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The History of Publishing Ep 4: The Medieval Book

The Monasteries

The dissolution of the Roman Empire and following Dark Ages threatened the future of books. The church was the stable network that gave refuge to the book. The social chaos made the monasteries responsible for making books and creating libraries. Monasteries throughout the Middle Ages characteristically had libraries and scriptoria where monks copied books to add to their collections. The monks did not follow the methods of the Roman commercial scriptorium where a reader dictated a book while several scribes made simultaneous copies of it. Instead, after the scribe had finished, their work was proofread and notes were added. The book might be given to an illuminator, who would insert any needed illustrations or decorations. Finally, the book would be bound. The process slowed down book production considerably. Many medieval books are renowned for their beauty, however.

The Revival of the Secular Book

The expansion in the book production came with the rise of the universities in the 12th century and revived interest in ancient Greek writings. University stationers (book copiers) were established to supply the demand; these were controlled by universities, which set regulations about content, size, and set prices for sale or rent. There is a significant amount of evidence to show that books were available for sale in the 14th century, which also indicates that stationers were organised in craft guilds much like other trades of the time.

Humanism and The Rise of English Literature

The blossoming new ideas of humanism are a key example of the book's capacity to preserve knowledge. In the early 14th century, the scholars of the period began to seek out texts of classical authors. Many texts were found in monastery libraries and soon considerable enthusiasm for the style of writing in classical works became popular. Library collections throughout Western Europe were searched with the aim of recovering and purifying the classical texts. The restored texts became prized books that were collected by whoever could afford them. Concurrently, with the revived interest in classical literature and language came the production of books in the local, developing English language. Vernacular literature had been growing in Britain, mostly in the form of anonymous poems and oral performances, but it wasn't till the 14th century that this written form began appearing in books. An increasing number of books were written in common language, leading to the rise of reading and writing amongst the merchant and trading class. This development continued in the 15th century as book topics expanded, more and more often were books written in the local language instead of Latin or Greek and books became a valuable object for trade.

Next Episode: Episode 5: The Age of Early Printing

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