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Erik Kwakkel, Books Before Print (Amsterdam University Press/ARC Humanities Press, 2018) EUR 34 (paperback), 105 (hardcover), 105 (ebook) (available on Biblio)

Erik Kwakkel, excellent book historian and blogger, has a new book out on the medieval manuscript as a well-engineered tool shaped by readers’ habits and desires.

This beautifully illustrated book provides an accessible introduction to the medieval manuscript and what it can tell us about the world in which it was made and used. Captured in the materiality of manuscripts are the data enabling us to make sense of the preferences and habits of the individuals who made up medieval society. With short chapters grouped under thematic headings, Books Before Print shows how we may tap into the evidence and explores how manuscripts can act as a vibrant and versatile tool to understand the deep historical roots of human interaction with written information. It highlights extraordinary continuities between medieval book culture and modern-world communication, as witnessed in medieval pop-up books, posters, speech bubbles, book advertisements,and even sticky notes.

If you are a little bit interested in the middle ages, most of the illuminated manuscripts you have seen are from the 15th and early 16th century … they are roughly contemporary with the first printed books in Europe. Fifteenth-century Europe was richer than Europe a century or two earlier, it had more rich people who could pay for lapis-lazuli blue and gold dust and silver leaf, and the styles of art are closer to our taste. Early printed books imitated manuscripts like ebooks and websites imitated hardcovers and magazines. But medieval book culture was also different than ours: big margins were fashionable, and books were meant to be memorized not read once and passed on. Specialists called codicologists and art historians know many things which sometimes get brushed over in books aimed at a larger audience.

If you work with medieval books, but didn’t get to take university courses on the subject, reading this and a few of the books in the bibliography would be an excellent idea. You can find the affordable paperback edition on Biblio.

Full Disclosure: I know the author