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The History of Books

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BOOK, the common name for any literary production of some bulk, now applied particularly to a printed composition forming a volume, or, if in more than one volume, a single organic literary work. The word is also used descriptively for the internal divisions or sections of a comprehensive work.

The word “book” is found with variations of form and gender in all the Teutonic languages, the original form postulated for it being a strong feminine Bôks, which must have been used in the sense of a writing-tablet. The most obvious connexion of this is with the old English bóc, a beech tree, and though this is not free from philological difficulties, no probable alternative has been suggested.

As early as 2400 b.c., in Babylonia, legal decisions, revenue accounts, &c. were inscribed in cuneiform characters on clay tablets and placed in jars, arranged on shelves and labelled by clay tablets attached by straws. In the 7th century b.c. a library of literary works written on such tablets existed at Nineveh, founded by Sargan (721-705 b.c.). As in the case of the “Creation” series at the British Museum the narrative was sometimes continued from one tablet to another, and some of the tablets are inscribed with entries forming a catalogue of the library. These clay tablets are perhaps entitled to be called books, but they are out of the direct ancestry of the modern printed book with which we are here chiefly concerned. One of the earliest direct ancestors of this extant is a roll of eighteen columns in Egyptian hieratic writing of about the 25th century b.c. in the Musée de Louvre at Paris, preserving the maxims of Ptah-hetep. Papyrus, the material on which the manuscript (known as the Papyrus Prisse) is written, was made from the pith of a reed chiefly found in Egypt, and is believed to have been in use as a writing material as early as about 4000 b.c. It continued to be the usual vehicle of writing until the early centuries of the Christian era, was used for pontifical bulls until a.d. 1022, and occasionally even later; while in Coptic manuscripts, for which its use had been revived in the 7th century, it was employed as late as about a.d. 1250. It was from the name by which they called the papyrus, β?βλος or β?βλος, that the Greeks formed βιβλ?ον, their word for a book, the plural of which (mistaken for a feminine singular) has given us our own word Bible. In the 2nd century b.c. Eumenes II., king of Pergamus, finding papyrus hard to procure, introduced improvements into the preparations of the skins of sheep and calves for writing purposes, and was rewarded by the name of his kingdom being preserved in the word pergamentum, whence our “parchment,” by which the dressed material is known. In the 10th century the supremacy which parchment had gradually established was attacked by the introduction from the East of a new writing material made from a pulp of linen rags, and the name of the vanquished papyrus was transferred to this new rival. Paper-mills were set up in Europe in the 12th century, and the use of paper gained ground, though not very rapidly, until on the invention of printing, the demand for a cheap material for books, and the ease with which paper could be worked on a press, gave it a practical monopoly. This it preserved until nearly the end of the 19th century, when substances mainly composed of wood-pulp, esparto grass and clay largely took its place, while continuing, as in the transition from papyrus to linen-pulp, to pass under the same name.

So long as the use of papyrus was predominant the usual form of a book was that of the volumen or roll, wound round a stick, or sticks. The modern form of book, called by the Latins codex (a word originally used for the stump of a tree, or block of wood, and thence for the three-leaved tablets into which the block was sawn) was coming into fashion in Martial’s time at Rome, and gained ground in proportion as parchment superseded papyrus. The volumen as it was unrolled revealed a series of narrow columns of writing, and the influence of this arrangement is seen in the number of columns in the earliest codices. Thus in the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus of the Bible, both of the 4th century, there are respectively four and three columns to a page; in the Codex Alexandrinus (5th century) only two; in the Codex Bezae (6th century) only one, and from this date to the invention of printing, while there were great changes in handwriting, the arrangement of books changed very little, single or double columns being used as was found convenient. In the external form of books there was much the same conservatism. In the Codex Amiatinus written in England in the 8th century one of the miniatures shows a book in a red leather cover, and the arrangement of the pattern on this curiously resembles that of the 15th-century red leather bindings predominant in the Biblioteca Laurenziana at Florence, in which the codex itself is preserved. In the same way some of the small stamps used in Oxford bindings in the 15th century are nearly indistinguishable from those used in England three centuries earlier. Much fuller details as to the history of written books in these as well as other respects will be found in the article Manuscript, to which the following account of the fortunes of books after the invention of printing must be regarded as supplementary.

