Archives for category: Manuscripts

How long have we had books? What about printed books?

Who knows when the first book was actually produced? How long does a piece of writing have to be for us to call it a book anyway? No length at all: we are perfectly happy to accept the existence of blank books. Books are not just physical objects; the are also intellectual output. Within this definitional haze, we have agreed that the oldest complete dated printed book in the world is The Diamond Sutra which may be seen from time to time at The British Library. It is dated May 868 AD. What’s the oldest handwritten book? Hard to be certain, but obviously much older. Papyrus scrolls are subject to decay and don’t just leap out of the ground shouting “I’m here, I’m here”. We have found papyrus scrolls dating back to 1,500 – 1,800 BC. (The Dead Sea Scrolls are relatively modern; consensus dates them to the last three centuries BC.) Maybe we could think of the Epic of Gilgamesh in cuneiform on clay tablets as a book, but apparently the text wasn’t really finalized till about the 12th century BC.

Epic of Gilgamesh. Photo Getty Images

 

But let’s leave all these bits of clay and scrolls to one side and focus on what we tend to think of as a book: a number of folded pages bound into a pair of covers. The codex, as such an object is named, was allegedly originally invented to deal with Christian literature in 2nd century Rome. (No doubt that statement is too bald by several orders of magnitude — the folks around at the time didn’t leave us firm evidence, so we try conjecture and balancing of evidence.) The earliest known reference however is from Martial in the 1st century, who encouraged his readers to buy his poems in this new format which takes up less space than a scroll and is more comfortable to hold in one hand. Let’s just start the life of the codex in the second century and, although manuscript codices can obviously still be produced*, mark its ending with the printing of Gutenberg’s Bible in 1454. So the reign of the manuscript book lasted for about 1,200 years: let’s just say 1,100 years, since that would neatly represent twice as long as the current lifespan of the printed book, which, despite some recent panic, doesn’t yet look doomed to being superseded by the ebook.

Yes, what we think of as a book has been around for about 550 years: a third of the time we have had codices, and maybe a sixth of the time we’ve had books.

But during these 550 years we’ve been busy. We got off to a quick start, and have been accelerating ever since. Peter Stoicheff informs us in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, “the press itself was small and cheap enough that within fifty years of its invention Europe contained at least 200 of them, and they produced more books in that short time than had been produced by hand to that point in history”. (You can see this spread dynamically in the map linked to at my post Atlas of early printing.) Our book output built slowly and steadily. “Prior to 1750, approximately one hundred new titles were published annually in England; by 1825 approximately 600 annually; by the end of the nineteenth century approximately 6,000”. We were up to 184,000 in 2013.

The British Library’s Incunabula Short Title Catalogue now records over 29,000 titles which more or less corresponds to the output of those 200 presses over those 50 years. Of course the older the item, the more likely it is to have disappeared without a trace, but we can only deal with what we can deal with, and I take this to mean Professor Stoicheff is telling us that we know of something like 29,000 manuscript books produced from the first to the fifteenth century. This means, I guess, that every couple of months now we publish more books than ever existed prior to Gutenberg’s revolution. No wonder we suffer from angst about what to read next.

_____________

* In the late 1650s there was a newspaper issued twice a week by Henry Muddiman, handwritten and distributed to a select group of subscribers. In Dawk’s News-Letter (1696-1716), Ichabod Dawks exploited the personalization implied by the handwritten format by setting his newsheet in a specially designed typeface, Scriptorial English No. 2, leaving a space at the top so that the subscriber’s name could be entered by hand after the text had been run off.

Advertisements

Illuminating a manuscript meant embellishing it with gold and/or silver.

Gold leaf was made by taking a small lump of gold, putting it between layers of goldbeater’s skin (a membrane derived from the gut lining of cattle) and beating it till it became thin. Wikipedia tells us that 1000 bits of cleaned and processed goldbeater’s skin stacked one on top of the other would only measure an inch thick. The American Institute for Conservation provides fairly gruesome detail on the making of goldbeater’s skin. Apparently malnourished cattle were preferred: less fat to get rid of.

