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History of Printing Technology

Selection of Archives & Special Collections materials that illustrate the history of printing technology. Originally created for Professor Aoki's ARTS 36 class.

Overview of Era


Manuscript literally means "written with the hand," and in the western tradition, manuscripts are hand-written on parchment or vellum, which is untanned animal skin. When discussing manuscripts from this era, the iconic medieval manuscript from Western Europe and the British Isles written in Latin and associated with the spread of Christianity most commonly comes to mind, although there are many examples of early manuscripts from the Middle East and Asia, such as the gold-lettered manuscripts on black burnished paper from Tibet (see blog post link below). The conception of the medieval manuscript is also bound up with the image of male scribes in monasteries, although recent evidence has been discovered to show there were female scribes as well.

The most important aspects of manuscripts as defined here are the use of parchment and the use of specific materials and tools to write on the parchment. Parchment and vellum are made by soaking an animal skin in an alkaline bath usually with the mineral lime, then the skin is stretched, scraped, and dried. Vellum is made from calf skin while parchment is commonly made from goat or sheep skin. Scribes wrote with quills made from duck or geese feathers that were likewise soaked and placed in heated sand to firm them up; the feathers were removed and a nib for writing cut into the tip. Black ink was made from a mixture involving oak galls, and a variety of colored inks were made from other minerals such as lapis lazuli for blue and cinnabar for orange. Illumination was done with gold leaf most often, although some illumination was also done with silver and platinum.

Read all about medieval manuscript production in the Western tradition courtesy of the British Library:

Watch a 4 minute video from the BBC about a modern parchment maker that uses the same techniques as medieval people did:

View a Twitter thread about one medieval manuscript scholar's project making black ink just as medieval scribes did:

Read about Tibetan manuscript production and woodblock printing in the Eastern tradition:

SCU Library Resources

The following items are available to consult in the Archives & Special Collections reading room on the 3rd floor of the library. Email to arrange an appointment.

Resources not at SCU