Manuscripts, Books, and Maps: The Printing Press and a Changing World

Four Important Periods in the History of the Book

I. 7th to 13th Century: The age of religious "manuscript" book production. Books in this period are entirely constructed by hand, and are largely religious texts whose creation is meant as an act of worship.

II. 13th to 15th Century: The secularization of book production. Books are beginning to be produced that do not serve as objects of worship, but that try to explain something about the observable world. The difficulty with the spread of such knowledge is that production is still taking place via pre-print - manuscript - methods.

The production of secular books is driven by two things:

  1. The rise of universities in Europe, spreading from Italy.
  2. The return of the crusaders in the 13th century, who bring with them texts from Byzantium. These books, written during the Greek and Roman periods in history, focus on this-world concerns.

III. 15th to 16th Century: The first printed books. These are print versions of traditional works like the Bible, books of hours (prayer books) and the religious calendars.

IV. 16th to 17th Century: New information is put into books that has important consequences for European life and society.
Authors like Elizabeth Eisenstein, who say that print had a massive effect in European culture, are looking at the differences between periods II and III above. Febvre and Martin see other factors as more important because they are looking at the differences between periods I and IV above.

Let's now turn to an examination of each of these periods in European history so that we can get a better grasp on the motivating factors for change.

The 7th to the 9th century was the heyday of the "illuminated manuscript". Production of these works took place in the monasteries scattered across Europe. These religious retreats were the repositories of those texts of Greece and Rome which survived in Europe. They were also the seats of the intellectual life of Europe during the Middle Ages. Monks in the monasteries made copies of the books in their care - both religious and secular manuscripts. However, they did not contribute much more to the advancement of that intellectual tradition, because they were not engaged in thinking about the relationship between the works in their care and the world outside the monastery.

During this time, the production of Bibles was the place where the arts of the monastic scribes, and later lay artists, flowered. It was here that the most elaborate and beautiful illumination found its outlet and the manuscript books from this period represent the height of the art of decoration.

One of the most beautiful examples of an illuminated manuscript is the Irish Book of Kells: "a large-format manuscript codex of the Latin text of the gospels" (Meehan 1994:9). The image shown here is an eight-circle cross - one of the central motifs of this manuscript, all of which focus on aspects of Christ's life and message. According to Meehan, the Book of Kells is the most lavishly decorated of any manuscript produced between the 7th and 9th centuries.

The most important thing about the manuscript books of this period is that they were objects of religious veneration. They were seen as consecrated objects. Their creation was an act of religious devotion. The monks who sat for years, working on single chapters of the Bible, were not reproducing books. They were making the word of God manifest in the world.

The style of these books is very different from anything we are used to reading. They are not meant to be a collection of words that convey information from an author to the reader. Their primary function is to serve as decoration which pays tribute to the word of God.

In an illuminated manuscript, the complexity of the decoration was intended to mirror the complexity of the biblical passages the decoration illustrates. Just as Biblical text is open to many different interpretations, the illumination of that text was intended to pose the same allusive and meditative possiblilities. (Meehan 1994:16)

This is the "carpet page" from the Book of Durrow, created around 680 A.D. The woven pattern on this page is called "interlace" and exhibits both zoomorphic and abstract elements in it's design.

The detail of the interlace in the Book of Durrow is more refined by the time the illuminators get to the creation of the Book of Kells. In the Book of Durrow, the interlace covers the page, in the Book of Kells, it becomes part of larger images.

In this detail from the Book of Kells, showing the heads of lions and chalices spouting vines, we can more clearly see the zoomorphic aspects of the interlace.

However, in interlacing, the interweaving of the bodies of snakes and lions, of peacock and fishes, chalices and vines, is not intended to be a naturalistic representation of the existing world. These images are schematic and symbolic. The elements of the work are chosen from a repertoire of marks and usable images and themes; a set collection of pre-agreed upon symbols, forms, and images. The images are meant to represent some aspect of Christ's life: the snake representing rebirth (in the shedding of its skin) and, at the same time, Original Sin; the peacock representing the incorruptibility of Christ (a reflection of the ancient belief that the flesh of a peacock is incorruptible) (Meehan 1994:50,53,59).

We think of modern books as being illustrated, but the illustration and photographs, the images, are usually distinct from the text. In these early manuscripts dedicated to God, the two were not so separate.

The Book of Durrow
The first page of Saint Jerome's translation of the four gospels into Vulgate.
The Book of Kells
The first page of a genealogy of Christ

If you look carefully at these pages, you can see that the decoration is carried into the text. There is a continuity between the words and the decoration, a continuity that suggests that the illuminated religious manuscript, is an attempt to convey the beauty of God's message to mankind.

For all their beauty, as mentioned above, the manuscripts of the monasteries did little to affect life in Europe. Primarily this comes about as a consequence of the inaccesability of the monastic libraries. Instead of books being openly available as they are today, manuscript books were mostly locked up in monasteries strewn across Europe. Given the amount of time and energy and financial resources the went into their production, books were far too valuable to make available to the general public. So there was no way to use them for scholarship, even the few secular texts that may have been available.

This problem was compounded by the lack of a uniform cataloging system in the monasteries. So, even if one did have access to the library of a monastery, there was no no way of knowing what was in the collection, or where it might be located.

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This page last updated on: Jan 30 1997