Londra, British Library, ms. Egerton 2020, f. 161r, Biom

What is a Manuscript?

A manuscript is a book made of parchment or paper sheets, they contain hand-written content, copied by scribes who copied it from a more ancient source.

A manuscript is a book made of parchment or paper sheets. Manuscripts contain hand-written content copied from a more ancient source by one or more scribes.

Nowadays books are common objects, and everyone is used to reading and handling them as a common every day practice. However, everyone may not be familiar with the concept of the manuscript, which is a particular kind of book. In ancient times, books were not as common as they are today: they were much more expensive and only wealthy people could afford them.

The word "codex" is a Latin word that means "stump" or "trunk", but more importantly, it indicates the small wax-boards that the Romans used to write on and bind together. A different kind of "book" was the "volumen", a rolled papyrus that in ancient times was the most common scriptorial support in the Mediterranean area.

Parchment is a resistant and long-lasting material produced from goat or sheep leather. Parchment easily supplanted wax-boards as writing material, since its lesser weight made it possible for texts to be longer. Between the II and the IV century AD the parchment codex became the preferred means for the diffusion of knowledge and ideas, especially thanks to the Christian communities, which unlike previous pagan cultures preferred passing on sacred text in the new book form.

Parchment was considerably more expensive than papyrus: in order to complete a book an entire flock of sheep could be needed, and the animal leather required several treatments to become smooth and soft, and therefore suitable as a writing support. Since the cost of the finished product was so high, owning a book was a luxury reserved for the privileged few, as the customer had to pay not only for expensive materials but also the human work of the scribe and the illuminator. For this reason the most famous medieval manuscripts belonged to kings who wanted to demonstrate their power and wealth through works of art. An eminent example is Charlemagne's manuscripts, some of which were written in golden ink.

Monasteries are another essential part of the medieval book production. Monks used to copy important literary works, both religious and secular, and it is thanks to them that many ancient works are known today.

The second revolution in the history of the book was the introduction and diffusion of paper as a writing material. In Italy paper production started in the XII century, especially in Fabriano, where high quality paper was produced from rags. Paper was markedly cheaper than parchment and for this reason book production costs decreased: as a consequence books became less expensive and more people were able to afford them. During the XIV century not only the nobility owned books, but also the middle-class (merchants and artisans).

In 1455 in Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg invented a mechanical technique to reproduce books and thus the first printed book was born: the famous Gutenberg Bible. Printing soon displaced human writing, as it is a quicker and more efficient system; as a consequence manuscript books became less common and ultimately they were completely replaced by printed books.