The Manuscript Tradition and the Transition to Printing
Books were relatively scarce in the fifteenth century. Copying manuscripts by hand was laborious and costly work. A bound manuscript at that time cost as much money as an average court official received in a month. A scholar or student who was not exceptionally wealthy could only acquire books by copying them himself. In this time of scarcity, the need for books was mounting. An intellectual ferment was brewing all over Europe. In the North, religious questioning had begun that would lead to the Reformation. In Italy, the rediscovery of the pagan classics, stimulated by the stream of Greek refugees fleeing the Turks had released an excited inquiry into man's worldly self. The desire to communicate and disseminate, perhaps more than anything else, brought about the advent of printing.
Gutenberg's enterprise was the earliest response to this need. In developing the design concepts for the new printed book, Gutenberg and other printers of the period turned into what was most familiar - the manuscript tradition. The aim of the earliest printers was to turn out copies of books that the producers of manuscripts could not fill. For the first printers, printing was a way of reproducing manuscripts more quickly and more cheaply. Yet, the manuscript remained the ideal; its style and formats were closely adhered to, and types were modeled after local manuscript hands. The use of spelling, punctuation, abbreviations, and gothic and roman letter forms were drawn directly from the medieval manuscript tradition. Early printers even incorporated the use of hand-illuminated initials and capitals working with the illustrators connected to the guilds.
Eventually, the printer diminished his attachment to the manuscript tradition as the competition forced the printer to adopt new formats. Seeking to differentiate themselves from their competitors, printers sought ways to improve the printed book by developing design concepts to facilitate ease of reading. The profit motive encouraged the printer to try innovations such as printing in the vernacular, and adding title pages, pagination and a table of contents. As a testament to the practicality and rapid acceptance of the printer's achievements, scribes began incorporating these innovative ideas, and the handwritten manuscript began emulating the printed book.