Most of us have learned about the creation of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg when we were in school. However, is that really the beginning of published works? Johannes Gutenberg didn't invent the printing press until 1440-50, so how were books and other works published before the printing press?
Before the invention of writing, information and stories were shared through word-of-mouth or oral telling. You might associate the concept with the children's game of "telephone" or plain old gossiping. However, this was once the best was to communicate. Some people's primary jobs were to orally communicate with others, they were known as bards and criers. A bard was a story teller while a crier, usually working for and under the protection of the king, would shout out the news for all to hear.
The earliest known written works consisted of cuneiform characters, wedge shaped characters, carved onto clay tablets roughly five inches in length. These were used by the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hittites. A scribe would use a stylus to carve characters into the clay while it was still wet. Once the characters were formed and the tablet complete, it would be baked in a kiln, a large oven used for baking clay, or left out in the sun to dry.
Once Aramaic language, and the alphebet, grew in popularity during the 6th century B. C., the papyrus roll became a more popular option.
The papyrus roll originated in Ancient Egypt and resembled paper. The papyrus is a reedy plant that grows in the Nile Valley. Strips of papyrus pith were pulled from the plant and laid out at right angles from each other before being glued together. The roll closely resembled paper, was cream colored, and was used with ink and either a reed pen or a brush. Due to the fragile nature on the papyrus roll, many scrolls were destroyed over time, however, some were preserved in dryer climates.
The Chinese were the third to produce an extensive amount of written works. It is believed that the Chinese were producing books as early as 1300 B. C. Their books were constructed of wood and bamboo strips, bound together using cords.
The Greeks also used the papyrus roll and passed their knowledge and techniques to the Romans. Alexander the Great played a pivotal role in establishing books in the Greek culture. He also played a monumental role in the developement of the first libraries, including the Library of Alexandria. Unfortunately, the majority of Greek texts presumed to have been in the Library of Alexandria were destroyed. School texts survived best due to their wide disbursement throughout the land.
The Romans built libraries similar to those of the Greeks, but they kept manscripts written in both Greek and Latin. They progressed beyond libraries by developing the book trade and inventing bookshops.
Book ownership quickly spread throughout the upper classes of society. Having a private library became a badge of social standing. The bigger your collection, the higher your station.
The Romans needed a way to produce a vast amount of books quickly in order to meet the rise in demand. They utilized slave labor in order to produce multiple copies at a time. It also helped to lower the costs so that families of a more moderate income were able to purchase books. Slave copiests would have a book dictated to them; this allowed publishers to turn out up to 30 copies at a time.
The publishers also had the choice of what to publish. By being able to choose, they were able to pay authors, choose size and format, and set sales prices to turn a profit.
After the papyrus roll came the Codex, during the Christian era. The Codex construction more closely resembled our modern books and quickly replaced the papyrus roll. A codex consisted of leaves that were folded and bound together on one side. This allowed readers to more easily locate their spot and allowed both sides of the leaf to be written on. This also allowed for longer works to be published. For instance, when using the papyrus roll, the book of Matthew from the New Testament took an entire roll, while the codex could hold the first four books of the New Testament.
As the codex grew in popularity, a search for better materials began. This is when vellum and parchment entered the scene. Vellum is ultimately a finer version of parchment. Parchment is a form of leather, a greatly refined form of leather, made from cattle, goat, or sheep skin; vellum was usually made from calf skin. The skin would be stretched tight using a frame and scraped to remove any hair or flesh still attached to the skin. When the skin was ready, it would be whitened using chalk and smoothed using a pumice stone.
Now it was ready to be cut into large sheets. Vellum and parchment were more flexible and durable than papyrus and could be cut into larger sheets. Unlike papyrus, it could also be written on both sides. Despite its advantages, the codex and the papyrus roll co-existed for approximately 400 years.
The fall of the roman Empire in the 5th century brought with it great consequences for the world of books. Marauders and barbarians became a common part of life and they threatened the very existence of the written word. Thankfully, a refuge rose up in the form of monasteries.
Monasteries quickly gained charge of books. They both created and housed books in their own libraries. Due to the large amount of books being stored there, it became impossible to copy the books once the sun went down because of the increased risk of fires. This fact slowed the production of books considerably.
The medieval books, like the ones stored in the various monasteries, were in codex form and utilized either vellum or parchment. However, by the 5th century, paper was also a common medium. Medieval books were reknowned for their beautiful, intricate illustrations which were also considered to have perfect coloring. The medieval books were also the original model for our current books.
During the 12th century, universities arose in the larger cities and helped to increase the production of books by hiring stationers to help meet the rise in demand. They also regulated the content, size, and price of the books that they printed.
Humanistic and vernacular books also rose in demand, increasing an interest in classical literature amoung the common people. Vernacular literature is any book written in the language of the common peoples. These stories arose during the medieval era, mostly by word of mouth and anonymous authors. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the vernacular books became much more common, many of the anonymous authors finally making it into print, and new authors writing for the first time.
With the rise of vernacular literature, the education level of the lower classes also rose. Books soon became known as a tradeable item and paper began to replace vellum.
"history of publishing".Encyclopdia Britannica. Encyclopdia Britannica Online.
Encyclopdia Britannica Inc., 2017. Web. 21 May. 2017
Stephanie Tiner loves all things writing. After struggling to learn how to read as a child, Stephanie eventually found her way and fell in love with the written word. The first book she read from cover to cover without help was "Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare. After falling in love with reading, she quickly fell in love with writine. Stephanie Tiner lives with her husband, children, and her dog in Missouri and hopes to someday be a published author.
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