Not so Illuminated: Cheaper Versions of Medieval Printed Books

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.

Illuminated incunabulum, Worcester Cathedral Library

Illuminated initial from a Venetian printed Bible, 1478. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

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.

John Gower printed incunabulum, Worcester Cathedral Library

Page from Caxton’s 1483 edition of John Gower’s poems. Note the rubricated initials applied by hand. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

John Gower medieval print

Close up of a rubricated initial ‘O’ from Caxton’s Gower. Note how it has been over-written a recess left by the printer, together with a prompt about what letter should fill the gap. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Caxton print in Worcester Cathedral Library

Double-page spread of Caxton’s c.1478 edition of the Canterbury Tales (The Reeve’s Tale) by Geoffrey Chaucer, showing a complete lack of initials or recesses. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK),

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.

Humanist minuscule in Worcester Cathedral Library

Detail of an Italian edition of Juvenal’s Satires from 1474. Note that the recess set aside for the initial ‘S’ has not been filled at all. The font used here is humanist minuscule, and appears remarkably modern compared to Caxton’s font above. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

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.

Nuremberg Chronicle, Worcester Cathedral Library

Detail from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. Lavishly decorated, both the initials and illustrations are printed. With well over 2000 editions published, this book was one of the first to be truly mass produced. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Tom Hopkins


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