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How Books Were Made in the Middle Ages

Updated on September 5, 2011

Hold your Nook or your Kindle in your hand and you may find it easy to marvel at modern technology. Have you ever picked up a book and thought the same thing? Probably not. Books have existed for so long that we incorporate them into the natural world; we rarely stop to think, "This object had to be invented at one point."

The book originated in the Middle Ages. As writing spread to Europe, the standard use of papyrus scrolls became impractical. Papyrus didn't grow in non-Mediterranean regions, and in the cold, damp climate of Northern Europe, scrolls tended to rot. Monks, who controlled the bookmaking business at the time, needed a hardier surface for writing. To fill that need, they turned to leather.

Parchment, to be precise. Animal skin, when properly treated, held up quite well for the long-term. In fact, because modern paper mills treat paper with acid, many Medieval manuscripts will outlast books printed today. Preparing parchment for writing, however, involved several steps. The first step meant the death of an animal, usually a sheep. Several sheep, actually. In fact, an entire flock of sheep needed to die to make a single book. Dead sheep didn't provide wool, so they did not kill these animals lightly. For this reason, the parchment alone caused books to sell for exorbitant prices. (Often times, only aristocrats could afford to buy them, but since they could rarely read they would need an educated person to read to them.)

After the skin was removed from the animal, the monks had to remove the animal from the skin. They scraped bits of flesh off one side and used quicklime to dissolve the hair on the other. Once clean, the parchment needed to be chemically treated with uric acid. This process resembled the traditional grape-stomping method, except instead of staining your feet with grape juice, you tended to stain it with urine. (This job may have gone to the monk who fell asleep during the midnight prayer service.) After being treated, they stretched and hung the parchment to let it dry, cut it into a rectangle, and then folded it--once if they wanted two large pages--called a "folio"--twice if they wanted a smaller four-paged "quarto," and three times if they wanted eight small pages, which they called an "octavo."

Medieval Manuscripts could be elaborately decorated, but all the work was done by hand
Medieval Manuscripts could be elaborately decorated, but all the work was done by hand
The only extant copy of Beowulf appears to be a less expensive commission, containing mostly plain text.
The only extant copy of Beowulf appears to be a less expensive commission, containing mostly plain text.

Next they needed to lay out the entire book. They used tools to prick holes at equal distances along the edges of the page, then scraped a light line across the page which would help them write in a straight line. They had to estimate the size of the handwriting and account for all the decorations they intended to include in the book. The decorations usually depended on the patron. In the top-right image, you can see a full-page illustration and plenty of blank space on the left page, while the right page contains a thick decorative border. This indicates that the patron who commissioned the book probably paid a small fortune. Not all manuscripts looked so elegant. The Beowulf manuscript on the bottom-right contains a fair amount of empty space on the page, but no decorations or illustrations. The fanciest thing on the page is the opening line, written slightly larger than the rest of the lines.

The decoration process came next. Among the different types of decorations are historiated initials, the large letters that begin a section of the book and usually contain a drawing of a biblical character; illustrations, larger drawings independent from the text; and illuminations, which involved thin layers of gold stuck to the page with a gesso mixture. As I mentioned, most noblemen didn't read. To them, books showed their status. A finely decorated book was a symbol of pride. Even the colors of ink signified their stature. The dye used for red ink came from a certain type of worm which monks dried and crushed to mix into their ink. (The color "vermillion" comes from this practice, since the word "verm" means "worm.") The blue ink used for the sky required a rarer pigment, a lapis lazuli, which during the Middle Ages usually came from Afghanistan. Blue ink in your book signified wealth.

An example of hand-written Gothic Bookhand. If you zoom in, you can see where the line rulings, historiated initials, decorative borders and illustrations.
An example of hand-written Gothic Bookhand. If you zoom in, you can see where the line rulings, historiated initials, decorative borders and illustrations.

After decoration, the scribes began their work. At this point, a great deal of work went into the text, so they had to be careful not to make mistakes--ink could be scraped off for a fresh start, but it was better to avoid it altogether. Different fonts could be chosen depending on the space available on the page and the time period in which the book was being copied. Gothic Bookhand was widely used as a method of conserving parchment. If you look at the image at the right, the letters are small and compact. This contrasted with Roman Capitals, which you can reproduce BY ACCIDENTALLY HITTING THE CAPSLOCK KEY WHILE YOU'RE TYPING. You can probably read Roman Capitals much easier than Gothic Bookhand, but it clearly takes up more space. A later development was Carolingian Minuscule, which we call an "uncial" text. That only means "lowercase" letters, but "cases" were used to hold type for printing presses, so "lower case" and "uppercase" are terms that wouldn't be used until the late 15th century when the Roman Capitals were stored in the case above the minuscule letters.

The final stages of bookmaking involved the assembly of the book. The folios, quartos, or octavos were pricked at even intervals along their center crease. Then the monks would weave thread through the holes. The loops of thread on the outside then would be sewn to the next folio, quarto or octavo in the book until the pages were collected in order. The final step would be to sew that collected into the outer binding, which we call the cover of the book.

The books they produced, we call "manuscripts." Unlike the contemporary understanding of a manuscript as the original copy of a book, the Medieval term comes from the Latin "manu," meaning "by the hand" and "scripit" which means "he/she writes."

The entire process, depending on the intricacy of the book, could take an entire monastery months or even years to produce a single volume. Often times if a patron ran out of money during the process, the elaborate look of the book would deteriorate closer to the end, or the monks may bind an unfinished book. Nobles were careful to select only the passages of books that they wished to possess, and many manuscripts found from the Middle Ages contain only fragments of larger works. The production of books, though, provided a major source of income for monasteries and the church, who required a great deal of money to keep operational. Since clerics--where we get the term "clerks"--often were the only people educated to read and write, they took advantage of this technology to make a living on a highly specialized trade.


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    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 

      8 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      That was interesting. I liked the hub. Thank you for information

    • jplaj profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Duluth, MN

      What exactly did you need to know? Maybe I can help.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      This is good intresting stuff but its quite drawn out and is hard to follow! It didn't really tell me what i needed to know either! But overall ok.

    • profile image

      beastly bro 

      8 years ago

      who has modern warfare 2 for xbox

    • $HubbleScope$ profile image


      8 years ago

      Welcome to hubpages jplaj! I enjoyed your hub immensely, keep 'em coming!

    • $HubbleScope$ profile image


      8 years ago

      Welcome to hubpages jplaj! I enjoyed your hub immensely, keep 'em coming!

    • Lord De Cross profile image

      Joseph De Cross 

      8 years ago from New York

      Excellent jplaj,

      I love this kind of history!.Voted up! Welcome to the HP family my friend!



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