A Brief History of Manuscripts

Manuscripts across Ancient Cultures

Before the development of print, which was invented in Germany in 1439 AD by Johannes Gutenberg, any type of document had to be both produced and reproduced by hand. Manuscripts (from the Latin manu and scripto, literally, handwritten) could come in different formats and on different mediums. They could be written on papyrus, the first documented material employed for this use, as well as, later, parchment, vellum, paper or birch bark. Palm leaves were employed in Asia. The oldest manuscripts are the Ancient Egyptian papyruses that were able to survive to this day thanks to the dryness of the desert climate.

British Medieval Manuscript with Hybrid Creature
Medieval Manuscript Leaf with Dragon

Manuscripts: Volumens and Codexes

Those have been found both in sarcophaguses and in special storage places, such as dry caves or hidden inside safekeeping jars. The ancient format of the manuscript was the scroll, also known in Latin as volumen, whereas the book as we know it was a later invention. Ironically, the most precious manuscripts of ancient times have nearly all been lost, because the papyrus could not survive as long in the southern European climate as it did in Egypt. Other unlucky accidents, as the infamous fire in the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt, the legendary library established by Ptolemy II and burned in 48 BC by Julius Caesar, further reduced the number of manuscripts to survive.

Medieval Manuscript from Britain
Manuscript Page with Psalm
Manuscript Leaf with Gold

Manuscripts in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages in Europe saw a rise in the creation of the codex, as especially dedicated monks, known as amanuensis, devoted their lives to the recording of documents into manuscripts. The preciousness of these books translated into a proper art form, as decoration was introduced to the text and illuminated manuscripts became an artistic exercise that combined beauty with daily life objects. Bibles and special prayerbooks, called the Book of Hours, were enriched with incredibly intricate designs with floral and animal motifs; gold leaf was often employed and calligraphy was also used in a special, artistic fashion. Religious texts were of great importance of course, but many classical Greek and Latin literary works have survived to this day thanks to the patient work of the amanuensis, who recorded the ancient versions of the texts, discovered hidden in libraries across all of Europe and circulated them, spreading culture and leading to the establishment of universities.

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