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A book is a published work of literature or scholarship; the term has been defined by UNESCO for statistical purposes as a “non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages excluding covers,” but no strict definition satisfactorily covers the variety of publications so identified. Although the form, content, and provisions for making books have varied widely during their long history, some constant characteristics may be identified. The most obvious is that a book is designed to serve as an instrument of communication—the purpose of such diverse forms as the Babylonian clay tablet, the Egyptian papyrus roll, the medieval vellum or parchment codex, the printed paper codex (most familiar in modern times), microfilm, and various other media and combinations. The second characteristic of the book is its use of writing or some other system of visual symbols (such as pictures or musical notation) to convey meaning. A third distinguishing feature is publication for tangible circulation. A temple column with a message carved on it is not a book nor is a sign or placard, which, though it may be easy enough to transport, is made to attract the eye of the passerby from a fixed location. Nor are private documents considered books. A book may be defined, therefore, as a written (or printed) message of considerable length, meant for public circulation and recorded on materials that are light yet durable enough to afford comparatively easy portability. Its primary purpose is to announce, expound, preserve, and transmit knowledge and information between people, depending on the twin faculties of portability and permanence. Books have attended the preservation and dissemination of knowledge in every literate society.The papyrus roll of ancient Egypt is more nearly the direct ancestor of the modern book than is the clay tablet of the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hittites; examples of both date from about 3000 BC.The Chinese independently created an extensive scholarship based on books, though not so early as the Sumerians and the Egyptians. Primitive Chinese books were made of wood or bamboo strips bound together with cords. The emperor Shih Huang Ti attempted to blot out publishing by burning books in 213 BC, but the tradition of book scholarship was nurtured under the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 220). The survival of Chinese texts was assured by continuous copying. In AD 175, Confucian texts began to be carved into stone tablets and preserved by rubbings. Lampblack ink was introduced in China in AD 400 and printing from wooden blocks in the 6th century.The Greeks adopted the papyrus roll and passed it on to the Romans. The vellum or parchment codex, which had superseded the roll by AD 400, was a revolutionary change in the form of the book. The codex introduced several advantages: a series of pages could be opened to any point in the text, both sides of the leaf could carry the message, and longer texts could be bound in a single volume. The medieval vellum or parchment leaves were prepared from the skins of animals. By the 15th century paper manuscripts were common. During the Middle Ages, monasteries characteristically had libraries and scriptoria, places in which scribes copied books. The manuscript books of the Middle Ages, the models for the first printed books, were affected by the rise of Humanism and the growing interest in vernacular languages in the 14th and 15th centuries.The spread of printing was rapid in the second half of the 15th century; the printed books of that period are known as incunabula. The book made possible a revolution in thought and scholarship that became evident by the 16th century: the sources lay in the capacity of the press to multiply copies, to complete editions, and to reproduce a uniform graphic design along new conventional patterns that made the printed volume differ in appearance from the handwritten book. Other aspects of the printing revolution—cultural change associated with concentration on visual communication as contrasted to the oral modes of earlier times—have been emphasized by Marshall McLuhan. In the 17th century books were generally inferior in appearance to the best examples of the art of the book in the 16th. There was a great expansion in the reading public in the 17th and 18th centuries in the West, in part because of the increasing literacy of women. Type designs were advanced. The lithographic process of printing illustrations, discovered at the end of the 18th century, was significant because it became the basis for offset printing. In the 19th century the mechanization of printing provided the means for meeting the increased demand for books in industrialized societies. William Morris, in an effort to renew a spirit of craftsmanship, started the private press movement late in the 19th century. In the 20th century the book maintained a role of cultural ascendancy, although challenged by new media for dissemination of knowledge and its storage and retrieval. The paperbound format proved successful not only for the mass marketing of books but also from the 1950s for books of less general appeal. After World War II, an increase in use of colour illustration, particularly in children's books and textbooks, was an obvious trend, facilitated by the development of improved high-speed, offset printing.