Over a hundred layers of membrane/gold/ membrane could be beaten thin as one operation. Thin meant very thin: 1/250,000 of an inch. If a piece of gold leaf was left unattended by an open window it would fly away on the lightest breeze.

Publishers are notoriously careful, and gold isn’t something they throw around. That gold stamping on the spine of the book you’re reading isn’t gold (metal) it’s just gold (color). The only exception to this is in Bible production, where for a de luxe Bible you will find gold leaf used for the stamping on the leather cover and for the edge gilding of the pages.

This video (click on the title of this blog post if you don’t see a video below this paragraph) shows an Ochsner Edge Gilding machine in operation. You can see the gold leaf in the bottom of the track; it is pressed, with heat, against the thoroughly sanded and smoothed book block.

Bell Type and Rule Company will sell you a kit including sheets of 23 carat gold foil so you can personalize your Bible, and no doubt, those of all your friends.

You can get hold of gold leaf fairly easily. Amazon offers you a pack of 25 5½” square sheets for $7.98 with free same-day delivery for Prime members. The manufacturer does however admit to you that this gold leaf is really only “golden leaf”, being made of 85% copper and 15% zinc. Real gold leaf is available for a higher price but, as they keep emphasizing its edibility, seems to be directed at the cooking/baking/ candy-making market. Fair enough; there probably aren’t a man market of illuminators out there these days.

An orihon is a folding book. It consists on one long sheet of paper (or more than one, glued together) printed on one side then folded concertina-style, and possibly contained between a cover front and back. The style originated in China during the Tang dynasty (618-908 AD) probably starting out as a scroll folded up for storage. Orihons became popular in Japan — indeed the word orihon comes from the Japanese — and in another case of independent invention, became the form in which Mayan codices were “bound”.

Here are a couple of modern examples: Stack by Edwin Frank, published by Ugly Duckling Presse, and Manhattan Unfurled by Matteo Pericoli, published by Random House. Manhattan Unfurled is actually printed on both sides of the paper, showing the East Side on the recto, the West Side on the verso, or vice versa. It is delivered in a slip case together with a little booklet describing the project — a sort of Preface. Stack comes in a little felt envelope.

 

 

 

 

 

Most Mayan codices were destroyed by the conquistadores and the priests they brought along with them. These representatives of advanced civilization believed they were doing God’s work by eliminating the error which was self-evidently contained in these writings which they couldn’t understand. Very few survived. As Wikipedia tells us “The folding books are the products of professional scribes working under the patronage of deities such as the Tonsured Maize God and the Howler Monkey Gods.” Rather reminiscent of the basis of scribal culture in Europe.

The Madrid Codex; the longest surviving Mayan codex

 

Always safer to select an easily recognized typeface for your product. Of course that “ꝺ” on the package does look Irish, but it would seem that not everyone is able to distinguish between an Irish “d” and an Irish “k”. Wikipedia tells us we shouldn’t use the word uncial to describe Gaelic or Insular script, but we just keep on doing it. It’s a comforting word to wrap your mouth around.

Tony O’Reilly’d better not have been visiting NYC last week (the poster’s gone now). He it was who developed the Kerrygold brand for Irish butter exports. His main claim to fame in my world though was his rugby-playing. In an era when it was a rather dour game, he burst onto the scene in 1955 with flair, speed and above all beauty. My aunt loved him, even though he played for Ireland (and scored many a try against Scotland).

Like most teenage rugby players in the late fifties I started tying my boot laces like that.

