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Teaching with Special Collections

Manuscript to Print: Understanding Historical Change and Continuity

Author: Michael Taylor, Curator of Books, LSU Libraries


When we think about history, we often think about it in terms of eras that were triggered or ended by a major event—the fall of Rome, the Russian Revolution, the invention of the steam engine, the abolition of slavery, and so on. While history is certainly full of many turning points that altered some aspects of life immediately and in a very noticeable way, historical change is generally more gradual and full of grey areas. Students beginning their study of history are often not very attentive to this, seeing the past as a patchwork quilt with little overlap between the squares. In reality, history is woven together in infinite ways, with some threads being shared by multiple (or all) eras. The world didn't wake up one day and say, "It's the Renaissance!" Instead, many elements of medieval life lingered for years (a few even remain today). Being able to see and understand the process of historical change and continuity is essential to building critical-thinking skills as well as a sense of empathy that can provide insight into why people in the past made the decisions they did. At the very least, it helps students gain a fuller understanding of how major events in history have shaped our world—what changed immediately, what took longer to change, what did not change at all?

By looking at books from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, students participating in this activity will be challenged to think about the process of historical change as it relates to the transition from manuscript culture to the world of print—one of those historical events that, in the popular imagination at least, occurred as soon as Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press. Students will hopefully build an awareness of how historians study and debate the impact of historical ideas and events.

Learning Objectives

This activity will train students to:

  • Observe and analyze similarities and differences between historical periods.
  • Think critically about the impact of major events and turning points.
  • Understand basic concepts about the nature of information and books in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
  • Visualize the impact of the invention of printing in the West.


  • Students in an intermediate to upper-level course on medieval or Renaissance history. 
  • Anyone with an interest in the history of the book.


Joshua Roll and the Peutinger Table (facsimiles)
Ethiopian Bibles (19th century codices)
Martyrology of Usuard (15th century, facsimile)
Antichrist and the Fifteen Signs (mid 15th century, facsimile)
Boethius, De consolatione philosophiae (1486)
Sermones Meffreth alias Ortulus regine de tempore (ca. 1485)
Gutenberg Bible (ca. 1455, facsimile)
Godescalc Evangelistary (8th century, facsimile)
Leonardo Bruni, Historia del popolo fiorentino (1476)
Manuscript leaf on paper (15th century), in Pages from the Past
Cicero, Paradoxa, De Amicitia, De Senectute (after 1494), scribal copy
Martialis (1501), Aldine imprint
Divine Comedy (1491, facsimile)
Martin Luther, Ein Sermon uber das Evangelion Marci (1534)
A laptop computer or iPhone

(Click links to go to catalog records and place a request to view.)


This activity uses active learning to enhance students’ observational skills and awareness of the historian's craft, and to arouse their interest in working with materials from the Middle Ages and Renaissance by giving them a hands-on experience. It is not intended to be a comprehensive introduction to the transition from manuscript to print, and you may wish to follow it up with a more thorough class lecture. 

The questions below are provided as suggestions to help your students notice common threads and differences between the materials selected and then relate them to larger historical concepts. 


Class time needed:  60 minutes. 

Place one item from the list of materials in front of each student or small group of students. Ask them to spend 1-2 minutes exploring the items and familiarizing themselves with their basic features. (This is a good time to give a quick lesson in handling archival materials.)

Begin the discussion and move from item to item by asking “Who has... ?” or “Group number three has [name of book]. Why do you think...?” 