Books on clay tablets. The ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hittites wrote on tablets made from water-cleaned clay. Although these writing bricks varied in shape and dimension, a common form was a thin quadrilateral tile about five inches long. While the clay was still wet, the writer used a stylus to inscribe it with cuneiform characters. By writing on every surface in small characters, he could copy a substantial text on a single tablet. For longer texts he used several tablets, linking them together by numbers and catchwords as is done in modern books.Book production on clay tablets probably continued for 2,000 years. The nature and volume of the surviving records from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor indicate a heavy emphasis on the preservative function of writing and the book. Either dried in the sun or baked in a kiln, clay tablets were almost indestructible. The latter process was used for texts of special value, legal codes, royal annals, and epics to ensure greater preservation. Buried for thousands of years in the mounds of forgotten cities, they have been removed intact in modern archaeological excavations. The number of clay tablets recovered approaches 500,000, but new finds continually add to the total. The largest surviving category consists of private commercial documents and government archives. Of the remainder, many are duplications of texts. Clay tablets are usually associated with cuneiform writing, a script that takes its modern name from the wedge-shaped (from Latin cuneus, “wedge”) marks made by the stylus in clay. When the Aramaic language and alphabet arose in the 6th century BC, the clay tablet book declined because clay was less suited than papyrus to the Aramaic characters.
The history of publishing is characterized by a close interplay of technical innovation and social change, each promoting the other. Publishing as it is known today depends on a series of three major inventions—writing, paper, and printing—and one crucial social development—the spread of literacy. Before the invention of writing, perhaps by the Sumerians in the 4th millennium BC, information could be spread only by word of mouth, with all the accompanying limitations of place and time. Writing was originally regarded not as a means of disseminating information but as a way to fix religious formulations or to secure codes of law, genealogies, and other socially important matters, which had previously been committed to memory. Publishing could begin only after the monopoly of letters, often held by a priestly caste, had been broken, probably in connection with the development of the value of writing in commerce. Scripts of various kinds came to be used throughout most of the ancient world for proclamations, correspondence, transactions, and records; but book production was confined largely to religious centres of learning, as it would be again later in medieval Europe. Only in Hellenistic Greece, in Rome, and in China, where there were essentially nontheocratic societies, does there seem to have been any publishing in the modern sense—i.e., a copying industry supplying a lay readership.The invention of printing transformed the possibilities of the written word. Printing seems to have been first invented in China in the 6th century AD in the form of block printing. An earlier version may have been developed at the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, but, if so, it soon fell into disuse. The Chinese invented movable type in the 11th century AD but did not fully exploit it. Other Chinese inventions, including paper (AD 105), were passed on to Europe by the Arabs but not, it seems, printing. The reason may well lie in Arab insistence on hand copying of the Qur'an (Arabic printing of the Qur'an does not appear to have been officially sanctioned until 1825). The invention of printing in Europe is usually attributed to Johannes Gutenberg in Germany about 1440–50, although block printing had been carried out from about 1400. Gutenberg's achievement was not a single invention but a whole new craft involving movable metal type, ink, paper, and press. In less than 50 years it had been carried through most of Europe, largely by German printers.Printing in Europe is inseparable from the Renaissance and Reformation. It grew from the climate and needs of the first, and it fought in the battles of the second. It has been at the heart of the expanding intellectual movement of the past 500 years. Although printing was thought of at first merely as a means of avoiding copying errors, its possibilities for mass-producing written matter soon became evident. In 1498, for instance, 18,000 letters of indulgence were printed at Barcelona. The market for books was still small, but literacy had spread beyond the clergy and had reached the emerging middle classes. The church, the state, universities, reformers, and radicals were all quick to use the press. Not surprisingly, every kind of attempt was made to control and regulate such a “dangerous” new mode of communication. Freedom of the press was pursued and attacked for the next three centuries; but by the end of the 18th century a large measure of freedom had been won in western Europe and North America, and a wide range of printed matter was in circulation. The mechanization of printing in the 19th century and its further development in the 20th, which went hand in hand with increasing literacy and rising standards of education, finally brought the printed word to its powerful position as a means of influencing minds and, hence, societies.The functions peculiar to the publisher—i.e., selecting, editing, and designing the material; arranging its production and distribution; and bearing the financial risk or the responsibility for the whole operation—often merged in the past with those of the author, the printer, or the bookseller. With increasing specialization, however, publishing became, certainly by the 19th century, an increasingly distinct occupation. Most modern Western publishers purchase printing services in the open market, solicit manuscripts from authors, and distribute their wares to purchasers through shops, mail order, or direct sales.Published matter falls into two main categories, periodical and nonperiodical; i.e., publications that appear at more or less regular intervals and are members of a series and those that appear on single occasions (except for reissues of essentially the same material).Of the nonperiodical publications, books constitute by far the largest class; they are also, in one form or another, the oldest of all types of publication and go back to the earliest civilizations. In giving permanence to man's thoughts and records of his achievements, they answer a deep human need. Not every published book is of lasting value; but a nation's books, taken as a whole and winnowed out by the passing years, can be said to be its main cultural storehouse. Conquerors or usurpers wishing to destroy a people's heritage have often burned its books, as did Shih Huang-ti in China in 213 BC, the Spaniards in Mexico in 1520, and the Nazis in the 1930s.
