Moving from Manuscript to Print

Books from the early days of printing bear witness to the unique period when the printing press was supplanting the centuries-long manuscript tradition as the primary means of transmitting texts.

One underappreciated way that early printed books are indebted to manuscripts is their typefaces, many of which are based on contemporary manuscript hands. Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), the illustrious Venetian printer, was a pioneer in this respect. He employed the Bolognese type-designer Francesco Griffo, who developed what we now know as italic type from “cancelleresca corsiva,” the papal chancellery hand. Aldus popularized Griffo’s italic type by using it in his popular pocket-size affordably-priced editions of the Latin classics because it saved space (only later did italic type come to be used as an emphatic font, as it is today). Aldus’s printer’s device of a dolphin wound around an anchor is represented on one of the colorful banners of printers’ and publishers’ devices on the first floor of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Davis Library.

In Epistolas Ciceronis ad Atticum, Pauli Manutii commentarius / PA6299 .M3 1557

Another visible way that books may reveal their debt to manuscripts is their bindings, like the 1557 Aldine imprint pictured above. The damage to the book’s spine reveals that it was reinforced with manuscript waste—handwritten texts, often on vellum, which were commonly used to strengthen the interior structure of books. Usually, these were manuscripts or scraps lying around a printer’s shop. “Vellum was such a valuable material that even material with writing on it was often used to reinforce the interior structure of books,” said Jan Paris, UNC’s Conservator for Special Collections. Sometimes, manuscript waste was used to bind the outside of books, but more often it was hidden in the structure, visible only when the outermost binding was damaged.

The book pictured above, which recently came to the attention of a Rare Books staff member, is a product of this period of transition from manuscripts to printed books. It is a 1557 Aldine imprint, by Aldus’s son Paulus Manutius, who assumed control of his father’s press in 1533 after it had been managed by his uncles, the Asolani, following Aldus Manutius the Elder’s death in 1515. Paulus Manutius was an avid Latinist, especially devoted to Cicero. This imprint is a reminder of Aldus, a pioneer in typefaces derived from manuscript hands, even as it is a reminder of the more concrete ways in which early books relied on their manuscript predecessors.

Spine detail / PA6299 .M3 1557

Our curiosity was piqued by the manuscript waste on the spine. What was the text? UNC Professor of Classics and paleographer Bob Babcock determined that the manuscript is written in a fourteenth-century Italian Gothic hand. The text is religious—the third line mentions “Isaias,” or Isaiah—but is difficult to identify because such a small section is visible. Careful peeking down the spine and on the corners where the binding has been torn away shows more manuscript writing in what appears to be the same hand.


Occasionally, modern-day conservators find valuable manuscript or printed sources in the bindings of early books. When UNC acquired its first millionth volume in 1960, a 1483 imprint of John Gower’s Confessio amantis by William Caxton, the first British printer, further study of the volume revealed a second Gower imprint—a 1481 indulgence of Pope Sixtus IV that had been used to reinforce the binding. A binder removed the indulgence and restored the binding in 1975.

This spring, Cataloging Librarian Barbara Tysinger made another discovery when she noticed the manuscript fragment binding of Johann Wittich’s 1589 book Bericht von den wunderbaren bezoardischen Steinen (“Report of the wonderful bezoar stones”). Professor Babcock and other campus experts determined the fragment contains part of the Apocryphal book of Judith from a twelfth century lectionary. An additional fifteenth century manuscript, from Albertus Magnus’s De animalibus lies mostly obscured beneath the lectionary fragment.

All this reminds us that the Manuscript Road Trip is in the South and will be visiting Chapel Hill soon.