Properly speaking uncial was written with only majuscule letters (all Caps). In Latin uncialis has the sense of “pertaining to a twelfth part”, hence inch, the 12th part of a foot. I’m not sure just how that came to be the name for this script, which presumably was rarely written in inch-high letters. The Wikipedia entry suggests that Jean Mabillon in the 18th century was the first to describe a script as uncial. The term seems to have originated in St. Jerome’s Preface to the Book of Job where he was either making a joke or a typo. Uncial was being written from the 4th to the 8th century, a period in which Christianity was in retreat to the isles, under pressure from barbarians like the Vikings. This is the time when scribal culture was saved by the work of monks in Ireland, and apparently the useful innovation of the word break was introduced there. Wikipedia suggests that uncial’s use was stimulated by the fact that its rounded character was more easily written on parchment than the more angular scripts which papyrus had supported. Who knows? That The Book of Kells was written in the Insular script variety of uncial has no doubt helped to fix the word uncial in the popular mind.

The first thing that struck me about Keith Houston’s The Book (W. W. Norton, 2016, $29.95) was the deconstructed binding. It’s like a three-piece binding without the sides. The only bit of cloth is the red spine. The bare binders board is exposed front and back, teaching by showing how a book’s case is constructed. I don’t think you can make it out in this photo, but the only thing on the back board which isn’t printed black on the raw board is the barcode. In order that the barcode should be scannable (i.e. have sufficient definition and clarity) they have had to print it on a white label and stick it (very straight and accurately) onto the board. It’s wonderful what these Chinese book manufacturers can (still) do.

You can see the braces down the side of the copy identifying the different elements. This technique (again, teaching by showing) continues inside the book, as can be seen from this photo of page 1.

Every Chinese schoolchild can (allegedly) tell you that Cai Lun invented paper, and Mr Houston tells the story, with narrative aplomb. Mark Kurlansky doesn’t beat about that bush “Cai Lun did not invent paper” he states in his Prologue: after his account Mr Houston also reveals to us that records exist of paper being made in China long before Cai Lun’s time, but his story is the one that sticks in the mind.

Mr Houston is a reliable and entertaining narrator. I think it’s fair to say that in his 26 pages about paper making you will develop a better understanding of the procedure than you’d garner from the entire 336-page volume Paper by Mr Kurlansky.

The focus of the book is historical. We learn about the development of writing systems, the making of papyrus, the growing popularity of parchment and paper, the work of scribes, all the major figures in book history, plus how what we now expect in a book and its format came to evolve. It’s not that you won’t develop an understanding of today’s book manufacturing industry — you’ll just pick it up as it were along the way. And the author does end the book with a very detailed colophon telling us all about this particular book’s manufacture, in China where we seem to have to go nowadays to get anything done in the old-fashioned ways at an affordable price.

The book is generously annotated. There are 62 pages of endnotes, and a sprinkling of footnotes. There isn’t a complete bibliography; rather a 3-page list of Further Reading, which is I guess OK. You can dig anything special out of the endnotes. Many color illustrations are spread throughout, printed on the cream text stock: some of these are a bit flat and murky though.

This is a very good book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot.

Mr Houston, who is the man behind the Shady Characters blog, will be giving a talk on book history at The British Library on 3 July. I bet it’ll be worth the ten quid.

 

ink-ballIt is slightly hard for our modern sensibilities to take, but we cannot avoid the knowledge that early printing houses reeked of urine. The ink was applied to the type by a couple of ink balls. These were leather-covered pads, and in order to keep them supple they were stored overnight in a bath of urine. Urine was also handy for cleaning off excess ink. An ink ball is illustrated at the left, and their use shown below. You can also see ink balls in operation in the video at my recent post Printing on a Gutenberg press.

300px-Chodowiecki_Basedow_Tafel_21_c_Z

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ink for writing with a pen would be water-based, while for printing it evolved to be oil-based. In the early day of printing, printers made their own inks with lampblack or soot and animal glue or vegetable oil which each boiled up according to their own closely guarded formula. Part of the success of Gutenberg’s printing innovation is due to the special ink he developed for transfer to and from the cast metal type. Ink making became a commercial process in the 17th century, and the first ink factory in America was established in 1742.

