Hand-finished Printed Books

Our blog post today comes from History of the Book student and CRC volunteer Allie Newman.

The University of Edinburgh Centre for Research collections holds a veritable treasure trove of early printed books, also known as incunabula or incunables. Numbering over 200 items, the collection houses everything from the apparently mundane to the richly decorated, both in terms of type ornament and colours. Today I would like to showcase Inc.49.2, a delightfully illustrated Bible printed by Anton Koberger in Berlin in 1483, that is a wonderful illustration of a particular period of book history.

inc1.jpgThe advent of the printing press in the West, begun by Gutenberg’s moveable type press in 1440, heralded a new era in book production. Suddenly, instead of taking weeks, months, or even years to copy out a book by hand, books could be produced relatively quickly and in larger numbers by moveable type presses. This naturally put manuscript production into an immediate spiral of decline, eventually leading to the triumph of print over hand-written books… Or did it?

Contrary to popular belief, the two forms of production actually continued to exist side by side for nearly 200 years, printed works only overtaking manuscripts in terms of popularity in the 1600s; even then, a big reason for that overtake was due to the fact that printing a book was just plain cheaper than hand-copying a book, not because manuscripts were seen as inferior or old-fashioned. Evidence of this can be seen in the Koberger Bible, where the pages were printed in such a way that they left space for an artist to later come in and add decorative initials by hand!

inc3 inc2This is not an uncommon practice – it even happens in the Gutenberg Bible, though its initials are much less embellished. Because manuscripts were still somewhat of a status symbol and occupied a position of prestige in the world of books, this hand-finishing was a way of adding legitimacy to the printed book. And it didn’t just happen to initials! This Bible is full of woodblock prints, such as the one below, that, although printed on a press, were later hand-coloured (most likely at an extra cost!).

inc4Hand-finishing of printed text eventually faded away as a widely practiced stage of book production by the late 17th century, for the same reason that manuscripts became the less common form of book: it was just too expensive and time consuming. However, the intersection of manuscript techniques and printing press technology left its mark (literally) on the way we write today- ever wonder why the first line of a new paragraph is indented? Why, to make room for a hand-finished first initial, of course!

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