding. The various processes required for the early history of print meant people employed various specialized skills:

Text was written by hand, which led to variation between different works (often the bible) due to the individual writer’s tone and wording

In early medieval times, most manuscripts were printed on animal skins which were soaked and stretched out to provide the bookmaker with a smooth and durable surface

With the surface prepared, monks would rule the manuscript with colored ink. These rule marks would help guide the scribe’s writing and were also design elements that fit into the imagery and structure of the text.

The scribe would write on the text using a goose or swan quill, with variations in the writing coming from how the quill was cut

Illuminating the text meant basically a “glow up”, where a monk would add decorative metals and bright colors to enhance the text. They would create an ink outline and then add sticky substances to affix gold leaf to give the text shine. They would then paint the text with tempera (paint mixed with egg whites).

Binding these texts involved organizing the pages and then sewing them together on support pieces using cord or leather. After this step, the monks would lace these supports through boards that would function as the back and front of the manuscript. The books were covered in fabric or leather and the monks would often add metal corners and other embellishments to protect the book and improve its visual appeal. Since most of these texts contained religious content, they would often feature biblical scenes such as stained glass on the covers.

After the invention of the printing press, books were produced faster and creators could ensure uniformity between copies. This paved the way for advanced printing presses and new advancements such as lithography and photocopying as well as modern production facilities that can assemble millions of books a year. Visual Edge IT is proud to play a role in the ongoing history of the printed word. We offer a range of printers, copiers, and scanners for businesses.

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