Little color was used in inks until the discovery of coal tar types in the middle of the 19th century though early Chinese printers had added some earth elements to their inks even before Gutenberg’s time. Linseed oil (a vegetable oil) was the main vehicle in printing ink until the mid-1930s when new vehicles (oils and resins containing specific chemicals depending upon what the inks are going to be used for) were introduced for letterpress printing in the United States. UV (ultraviolet) and EB (electron beam) curing vehicles for ink and coatings were introduced in the 1970s. More recent developments in inks have been water-based ink for gravure and flexography, and soybean ink for lithography.

In classical times the ink consisted of soot, gum arabic and water. Shady Characters has an interesting piece on the inks used in Roman manuscript work in which he tells of an early use of metallic inks found at Herculaneum, thus dating to 79CE. For those who crave the condition of a scribe here are instruction on how to make your own ink (remarkably simple, though not as simple perhaps as going out and buying a bottle of ink).

Today printing inks are made of four basic components: 1. pigments to color the ink and make it opaque; 2. resins, which bind the ink together into a film and make it stick to the printed surface; 3. solvents to make the ink flow; and 4. additives which alter the physical properties of the ink to make it suitable for different types of printing. It is a two-stage process: first they make the varnish, which is the base/vehicle used for all inks, though its recipe will vary depending on what the ink is to be used for. It is made by mixing the resins, solvents and additives. The resins react together to create some larger molecules which make the varnish more viscous the longer these reactions go on. In the second phase the pigments are mixed into the varnish, a process which can be seen in the rather lyrical video about modern ink making which can be found here. It’s well worth watching.

 

John Carter in ABC for Book Collectors puts it about as well as can be:

I’d never really thought about it, but even back in medieval times when paper was being made by hand there were standard sheet sizes. These were no doubt less formal and rigid than today’s, but sheet sizes turn out to have grouped around certain popular sizes which played the role of standard sizes. After all you had to have moulds and deckles: these were reused time and again. If your customers got used to paper in these sizes, neighboring paper makers would tend to conform to the same or closely similar sizes.

sizetable1

The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania has created the Needham Calculator, a tool for calculating sheet size of manuscripts. Enter a few details and bang, bang, there are the dimensions of the original sheet. The Penn Libraries blog describes the tool and its rationale.

6a00d8341c464853ef01b7c8bf8acf970b-500wi

Henry VIII’s ‘Green groweth the holly’. Photo: British Library

It is only in the sixteenth century that carole became explicitly associated with Christmas. Prior to that carole, a borrowing from the French, had meant a sort of ring-dance, and by extension the songs which might be sung while doing the dance. Publishing Cambridge links us to this post from The British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog, which sets out the story and shows several early examples.

In 1967 Cambridge University Press published The Cambridge Hymnal, notable (among other things no doubt) as being the place where Elizabeth Poston’s “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” was first published.

We recognize the term Book + as referring to things like a book for tweens shrink-wrapped with a cheapo plastic bracelet or similar. It’s a book plus a gift. No doubt the main source for this sort of thing remains Hong Kong where not only do you have access to cheap printing, but also access to the mass production of chachkies which Chinese industry churns out. I still periodically get a catalog from an importer offering every cheap gift item you could image, and then a lot more. Books plus tend to reach the market more through special sales, though you might find some in bookshops.

Book + might however have a longer, if slightly different history when we look at these books + tools produced in medieval times. These books incorporate things like spinning arrows which you can turn to point at a part of the printed page. These had to be mounted to a hole made in the paper or parchment, and secured on the other side of the page. We all think of hand work utterly beyond any reasonable budget, but this of course is because we have developed a powerfully efficient book manufacturing industry. Hand work on a page by page basis is almost unimaginable to the modern production manager. However, if you are hand writing a manuscript, adding a bit more one-off stuff isn’t much of a gear shift. Erik Kwakkel shows us several examples.

Cog-wheel. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 46 (14th century) – Source

Cog-wheel. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 46 (14th century)

The nearest we get to this sort of thing nowadays is pop-up books, but these rely on paper folding tricks. Pop-up books do have to be mass produced, and every cunning trick, while often very cunning, has to be producible by machine with minimal hand work.

 

LATER: This piece from Atlas Obscura showing the use of flaps in early medical books is also relevant here.