Blog post

From manuscript production to the printing press

How the page layout evolved during the early years of the printed book

Johannes Gutenberg looks at a freshly printed sheet. The printer, a man in an apron, and a young man are watching him. On the right a workbench with tools, possibly used for making the type.
by
Paloma Pucci (opens in new window) (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The first books produced in Europe using the movable type printing system were printed in the 1450’s in Mainz, Germany. Although printing had already been practised for several centuries in China, Japan and Korea, it was German inventor Johann Gutenberg (1400-1468) who perfected the technique that allowed the mass reproduction of texts and the fabrication of high quality printed books.

Rising alphabetisation in Europe (with the expansion of the paper and ink industries) resulted in a larger demand for books. New developments in the metal industry paved the way for the mechanisation of book production through Gutenberg’s movable type system: a process that depended largely on the ability to melt metal into large numbers of minuscule Latin letterforms that could be arranged in endless combinations on a matrix.

In fact, Gutenberg’s innovative system changed two very important aspects of the printing process. Rather than creating a wooden matrix of the entire page, the typographer would arrange individual metal letterforms into a text with a proper page layout in order for ink to be applied to the protruding lettered surface.

Then, each letter was cast out from metal rather than carved out of wood, making matrices more resistant to wear. Once the matrix was inked and ready, it would be ‘stamped’ onto parchment or paper using a wooden press. The choice between these two mediums was wholly commercial, depending on the means of the buyer and on the use the book was going to have. This new process allowed Gutenberg to print hundreds of pages a day as opposed to the two or three pages a scribe could copy in the same amount of time.

The Golden Legend, written on parchment, 1301-1400

Among the first books to be printed was the Bible, Saint Jerome’s Vulgate (above), more commonly known as the Gutenberg Bible. Gutenberg and his two associates, Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer, managed to print them on parchment in 1455; the largest and most ambitious editing project of its time.

The text was laid out in two columns, each one consisting of 42 lines. This Bible is called a ‘42-line Bible’. For the letters, Gutenberg chose a gothic type, most notably the textura quadrata, used in liturgical books. His first Bibles were printed in both parchment and paper (parchment editions being the most expensive and the least common).

The first printed books were hand-finished. They had spaces left empty for painted letters in red and blue (rubrication), titles, musical notations or words in other languages (Greek, for example) as well as for illustrations and decorations (for the more luxurious editions). In fact, printed books were initially made to closely resemble manuscripts. Scholars and clerics were used to reading manuscripts and were not too keen on changing their habits. The way in which text was presented to the reader in the Middle Ages not only satisfied a need for visual structure, but helped create mental constructs.

Every detail contributed to the comprehension and the memorization of the contents of the book. So the first printed books, also known as incunables or incunabula (Latin term meaning ‘cradle’ used to identify printed books produced up until 1500) perfectly imitated the overall aesthetics of the hand-written book. This close imitation was meant to satisfy mediaeval reading and learning habits as they changed.

the chapter on Saint Andrew from a fourteenth-century manuscript of the Legenda Aurea

If we observe the same chapter (Saint Andrew) within three different editions of the Golden Legend (la légende dorée) or Legenda Aurea by Jacobus of Varagine, it becomes clear how the page layout evolved during the early years of the printed book.

Above is the chapter on Saint Andrew from a fourteenth-century manuscript of the Legenda Aurea. The text is very densely laid out, leaving no empty spaces. The first words of each section are written in red, and the first letter of each paragraph is painted with alternations of red and blue.

Compared to a printed paper copy of the same text from 1475 (below) we can see how a similar layout has been kept. The text is still laid out in two columns. The upper-case initials still give structure to the text with alternating colours and have almost identical ornamentation. Generous margins leave plenty of space for annotations and commentary.

Both volumes have a great number of abbreviations. In fact, abbreviations allowed the scribe to save not only time but costs. The upside being that more text could fit in a smaller number of pages, and the downside being that the text was harder to read. The typography of the 1475 edition, however, is more rounded, airy and easier to read.

Saint Andrew, The Golden Legend, printed on paper in 1475

Late Mediaeval books had three distinct types of scripts, each one popular for a specific genre or category of text. Gothic writing was used for liturgical manuscripts. French ‘batarde’ was used for vernacular texts in French and a new Humanist minuscule was adapted in Italy from the Carolingian minuscule as a clear and elegant vehicle for humanistic texts. The first typographers didn’t hesitate to follow this tradition. Religious books were printed in gothic typography, French books in ‘batarde’ and classical books in humanist minuscule.

This third example (below) of the same chapter of the Legenda Aurea, dating from 1499, reflects how the printed book had begun to emancipate itself from its manuscript predecessor, becoming more similar to the books we are used to today. An engraved image of Saint Andrew’s martyrium opens the chapter. The image plays a major role in the visual perception of the page which has become more dense, structured solely by its printed initials in black. As opposed to the first two examples of this same text, there are fewer abbreviations, making it easier to read. The presence of foliation (numbered pages) make the book easier to look through and the choice of language (vernacular) opens the text up to a greater public.

The Golden Legend, printed on paper in 1499, translated into French by Jean de Vignay

Although manually-colored initials are still found in books up until the mid-sixteenth century, with time, the use of coloured letters to organise the text gradually diminished in favour of tables of contents and indexes that facilitated navigation through the different chapters of the book. Around the year 1500, the Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius further enhanced reading experience by introducing new punctuation as well as italic print, allowing him to fit more text into a reduced book format.

Comparison of three different editions of the Golden Legend or Legenda Aurea by Jacobus of Varagine.

The invention of the printing press was a driving force in the spread of knowledge and information all over Europe. It revolutionised the way in which people read and, therefore, the way in which they thought. Researchers were able to publish their own treatises more easily than before and have them commented and critiqued by their colleagues. Use of vernacular tongues increased, as did alphabetisation. Canonical texts became ever more precise and their versions standardised. Ideas travelled far and wide, giving direct access to information to a larger number of people, in many ways emancipating culture from political and religious control; in other ways, control over text content was facilitated because printed material was more easily traceable.


This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.