The Egyptian papyrus roll. The papyrus roll of ancient Egypt is more nearly the direct ancestor of the modern book than is the clay tablet. Papyrus as a writing material resembles paper. It was made from a reedy plant of the same name that flourishes in the Nile Valley. Strips of papyrus pith laid at right angles on top of each other and pasted together made cream-coloured papery sheets. Although the sheets varied in size, ordinary ones measured about five to six inches wide. The sheets were pasted together to make a long roll. To make a book, the scribe copied a text on the side of the sheets where the strips of pith ran horizontally, and the finished product was rolled up with the text inside.The use of papyrus affected the style of writing just as clay tablets had done. Scribes wrote on it with a reed pen or brush and inks of different colours. The result could be very decorative, especially when done in the monumental hieroglyphic style of writing, a style best adapted to stone inscriptions. The Egyptians created two cursive hands, the hieratic (priestly) and the demotic (a simplified form of hieratic suited to popular use), which were better adapted to papyrus.Compared with tablets, papyrus is fragile, yet an example is extant from 2500 BC; and stone inscriptions that are even older portray scribes with rolls. This amazing survival is partly the result of the dry climate of Egypt, in which some papyrus rolls survived unprotected for centuries while buried in the desert sands. The practice of certain Egyptian funerary customs also contributed to the preservation of many Egyptian books. Obsessed by a concern with life after death, they wrote magical formulas on coffins and on the walls of tombs to guide the dead safely to the gates of the Egyptian underworld. When the space thus provided became insufficient, they entombed papyrus rolls containing the texts. These mortuary texts are now described collectively as the Book of the Dead, although the Egyptians never standardized a uniform collection. Such books, when overlooked by grave robbers, survived in good condition in the tomb. Besides mortuary texts, Egyptian texts included scientific writings and a large number of myths, stories, and tales.Quotations from ancient writings show that scribes were highly regarded in ancient Egypt. They were the priests and government officials employed in the temples, pyramid complexes, and the courts of the pharaohs. The Greek historian Herodotus reported that Egyptian embalmers did a thriving business in copies of the Book of the Dead.
Books in classical antiquity. Greek books. The Greeks adopted the papyrus roll and passed it on to the Romans. Although both Greeks and Romans used other writing materials (waxed wooden tablets, for example), the Greek and Roman words for book show identification with the Egyptian model. Greek biblos (“book”) can be compared with byblos (“papyrus”), while the Latin volumen (“book”) signified a roll. It has been suggested that papyrus was continuously in use in Greece from the 6th century BC, and evidence has been cited to indicate its use as early as 900 BC. Objects called books are mentioned by ancient Greek writers as having been in use in the 5th century BC. The oldest extant Greek rolls, however, date from the 4th century BC.The 30,000 extant Greek papyri permit a generalized description of the Greek book. Rolled up, it stood about nine or 10 inches high and was an inch or an inch and a half in diameter. When the book was unrolled it displayed a text written in the Greek alphabet in columns about three inches wide separated by inch-wide margins. In spite of the Greek proficiency in decorative arts, few surviving books are illustrated. Such illustrations as have survived were of the practical sort found in later scientific books.Practicality was a mark of the Greek book. The alphabet, although not invented by the Greeks, was adapted and
stabilized by them as an instrument of verbal communication rather than of decorative purpose. Unlike the monumental Egyptian survivals in a decorative hand that sometimes exceeded 100 feet in length, Greek rolls seldom exceeded 35 feet in length and featured little embellishment. Such a roll was about as large as could be conveniently held in the hands to read, and it was big enough to contain a book of Thucydides or one of the longer New Testament Gospels. The average Greek book was shorter. Two books (here denoting a subdivision of a text) of Homer written in a later small hand fitted a 35-foot roll.During the golden age of Athens in the 5th century BC, books were known and used but were lightly regarded as avenues of learning. Great tragedies and comedies, speeches, poems, histories, and lectures were produced, but all evidence indicates that the preferred method of publication at that time was oral. The actor, the orator, the rhapsodist, and the lecturer were supreme.Given the interests and the scope of inquiry of Periclean Greeks, it is noteworthy that they had books and read them at all. Greek readers were general readers. Though it should not be assumed that all who lived in Athens could read, those