Between a manuscript written in a formal book-hand and an early printed copy of the same work, printed in the same district as the manuscript had been written, the difference in general appearance was very slight. The printer’s type would as a rule be based on a handwriting considered by the scribes appropriate to works of the same class; the chapter headings, headlines, initial-letters, paragraph marks, and in some cases illustrations, would be added by hand in a style which might closely resemble the like decorations in the manuscript from which the text was being printed; there would be no title-page, and very probably no statement of any kind that the book was printed, or as to where, when or by whom it was produced. Information as to these points, if given at all, was reserved for a paragraph at the end of the book, called by bibliographers a colophon (q.v.), to which the printer often attached a device consisting of his arms, or those of the town in which he worked, or a fanciful design. These devices are sometimes beautiful and often take the place of a statement of the printer’s name. Many facsimiles or copies of them have been published. The first dated title-page known is a nine-line paragraph on an otherwise blank page giving the title of the book, Sermo ad populum predicabilis in festo presentacionis Beatissime Marie Semper Virginis, with some words in its praise, the date 1470 in roman numerals, and a reference to further information on the next page. The book in which this title-page occurs was printed by Arnold ther Hoernen at Cologne. Six years later Erhard Ratdolt and his partners at Venice printed their names and the date, together with some verses describing the book, on the title-page of a Latin calendar, and surrounded the whole with a border in four pieces. For another twenty years, however, when title-pages were used at all, they usually consisted merely of the short title of the book, with sometimes a woodcut or the printer’s (subsequently the publisher’s) device beneath it, decoration being more often bestowed on the first page of text, which was sometimes surrounded by an ornamental border. Title-pages completed by the addition of the name and address of printer or publisher, and also by the date, did not become common till about 1520.

While the development of the title-page was thus slow the completion of the book, independently of handwork, in other respects was fairly rapid. Printed illustrations appear first in the form of rude woodcuts in some small books produced at Bamberg by Albrecht Pfister about 1461. Pagination and headlines were first used by ther Hoernen at Cologne in 1470 and 1471; printed signatures to guide binders in arranging the quires correctly by Johann Koelhoff, also at Cologne in 1472. Illustrations abound in the books printed at Augsburg in the early ’seventies, and in the ’eighties are common in Germany, France and the Low Countries, while in Italy their full development dated from about 1490. Experiments were made in both Italy and France with illustrations engraved on copper, but in the 15th century these met with no success.

Bound with wooden boards covered with stamped leather, or with half of the boards left uncovered, many of the earliest printed books are immensely large and heavy, especially the great choir-books, the Bibles and the Biblical and legal commentaries, in which a great mass of notes surrounds the text. The paper on which these large books were printed was also extraordinarily thick and strong. For more popular books small folio was at first a favourite size, but towards the end of the century small thin quartos were much in vogue. Psalters, books of hours, and other prayer-books were practically the only very small books in use. Owing to changes, not only in the value of money but in the coinage, the cost of books in the 15th century is extremely difficult to ascertain. A vellum copy of the first printed Bible (Mainz, c. 1455) in two large folio volumes, when rubricated and illuminated, is said to have been worth 100 florins. In 1467 the bishop of Aleria writing to Pope Paul II. speaks of the introduction of printing having reduced prices to one-fifth of what they had previously been. Fifteen “Legends” bequeathed by Caxton to St Margaret’s, Westminster, were sold at prices varying from 6s. 8d. to 5s. This would be cheap for a large work like the Golden Legend, but the bequest was more probably of copies of the Sarum Legenda, or Lectionary, a much smaller book.

16th Century.—The popularization of the small octavo by Aldus at Venice in 1501 and the introduction in these handy books of a new type, the italic, had far-reaching consequences. Italics grew steadily in favour during the greater part of the century, and about 1570 had almost become the standard vernacular type of Italy. In France also they were very popular, the attempt to introduce a rival French cursive type (lettres de civilité) attaining no success. In England they gained only slight popularity, but roman type, which had not been used at all in the 15th century, made steady progress in its contest with black letter, which by the end of the century was little used save for Bibles and proclamations. The modern practice in the use of i and j, u and v dates from about 1580, though not firmly established till the reign of Charles I.

In the second quarter of the 16th century the French printers at Paris and Lyons halved the size of the Aldine octavos in their small sextodecimos, which found a ready market, though not a lasting one, the printers of Antwerp and Leiden ousting them with still smaller books in 24mo or small twelves. These little books were printed on paper much thinner than had previously been used. The size and weight of books was also reduced by the substitution of pasteboards for wooden sides. Gold tooling came into use on bindings, and in the second half of the century very elaborate decoration was in vogue in France until checked by a sumptuary law. On the other hand a steady decline in the quality of paper combined with the abandonment of the old simple outline woodcuts for much more ambitious designs made it increasingly difficult for printers to do justice to the artists’ work, and woodcuts, at first in the Low Countries and afterwards in England and elsewhere, were gradually superseded by copper-plates printed separately from the text. At the beginning of this century in England a ballad or Christmas carol sold for a halfpenny and thin quarto chapbooks for 4d. (a price which lasted through the century), the Great Bible of 1541 was priced at 10s. in sheets and 12s. bound, Edward VI.’s prayer-book (1549) at 2s. 2d. unbound, and 3s. 8d. in paste or boards; Sidney’s Arcadia and other works in 1598 sold for 9s.

