Books Before Printing: Unhappy Monks

Today the printer and its accessories are almost commodity items. The technology is advanced, freely available, and low cost. Modern inkjet printer can create very high-quality images on a variety of surfaces. This we all take for granted. If we could step back in time by a century, we would see that small-scale personal printing was carried out by unreliable and clunky hand-powered devices. If we take a larger step back in time, before the scientific discoveries of the Industrial Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, before the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the 14th Century, before the Renaissance, back into the medieval period, we would see the “printed” page being produced in a very different way.

From about AD 400 to AD 1300, the main way to get a book was to pay someone to write and decorate it by hand. It was an extremely expensive and time-consuming process, available only to the wealthiest citizens.

These illuminated manuscripts — produced mostly by monks in monasteries — are some of the most beautiful artistic creations of the Medieval period. The most common sort of books created this way are Gospel books, which are often lavishly illustrated with gold leaf and inks. The Book of Kells is the most famous example of a Gospel book.

The other common type of book created by the monks of the period is the Book of Hours, which were personal devotional books created for the very wealthy.

The immense delicacy and beauty of these creations belies the conditions in which they were created. The highly skilled monks often worked in damp cramped rooms called scriptoria from dawn until dusk, painstakingly fashioning the illustrations and writing the text by hand.

Much of the work carried in scriptoria across Europe was the production of works for monastery libraries, often copies of Christian or Classical texts that were not produced to the same sumptuous standards as the most famous illustrated manuscripts, but colorful and immensely time-consuming, tedious, and painful  to produce, nonetheless.

On many of these manuscripts, we can find notes written in the margins by the monks (marginalia) that give a fascinating and touching insight in the world of the Medieval scribe. Lapham’s Quarterly recently published a collection of marginalia, and it appears that these devout men in their cloisters vented their frustrations in much the same way we do today, except that while we moan in Facebook statuses and tweets, they complained in the margins of the texts they were working on.


New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more.

I am very cold.

The parchment is hairy.

Oh, my hand!

Thank God, it will soon be dark.

St. Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from your writing.

Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.

Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.

This is sad! O little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, “The hand that wrote it is no more.”

Some of which are not very much different from the sort of complaints that us keyboard-bound moderns might make.

Corey Northcutt
Corey is an SEO wizard and guest poster for Ink Splash.

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