who could included more than the narrow circle of scribes and scholars who were trained from youth to reverence books and to make a career of the difficult arts of reading and writing. The Greek alphabet reduced this difficulty, and the nonspecialized content of Greek books made them practical instruments of communication to a general public.With the coming of Alexander the Great, the outlook of the Greeks was broadened into a universal attitude that was reflected in their use of books. As the Alexandrian kingdoms spread throughout the East, the Greeks were forced to extend their interest to alien peoples and the records of the past. Consequently, the range of matters worth discussing became too extensive for oral transmission and for the solitary speaker. In the important Hellenistic cities, most notably at Pergamum and Alexandria, centres of learning grew up; these aimed at a world synthesis of knowledge. (A noteworthy example of this synthesizing work was the Septuagint, which was a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.) Libraries were a distinguishing feature of these centres. The Museum and the Sarapeum at Alexandria were reputed at various times to have from 200,000 to 700,000 rolls. The Ptolemies at Alexandria pursued a vigorous collecting policy in an attempt to acquire good copies of all important texts; and scholars were constantly at work on textual scholarship and the writing of new books. The book superseded the oral presentation as a primary means of publication. Greek writers even refer to the market in books and to prices paid for them. The discovery of surviving papyri in the rubbish heaps of provincial towns indicates that the trade was widely diffused. The large libraries maintained scriptoria in which extensive copying was done. However, survivals are scanty and there is no group of extant examples that bears such close resemblance to each other as to indicate that they were the product of the same scribe or scriptorium. Some surviving rolls bear the mark of professional work; others are amateurish.The volume of surviving Greek texts is so slender that it arouses speculation about the nature of the large book collections of Alexandria. There are various explanations. First, the Alexandrians were doing textual criticism and required many copies of the same text to carry on the work. Second, the record indicates that the volume of Greek literature was much larger than what has survived, a majority of the texts having been lost. Literary and bibliographical references made by ancient writers and bibliographers indicate, for example, that the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes wrote among them about 330 plays; those surviving number 46. Nearly all of Greek lyric poetry has been lost. Only one-fourth of the texts by Stobaeus, an anthologist of the 5th century AD, survived to modern times.The survival of Greek texts depended on copying by succeeding generations. No manuscript in the hand of either a Greek or Roman author is extant, and the earliest extant copies of most works date from centuries after the composition. In such circumstances, the greatest factor in survival was the widespread and continuing popularity of a work. The centres of textual criticism fostered the preservation of some texts by establishing a canon of writings to be taught in the schools. This practice proved to be more important for a work's survival than the establishment of the great libraries, because the library collections were destroyed, while the widespread copying of books for use by students ensured that they were physically dispersed over a large area, thus rendering an author's work less vulnerable to local disasters. Finally, the universal interest and application of the content was an important factor that led to the survival of some nonliterary texts through translation into Arabic, Latin, and other foreign languages.
The Chinese, though not so early as the Sumerians and the Egyptians, were the third people to produce books on an extensive scale. Although few surviving examples antedate the Christian Era, literary and archaeological evidence indicates that the Chinese had writing and probably books at least as early as 1300 BC. Those primitive books were made of wood or bamboo strips bound together with cords. Many such books were burned in 213 BC by the Ch'in emperor Shih Huang-ti, who feared the strength of the tradition they embodied. The fragility of materials and the damp climate resulted in the loss of other ancient copies. Some books escaped, however, and these, together with whatever books may have been produced in the intervening period, constituted a large enough body for a Chinese national bibliography to appear in the 1st century BC. This was prepared by a corps of specialists in medicine, military science, philosophy, poetry, divination, and astronomy. A classified list of works on tablets and on silk, it mentioned 677 books. With such a tradition, the survival of Chinese texts was assured by continuous copying and was not dependent on the capacity of a lone example to withstand the wear of the centuries.
