Medieval Manuscripts Collection

Timeline of the History of the Western Book to 1500

by Michael Knies

3000 — 1000 BC
Tree-bark and then clay tablets used as writing surfaces in the Ancient Near East.
200 BC
Invention of parchment (writing surface made from animal skin).
3000 BC — 300 AD
Papyrus rolls served as the primary form of reading material in Egypt and then the Mediterranean world. Papyrus, primarily grown in Egypt, was sliced and glued to form sheets. Papyrus continued to be used for centuries but declined in popularity. Likewise, parchment rolls were used for specific applications throughout the Middle Ages.
84 AD
First mention of a codex book (pages bound between covers) in Roman literature.
220 AD
Codex book an accepted form of book in Roman society, but only popular with Christians.
300 — 450 AD
Codex book becomes dominant form, primarily due to use by Christians.
500 — 1200 AD
Book production primarily in scriptoria in monasteries.
1200 — 1470 AD
Book production primarily affiliated with universities. Pecia system (pieces of books rented to students, and others, for copying). Some independent commercial production and high-volume "assembly-line" book production during the late 1300s and 1400s.
1200 — 1300 AD
Paper becomes commonly available in Western Europe (invented in China around 100 AD).
1454 — 1456 AD
Gutenberg Bible. Gutenberg combined a screw press, newly invented ink, and metal type to print a Bible and demonstrate that the mechanical production of books was technologically feasible and cost-effective, although he went bankrupt. Gutenberg has traditionally been credited with inventing a reusable metal mold for the creation of individual letters. New evidence, based on letter size and shape variations, suggests that he possibly used a sand mold that could not be reused. Consequently, the inventor of the reusable metal mold is once again a mystery. But some scholars contend that the variations in letter size and shape can be attributed the experimental nature of his early reusable mold and to paper size fluctuations caused by environmental factors over the centuries and that Gutenberg did employ a reusable metal mold. (Chinese printing around 1000 AD)
1455 — 1475 AD
Creation of reusable metal mold used to produce individual pieces of type.
1475 — 1550 AD
Introduction of illustrations, title pages, indexes, and compact format "pocketbooks."

By 1550 the book had taken on the all the features that are still part of the books that we use.

The following is a very rough approximation and is not to be taken as authoritative. However, some scholars have compared the productivity of manuscript production to printing as follows. A productive scribe could produce about 1000 manuscript pages per year. A 20 person print shop could produce around 5,000,000 pages per year in 1500. Consequently, the individual print shop worker, as part of the team, produced about 250,000 pages per year. The price of books dropped dramatically.

As a result of this dramatic decrease in the price of publication, published material spread rapidly throughout Europe. Scholars were able to exchange ideas based on their comparisons of the same texts. Martin Luther's writings, originally intended for a private theological discussion within the church, were printed and rapidly spread through northern Europe helping to ignite the reformation.