February 24, 2017

An illuminated medieval manuscript. Credit: ~W~ / Flickr Creative Commons

If you picked up an illuminated manuscript from the 14th century, you’d probably have a tough time reading it. It would be in Latin, and it would have all these weird paintings in the margin. But, the idea of the book - letters preserved on some sort of paper - hasn’t changed all that much. Keith Houston, author of The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, is here to tell its story.

Three Takeaways:

  • Ancient Egypt valued its libraries. REALLY valued its libraries. According to Houston, “At one point, the king of Pergamon tried to poach the head librarian from the library of Alexandria, so the Ptolemys [who ruled Egypt from about 300 to 30 BC] had him clapped in irons, so he couldn’t respond to the job offer.” 
  • Papercuts are pretty bad, but at least you don’t have to see calf veins. In the Middle Ages, vellum, which was made from calf skin, was the writing material of choice. And yes, that means you could see calf veins. 
  • The function of the book hasn’t changed all that much, but the technology to make it sure has. In the industrial revolution, the processes behind making books was mechanized, which led to much cheaper books, sometimes called “penny dreadfuls” (because they were considered trashy or low-class). 

More Reading:

Culture, Keith Houston, Kara Miller

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