Rome was the channel through which the Greek book was introduced to the people of western Europe. When the Romans conquered Greece they carried home Greek libraries to serve as a foundation for similar libraries in Rome. Roman libraries had separate collections of Greek and Latin books; but except for the substitution of the Latin language for Greek, a Roman papyrus roll closely resembled a Greek one in content, and there was much imitation.The Romans developed a book trade on a fairly large scale. From the time of the 1st-century-BC orator Cicero there is evidence of large scriptoria turning out copies of books for sale. On several occasions Cicero referred to bookshops; the 1st-century-AD poet Martial complained about professional copyists who became careless in their speed; and the 1st-century-AD naturalist Pliny the Elder described the extensive trade in papyrus. The trade decrees of the emperor Diocletian set regulations for determining a price for the copying of books.Book ownership was widespread among Romans of the upper class. Private libraries were common and were considered the necessary badge of distinction for anyone who aspired to high position or social importance. On the other hand, books were also within reach of less prosperous people because the use of slave labour to multiply copies kept prices relatively low. From a comparative study of prices, it has been concluded that books were cheap enough for people with only moderate incomes to buy them. As many as 30 copies of a work might be made simultaneously by a reader dictating to slave copyists. In many ways these enterprises were prototypes for modern publishing houses. Roman publishers selected the manuscripts to be reproduced; advanced money to authors for rights to the manuscripts, thus assuming the risks of publication; chose the format, size, and price of each edition; and developed profitable markets for their merchandise.
The substitution of the codex for the roll was a revolutionary change in the form of the book. Instead of having leaves fastened together to extend in a long strip, the codex was constructed from folded leaves bound together on one side—either the right or the left, depending on the direction of writing. (Some variant forms were bound at the top of the leaves.) The codex enjoyed several advantages over the roll. A compact pile of pages could be opened instantly to any point in the text, eliminating the cumbersome unrolling and rerolling, and facilitating the binding of many more leaves in a single book. In addition, the codex made feasible writing on both sides of the leaf; this was not practical for the roll. Because of its compactness, its ease of opening, and its use of both sides of the leaf, the codex could conveniently contain longer texts. The difference can be illustrated with copies of the Bible. While the Gospel of Matthew reached the capacity of the roll, a common codex included the four Gospels and Acts bound together; and complete Bibles were not unknown.The folded note tablets used by the Greeks and the Romans may have suggested the codex form, but its development to the point of eventual supremacy was related to changes in the world of learning and in the materials for making books. The change in the scholarly outlook came from the rise of Christianity; the new material was vellum or parchment.Vellum and parchment Vellum and parchment are materials prepared from the skins of animals. Strictly speaking, vellum is a finer quality of parchment prepared from calf skins, but the terms have been used interchangeably since the Middle Ages. The forerunner of parchment as a writing material was leather. Egyptian sources refer to documents written on leather as early as 2450 BC, and a fragmentary Egyptian leather roll of the 24th century BC survives; but leather was rarely used because papyrus was plentiful. The Hebrews also used leather for books. The spectacular discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s turned up collections of both leather and papyrus rolls that had been stored in earthen jars in caves along the Dead Sea for centuries. These liturgical and biblical books, produced by a Jewish ascetic sect, were written between the mid-2nd century BC and AD 68.Parchment is a greatly refined form of leather. The skins of various animals—cattle, sheep, and goats being most common—are washed and divested of hair or wool. Then the skin is stretched tight on a frame, scraped thin to remove further traces of hair and flesh, whitened with chalk, and smoothed with pumice. Tradition has it that parchment was invented as the result of book-collecting rivalry between Ptolemy V of Egypt and Eumenes II of Pergamum about 190 BC. Fearing the library at Pergamum might outstrip the collections at Alexandria, Ptolemy placed an embargo on papyrus to prevent his rival from making any more books, whereupon Eumenes made parchment. The fact that both the Greek and Latin words for parchment mean “stuff from Pergamum” offers some support for the tradition.Although parchment was used to produce book rolls, and although many early codices were made from papyrus, the new writing material facilitated the success of the codex. A sheet of parchment could be cut in a size larger than a sheet of papyrus; it was flexible and durable, and it could better receive writing on both sides. These qualities were important. In making a parchment or vellum codex, a large sheet was folded to form a folio of two leaves, a quaternion (quarto) of four, or even an octavo of eight. Gatherings were made from a number of these folded sheets, which were then stitched together to form a book. Because papyrus was more brittle and could not be made in large enough sheets, the folio collected in quires (i.e., loose sheets) was the limit of its usefulness. At the same time, because of the vertical alignment of the fibres on one side, papyrus was not well adapted for writing on both sides in a horizontal script.For 400 years the roll and the codex existed side by side. There are contemporary references to the codex book dating from the 1st century BC; actual survivals date from the 2nd century AD, however. In the 4th century AD vellum or parchment as a material and the codex as a form became dominant, although there are later examples of rolls, and papyrus was occasionally used for official documents until the 10th century. There were similarities between the two forms; an example of the influence of the roll on the codex can be seen in the use of multiple columns on the pages of early codices, much like the columnar writing on the rolls.
