Early Printed Books
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Until the mid-15th century, the manuscript was the prevailing form of textual transmission in Europe. These hand-copied texts on parchment were frequently given a complete artistic treatment with blackletter calligraphy and elaborately decorated margins, initial capitals and miniature illustrations. Since the creation of an illuminated manuscript was a costly and complex process involving several professionals, it was usually reserved for monastic libraries or commissioned texts. The two leaves shown here are from a French Book of Hours produced sometime during the mid-1400s - right around the time printing began in Europe.
The hand-press period in Europe was signaled by the arrival of paper and Johannes Gutenberg’s innovative printing technology in the 1450s, although printing techniques, paper and movable type had already been in use for centuries in Asia. Incunabula are what we call these books, pamphlets and broadsides that were printed before 1501. The term, Latin for "cradle" or "swaddling clothes," designates the second half of the 15th century as printing's infancy.
These printing and paper innovations revolutionized the transmission of knowledge that was hand-copied for centuries. Euclid’s Elements, for example, is one of the most influential works in the history of mathematics, especially in geometry, and one of its oldest surviving manuscript fragments dates back to 100 CE. This edition was printed by Erhard Ratdolt, a famous German printer of the Incunable period. Pliny’s encyclopedic Natural History is one of the largest single works to have survived after the fall of the Roman Empire. The initial capitals shown in the copy to the left are hand-scripted in red ink, an attractive practice that continued through the incunable period as appreciation for calligraphy endured.
This mass transmission of knowledge also lent itself to the religious mania of the Inquisition. The Malleus maleficarum, or Hammer of witches, was first printed in 1486 and went through 28 editions by 1600. At peak popularity, it was allegedly the second highest selling book next to the Bible. The instructions found within were used to persecute over 200,000 innocent people, mostly women, over 250 years. The fourth edition shown here was printed in Nuremberg in 1494. The binding includes an iron hasp (fastener) on the bottom edge for secure chaining.
Early printed books were a true art form, with high aesthetic standards, and typesetting was an elite skill passed down from master to apprentice. Venetian humanist Aldo Manuzio founded the Aldine Press in the late 15th century. The press is famous in the history of typography for the introduction of italics, shown in this edition of the collected works of the Roman poet Statius (1519). Manuzio was also the first to print books in the octavo format, a size similar to the modern paperback intended for portability and ease of reading.