The University of Manchester - The University of Manchester Library
First Impressions

Who were the readers of early printed books?

Until the invention of the printing press the audience for books was quite small. It took time for manuscript books to be written and they were often commissioned by private individuals for their own use, by clerics for use in religious services and devotions, or scholars for their private libraries and the growing universities. In the later Middle Ages commercial workshops grew up, which produced manuscripts to order.

Manuscripts and early printed books were read in a different way from books produced in later print cultures. When books were rare and only a few people were literate, most books were intended to be read aloud.

Reading was very much the preserve of the wealthy, the clergy, religious houses and academics, and books were treated as precious objects, often being listed individually in wills. This documentary evidence, together with annotations added to books by their owners, gives us information about their ownership and therefore clues about the readers of early printed books.

To an extent it is possible to gain an insight into the readers of early books by looking at what they cost. In 1470 an edition of Vergil cost two ducats, while a skilled worker earned three ducats a month, making a book a luxury purchase.

However, the invention and rapid spread of printing meant that books became available to a wider audience. In less than fifty years after the invention of the printing press, an estimated fifteen million books were flung into a world where previously scholars would have had to travel miles to visit a library stocked with twenty hand-written volumes.