Books in the early Christian era. Christianity and the book. In books surviving from the first four centuries AD, codices more often contained Christian writings, whereas pagan works were usually written on rolls. Several points in the Christian use of books contributed to a preference for vellum and the codex. First, Christianity was rooted in Judaism, which for centuries had revered sacred writings. The Christians retained the Jewish Scriptures and added some writings of their own, collected in a New Testament. There was strong motivation for preserving these unchanging words on the most durable materials, and vellum was more durable than papyrus. Second, in referring to their sacred writings the Christians made comparative studies of sources. The writings were related, and students liked to refer from one source to another. This reference entailed having a comparatively large volume of writings available and increased the attractiveness of the easy turning of pages possible with a codex. In this respect it is noteworthy that Roman legal scholarship, which also required a comparison of sources, likewise showed an early preference for the codex. A third point was the expressed intention of early Christians to shun pagan literature by using an entirely different form of book. Conversely the clinging of the pagan authors to an outmoded form may be ascribed in part to a conservative resistance to the Christian ideas.The social potential of books was illustrated by the Christian emphasis on their dissemination. Christianity, which aimed at universality, produced a stream of books, whereas the literary remains of pagan religions are scarce. The process of introducing the universal religion throughout the Roman Empire extended over three centuries, covered thousands of miles, and embraced peoples of the most varied backgrounds and individuals of the greatest differences in rank. The worldwide outlook thus led to a greater dependence on books. Biblical texts and translations, commentaries, polemical tracts, and pamphlets were important in the circumstances, not only to record belief but also to disseminate and explain it.By the 4th century, the same time that the vellum codex had superseded the papyrus roll, the Christian book had replaced the pagan book in every form. Little of importance was written in the classical tradition after AD 100. The greatest writers of the following three centuries were Christian scholars such as Origen, Pamphilus of Caesarea, Tertullian, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome. Of all Christian books, however, the most numerous survivals are New Testament codices and apocryphal New Testament writings.The medieval book The monasteries The dissolution of the western Roman Empire during the 5th century, and the consequent dominance of marauding barbarians, threatened the existence of books. It was the church that withstood the assaults and remained as a stable agency to provide the security and interest in tradition without which books can be neither disseminated nor wholly enjoyed. Books found refuge in monasteries. The 6th-century Rule of St. Benedict enjoined monks to read books at certain times. The surrounding social chaos placed upon monasteries the responsibility for making books and creating libraries in order to implement the injunction. A more specific model was set by the historian and grammarian Cassiodorus, who, after serving the Ostrogothic kings in high positions, retired from public life in about 540 to found a monastery and establish a scriptorium at Vivarium. The scriptorium was the centre of his interest there. He supervised the copying of books and wrote a guide to learning, the Institutions of Divine and Human Readings. He also composed works that presented certain writers as models, discussed rules for editing, and suggested procedures for establishing a scriptorium and a library.Following the early examples, monastic houses throughout the Middle Ages characteristically had libraries and scriptoria where monks copied books to add to their collections. Arrangements for this activity varied from place to place. Occasionally the scriptorium was a single large room. Sometimes the copying was done in carrels, individual cells built in the cloister or library. Fittings for the scriptoria were spare; they lacked heat and artificial light. Work was undertaken only during the daylight hours, because fear of fires that might result from artificial light prevented working after dark. The labour (if contemporary complaints can be believed) was hard, for it was often said, “Two fingers hold the pen, but the whole body toils.” The scribe sat at a desk copying in silence a text that was spread before him. The monks did not follow the practice of the Roman commercial scriptorium where a reader dictated a book while several scribes made simultaneous copies of it. Instead, after the scribe's work was finished it was proofread and titles and notes were inserted. The book might then be given to an illuminator, who supplied any needed illustrations or decorative devices. Finally, the book was bound. This procedure closely resembles that of modern book production, except that in the scriptoria each step in the preparation of a manuscript was repeated for each copy of a work. Book production was slowed to a trickle, and a monastic library with as many as 600 volumes