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.

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