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First Impressions

From Manuscript to Print

Here we explore the different types of early printed books, their features and the technology that created them. We also reveal the dramatic cultural and social changes that printing heralded, and the legacy of the 'explosion of print' today.

The fifteenth century witnessed a radical change in communications technology, every bit as transforming as the digital revolution we are living through today. The invention of movable metal type around 1450 made possible the mass-production of books, which had previously been laboriously hand-written, and therefore scarce and expensive.

Printing and the networks for distributing books across Europe led to an increase in literacy and changes in reading practices. The activity of reading and acquiring knowledge gradually broke down the monopoly that the literate elite had on learning and education. New ideas and innovative thinking started to challenge the teachings and authority of the Church and of secular rulers. In the sixteenth century printing played a crucial role in the Reformation.

On the other hand, the format and appearance of early printed books evolved only gradually. It took several decades for books to adopt the features we are used to, such as title pages, page numbers, tables of contents, etc. Printers based their typefaces on local scripts that were familiar to their readers and easy on the eye. Early books were also decorated in very similar ways to manuscripts.

We should also remember that manuscript production did not stop when Gutenberg invented printing. Scribes continued to produce deluxe manuscripts throughout the fifteenth century (a few collectors even refused to have 'common' printed books in their libraries). Within 'print culture' there has always been an under-current of manuscripts: some works weren't popular enough to justify the capital outlay required to print them; others were too dangerous to print; and sometimes authors simply did not want their works 'vulgarized' in type.

Early Printed Books

Early Printed Books

In these pages we explore many different aspects of books printed in the 15th century: various types of book...

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Technology of the Book

Technology of the Book

Early books were remarkable examples of communication technology. Here we follow the processes by which...

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The Explosion of Print

The Explosion of Print

The invention of movable metal type made possible the mass-production of books, which had previously been written...

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The Afterlife of Books

The Afterlife of Books

Traditionally bibliographers and historians of the book have focused their attention on the production of books...

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Make Your Mark

Make Your Mark

Be creative, design your very own printer's mark, like William Caxton and Aldus Manutius...

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Texts through Time

Texts through Time

Choose a fount and compose your own virtual type on screen. See how type changed through time...

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