17th Century.—Although the miniature editions issued by the Elzevirs at Leiden, especially those published about 1635, have attracted collectors, printing in the 17th century was at its worst, reaching its lowest depths in England in the second quarter. After this there was a steady improvement, partly due to slight modifications of the old printing presses, adopted first in Holland and copied by the English printers. In the first half of the century many English books, although poorly printed, were ornamented with attractive frontispieces, or portraits, engraved on copper. During the same period, English prayer-books and small Bibles and New Testaments were frequently covered with gay embroideries in coloured silks and gold or silver thread. In the second half of the century the leather bindings of Samuel Mearne, to some extent imitated from those of the great French binder Le Gascon, were the daintiest England had yet produced. For trade bindings rough calf and sheepskin were most used, and the practice of lettering books on the back, instead of on the sides or fore-edges or not at all, came gradually into favour. Owing to the increase of money, and in some cases to the action of monopolists, in others to the increased payments made to authors, book-prices rather rose than fell. Thus church Bibles, which had been sold at 10s. in 1541, rose successively to 25s., 30s. and (in 1641) to 40s. Single plays in quarto cost 6d. each in Shakespeare’s time, 1s. after the Restoration. The Shakespeare folio of 1623 is said to have been published at £1. Bishop Walton’s polyglot Bible in six large volumes was sold for £10 to subscribers, but resulted in a heavy loss. Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler was priced at 1s. 6d. in sheepskin, Paradise Lost at 3s.,The Pilgrim’s Progress at 1s. 6d.; Dryden’s Virgil was published by subscription at £5:5s. It was a handsome book, ornamented with plates; but in the case of this and other subscription books a desire to honour or befriend the author was mainly responsible for the high price.

18th Century.—During this century there was a notable improvement alike in paper, type and presswork in both France and England, and towards the end of the century in Germany and Italy also. Books became generally neat and sometimes elegant. Book-illustration revived with the Frenchlivres-à-vignettes, and English books were illustrated by Gravelot and other French artists. In the last quarter of the century the work of Bewick heralded a great revival in woodcut illustrations, or as the use of the graver now entitled them to be called, wood engravings. The best 18th-century binders, until the advent of Roger Payne, were inferior to those of the 17th century, but the technique of the average work was better. In trade bindings the use of sheepskin and calf became much less common, and books were mostly cased in paper boards. The practice of publishing poetry by subscription at a very high price, which Dryden had found lucrative, was followed by Prior and Pope. Single poems by Pope, however, were sold at 1s. and 1s. 6d. Novels were mostly in several volumes. The price at the beginning of the century was mostly 1s. 6d. each. It then remained fairly steady for many years, and at the close of the century rose again. Thus Miss Burney’s Evelina (3 vols., 1778) sold for 7s. 5d., her Cecilia (5 vols., 1782) for 12s. 6d., and her Camilla (5 vols., 1796) for £1:1s. Johnson’s Dictionary (2 vols. folio, 1755) cost £4 : 4s. in sheets, £4 : 15s. in boards.

19th Century.—great change in the appearance of books was caused by the use first of glazed calico (about 1820), afterwards (about 1830) of cloth for the cases of books as issued by their publishers. At first the lettering was printed on paper labels, but soon it was stamped in gilt on the cloth, and in the last quarter of the century many very beautiful covers were designed for English and American books. The designs for leather bindings were for many years chiefly imitated from older work, but towards the end of the ’eighties much greater originality began to be shown. Book illustrations passed through many phases. As subsidiary methods colour-prints, line engravings, lithographs and etchings were all used during the first half of the century, but the main reliance was on wood-engraving, in which extraordinary technical skill was developed. In the ’sixties and the years which immediately preceded and followed them many of the chief English artists supplied the engravers with drawings. In the last decade of the century wood-engraving was practically killed by the perfection attained by photographic methods of reproduction, the most popular of these methods entailing the use of paper heavily coated with china clay. During the century trade-printing, both in England and America, steadily improved, and the work done by William Morris at his Kelmscott Press (1891-1896), and by other amateur printers who imitated him, set a new standard of beauty of type and ornament, and of richness of general effect. On the other hand the demand for cheap reprints of famous works induced by the immense extension of the reading public was supplied by scores of pretty if flimsy editions at 1s. 6d. and 1s. and even less. The problem of how to produce books at moderate prices on good paper and well sewn, was left for the 20th century to settle. About 1894 the number of such medium-priced books was greatly increased in England by the substitution of single-volume novels at 6s. each (subject to discount) for the three-volume editions at 31s. 6d. The preposterous price of 10s. 6d. a volume had been adopted during the first popularity of the Waverly Novels, and despite the example of France, where the standard price was 3 fr. 50, had continued in force for the greater part of the century. Even after novels were sold at reasonable rates artificial prices were maintained for books of travel and biographies, so that the circulating libraries were practically the only customers for the first editions. 

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