In our previous post, we saw how a consumer demand for highly decorated, luxury books remained in 15th Century Europe, long after the exclusive and expensive practice of copying manuscripts out by hand was replaced by the cheaper and quicker process of printing. Yet although this demand remained strong, there were still those who either couldn’t afford the costs involved in book decoration or who were far more interested in the content of books rather than their aesthetic appeal.
Late medieval printers seemed to have come up to a variety of responses to the diversity in taste and wealth that existed amongst their markets. Some chose to print texts with no decoration whatsoever (although often employing a cursive-style font to make them appear to be hand-written). Others produced books with gaps on the pages for decoration to be fitted in later on – it was then up to the customer as to how those gaps would be filled. Sometimes these gaps were filled out by the customer themselves, especially if they came from a church institution such as a monastery, where a tradition of book decoration would have remained. Others seem to have left them blank altogether. In Worcester Cathedral Library, we have an interesting range of these various styles.
Ultimately, the practice of do-it-yourself decoration would die out. Difficult to read, cursive style fonts would also be replaced by a much more user-friendly one known as humanist miniscule. First developed in 15th Century Italy from Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon predecessors, it was very similar in style to the font you are reading right now.
As printers grew more sophisticated in their work, they would begin to print decoration – with highly ornate printed initials being very common right up until the 18th Century. The idea of us today buying a new book that is in any sense incomplete (with the exception perhaps of children’s sticker books), or trying to deceive us into believing that it was hand-written, may be a strange one – but for many decades in the late 15th Century and early 16th it would have been the norm.