07 October 2014

Before the printing press

Things began to change in the late eleventh century, with the rise of universities, the European rediscovery of the knowledge of the ancients (in part through exchanges with the Islamic world, which had preserved and extended it), greater trade, and rising literacy. Demand for books began to pick up. The introduction to Europe of paper, a Chinese invention, by the Arabs in the twelfth century provided a cheaper and more readily available alternative to parchment. The slow, painstaking approach of the scriptoria could turn out the small number of books needed by the church but could not meet the rising demand for non-religious texts. As a result, universities succeeded monasteries as the main centres of book production and copying. But the expense and difficulty of copying meant that a typical university library in Europe had a very limited selection of books. In 1424, for example, the library at the University of Cambridge in England had just 122 volumes. Students would listen to a lecturer as he read from a single copy of a book, adding his own explanations as he went. Without their own copies to consult, they would rely on their own notes, or on notes taken by previous generations of students passed from hand to hand.

- Tom Standage, Writing on the Wall: Social media - the first 2000 years, London, 2013, p.49

See also:
History: The dangerous fruits of a discontented mind, 5 April 2014
History: The reputation of Queen Aelfthryth, 4 March 2014
History: Coach travel from London, 4 October 2013
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