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From Scribe to Printing Press: The Medieval Manuscript

Dutch Book of Hours, 1470. Shown with beautiful illuminations and text.

Writing, reading and even typing are a part of everyday life. You needn’t look further than your bedside table or the tube of toothpaste by the sink to see how language – particularly printed language – is essential in the 21st Century.

However, if we wind back the clock, the use of the written word becomes increasingly limited. Before the invention of the printing press words were transferred to paper by scribes – there was no possibility of the mass production of identical books and documents. It will come as no surprise that the written word itself was not common knowledge in the Medieval Period. Writing and reading were exclusive, and only the wealthiest (who could afford an extensive education) learnt such skills.

Monks and individuals living in monasteries were the most likely pre-printing press scribes. Handwriting such extensive manuscripts was a laborious task, as a common medieval saying goes: “The fingers write, but the whole body suffers”. Due to the nature of a medieval quill, only downwards strokes were easily achievable. This nib-design nightmare meant individual letters had to be written in multiple strokes. Whereas today one can easily churn out pages of handwritten paper in a day, Medieval calligraphy constrained writing to a slow process – it could take up to a year to complete a Bible! [1].

In spite of the labours of writing, there comes a beauty with calligraphy. In each manuscript the art of an individual can be gleamed. Much like today, people of the past had different handwriting styles. Armed with a quill in hand, a monk could take the art of a manuscript in any way he pleased – a particular hold of the quill, the fluidity of ink used, pressure applied to the page and direction of strokes (ductus), added individuality and flair to the transcribed texts [2].

The generic style adopted was known as ‘uncial lettering’, a form inspired by Roman literature and Latin and used throughout the Middle Ages [2]. Images, symbols and elegant lettering was a key facet of Medieval calligraphy and the colour and construction of these letters made handwriting an art which is hard to overlook.

French Book of hours, 1375-1400, depicting the betrayal of Christs.

The end of this manuscript era (1375-1525) came with the adoption of the printing press [3]. Prior to this, scribes worked in silent rooms, outlining pages before carefully copying from original texts and illuminators would then add the decorative illustrations we often see on such texts. The Gutenberg press and other such devices allowed for mechanical copying of manuscripts, this launched a revolution in literature and made texts far more accessible. Unsurprisingly given its importance at the time, The Bible was the first book to have been produced by such methods.

Beautifully illustrated and extremely popular, Books of Hours are useful evidence of the transition from handwriting to printing during this period. A definition of this type of manuscript: “A book of hours, or primer, was the private book of devotions of the layman in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.” [4]. The importance of art and colour in Middle Age religion continued with the transition to printing; woodcuts were painted over to add the decorative flair so crucial to Medieval manuscripts [5]. A cooperation between printing and writing, Medieval Books of Hours were not like the mass produced books of today, rather they were individualised and artistic copies of original manuscripts. In fact, the popularity of these books prior to the printing press meant a they were often handwritten by teams of scribes – emulating a large scale production mechanism – which is why they were the prefect early candidates of early printing [6].

King Richard III’s ‘Book of Hours’ is longer than many other hours and was originally owned by an unknown individual around 1420 [7]. Books of Hours were originally incredibly costly, and often only the wealthy could afford the finely produced handwritten copies [8]. even The adoption of the printing press completely transformed it, and such books became common place items in Late Medieval life.

Richard III’s ‘Book of Hours’ has been digitised and a pdf is available on the Leicester Cathedral website ( It has a comprehensive commentary at the end about the book itself, including its purpose, production and interpretation! It is a great primary source on Richard III’s life and much is yet to be uncovered from it.

Richard III's 'Book of Hours'. It is unusually long but surprisingly less illustrated than a typical monarch's Hours would have been.

Works Cited


D. E. Kwakkel, "Words, words, words: medieval handwriting – Smarthistory," 2015. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 24 November 2020].


Medieval Chronicles, "Medieval Calligraphy," 2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 24 November 2020].


University of Cambridge, "Suggested student project: Identification of Medieval Scribal Handwriting," 2020. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 24 November 2020].


Leicester Cathedral, "Book of Hours – Leicester Cathedral," January 2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 24 November 2020].


Krannert Art Museum, "The Mass-Produced Original: Printed Books of Hours," 2019. [Online]. Available: ‌. [Accessed 24 November 2020].


Glasgow Library, "Fifteenth Century Book of Hours," 2020. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 24 November 2020].


The Richard III Society, "The Hours of Richard III," 2015. [Online]. Available:‌. [Accessed 24 November 2020].


University of Virginia Library, "Books of Hours and the Transition to Print Culture," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 24 November 2020].


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