was considered fairly large.The medieval book was a codex written on vellum or parchment, although by the 15th century paper manuscripts were normal. Many medieval manuscripts attained a high perfection of colour and form and are renowned for their beauty. Such examples as the Book of Kells from Ireland, the Lindisfarne Gospels from England, and the many brilliant “books of hours” made in France are world-renowned as examples of art. The customary book was less splendid, however. Written in a neat book hand that developed into the models from which printing types were designed, the manuscript books of the Middle Ages were the models for the first printed books.Because the monastic book trade was largely internal, the contents of books are evident from the monastic library catalogs. Generally the catalogs grouped the books in three divisions. First came the Bible and commentaries. Writings of the Church Fathers and contemporary theologians followed. Finally there was a smaller section of worldly books—including at various places some classics, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, law, and historical and philosophical writings. Scriptoria flourished throughout Europe. Books in the Greek language were found only in Byzantine monasteries; in western Europe books were written in Latin. Only with the onset of humanistic scholarship in the 14th century, and the rise of important vernacular writers at about the same time, did books in Greek and various vernacular languages assume any prominence in the catalogs of western European monasteries.
Compared with the Continent, England in the early days of printing was somewhat backward. Printing only reached England in 1476, and in 1500 there were still only five printers working in England, all in London and all foreigners. Type seems to have been largely imported from the Continent until about 1567, and paper until about 1589 (except for a brief spell during 1495–98). In an Act of 1484 to restrict aliens engaging in trade in England, Richard III deliberately exempted all aliens connected with the book trade in order to encourage its domestic development. In the following year, Henry VII appointed a foreigner, Peter Actors of Savoy, as royal stationer, with complete freedom to import books. For about 40 years, England was a profitable field for continental printers and their agents. This necessary free trade was brought to an end and native stationers protected under Henry VIII, whose acts of 1523, 1529, and 1534 imposed regulations on foreign craftsmen and finally prohibited the free importation of books. It has been estimated that up to 1535 two-thirds of those employed in the book trade in England were foreigners.It is thus all the more remarkable that the man who introduced printing to England was a native, William Caxton. After learning to print at Cologne (1471–72), Caxton set up a press at Bruges (about 1474), where he had long been established in business. His first book, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, was his own translation from the French, and its production was probably the main reason why this semiretired merchant gentleman took to printing at the age of 50. He then returned to England through the encouragement of Edward IV and continued to receive royal patronage under Richard III and Henry VII. Caxton is important not so much as a printer (he was not a very good one) but because from the first he published in English instead of Latin and so helped to shape the language at a time when it was still in flux. Of the 90-odd books he printed, 74 were in English, of which 22 were his own translations. Some, such as the Ordre of Chyvalry and the Fayttes of Armes, were for the pleasure of his royal patrons; but his range was wide and included Dictes and Sayenges of the Philosophers (1477; his first book in England); two editions of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (the second undertaken because a better manuscript came to hand); The Fables of Aesop (in his own translation from the French); Sir Thomas Malory's Kyng Arthur; and his largest work, The Golden Legend, a compilation of such ecclesiastical lore as lives of the saints, homilies, and commentaries on church services, a considerable editorial labour apart from the printing.Caxton's press was carried on after his death by his assistant, Wynkyn de Worde of Alsace. In the absence of court connections and also because he was a shrewd businessman, he relied less on the production of expensive books for the rich and more on a wide variety of religious books, grammars and other schoolbooks, and collections of popular tales. He published more than 700 titles, mostly small volumes for the ordinary citizen, and continued Caxton's standardizing of the language, a solid contribution to the native book trade. The best of the early printers was Richard Pynson of Normandy, who began printing in 1492 and became printer to the king in 1508. Pynson, the first to use roman type in England (1509), published the first English book on arithmetic (1522). After his early liturgies and some fine illustrated books, he concentrated mainly on legal works. In 1521 he published Henry VIII's answer to Luther in defense of the papacy, for which the King received the title of fidei defensor (“defender of the faith”) from the Pope.
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