Sample Questions

  1. Scrolls (sometimes called rolls), like the Peutinger Table and the Joshua Roll, were the main format used for written texts in ancient Greece and Rome. Imagine trying to read a text written on a scroll. Do you think it would be easy or hard? If hard, why do you think this format lasted for so long? What kinds of texts were popular in Greece and Rome that might have worked well in this format? 
  2. What are some disadvantages of scrolls? Look at the Ethiopian Bibles. This format is called a codex. Although these are from the nineteenth century, they are very similar to the first codices produced by early Christians in Rome. Think about how people use the Bible – why does this format work well?
  3. Raise your hand if you agree that the codex is a better way of recording information than the scroll. When we use the word scroll today, how do we use it? How is the scroll still very much alive today? [Computers, iPhones.] What is a form of map that people in big cities use that is very similar to the Peutinger Table? [Subway map.]
  4. Who has the Martyrology of Usuard? This is an example of a very elaborate medieval manuscript. It contains stories and pictures of the martyrdoms of the saints. How do you think a book like this would have been used? Would many people in the Middle Ages have been able to read it? Why or why not? What kind of resources were needed to produce a book like this? What kind of vocational or academic training? 
  5. Let’s keep looking at the Martyrology of Usuard. We talk about the printing revolution in the late 1400s leading to a wider audience for books and a democratization of knowledge. What is something about medieval manuscripts like the Martyrology, and even later printed books, that both limited and expanded a book’s audience? [Latin.] Does this make you see the Middle Ages, or the “explosion of print,” in a different way?
  6. Isaac Newton famously said, "If I see far, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants." In other words, people rarely come up with a revolutionary invention or concept completely on their own. Johann Gutenberg is a good example. Although he is often called “the inventor of printing,” this is not quite accurate. Some people say he was the inventor of printing with moveable type, but this isn’t true either—the Chinese were printing with movable type hundreds of years before Gutenberg. He wasn’t even the inventor of printing in Europe. Take a look at the Antichrist and the Fifteen Signs. This is what’s called a block book and is one of the earliest examples of printing in Europe. What do you notice about it? What parts are printed are what parts are not? What do you think this tells us? [Printing was gradually implemented; simple printing (pictures) preceded letterforms.]
  7. Although the printing press eventually ended the era of the medieval manuscript, early printed books ironically tried to look as much like manuscripts as possible. Take a look at the Sermones Meffreth, the Boethius, and the facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible. What similarities do you see between these and the Martyrology of Usuard or any other medieval manuscript you have seen? In the Boethius, can you find an example of how the printers expected this book would be “dressed up” like a manuscript? Look at the big red letters, called rubricated initials – can you figure out what they were used for? 
  8. Who has the facsimile of Dante’s Divine Comedy from 1490? This is a printed book. What did a previous owner decide he or she wanted the book to have? [Illustrations, painted in.] 
  9. In books today, we have things like title pages, tables of contents, and page numbers. Can you find any of these in the incunables or medieval manuscripts you’ve seen? Based on your answer, how revolutionary was the invention of printing? 
  10. Fonts are another important thing to talk about in regard to the transition from manuscript to print. The earliest printers based their fonts on the styles of handwriting that local people were used to. However, there was quickly a move toward using “humanist” typefaces like Roman and Italic, which were based on ancient letterforms and symbolized the Renaissance rediscovery of knowledge. With this in mind, how was the Gutenberg Bible conservative and a holdover from the Middle Ages? Also look at the facsimile of the Godescalc Evangelistary, a manuscript from the court of Charlemagne in the eighth century. What do you notice about its font, called Carolingian miniscule? Compare it to the humanist font you see in Leonardo Bruni’s Historia del popolo fiorentino, printed about 700 years later in 1476. Was the use of Roman letterforms in the Renaissance really a new thing?
  11. Another big difference between medieval manuscripts and early printed books that often gets pointed out is that manuscripts were written on parchment and books were printed on paper. Why do you think this was? Do you think it was always the case? Who has the fifteenth-century manuscript leaf? Is it written on parchment or paper? [Answer: paper. Also note that although we don’t have an example, books were occasionally printed on parchment.]
  12. Who has the printed sermon by Martin Luther? Compare this to the medieval manuscripts. What’s different? Why would a piece of printing like Luther’s sermon have had a wide audience? 
  13. We can’t deny that the printing press led to an “explosion of print.” But let’s look at this handwritten copy of speeches by Cicero. Known as a scribal copy, it was reproduced by hand, probably from a printed book rather than another manuscript. What were the limits of the printing revolution? How did people still use techniques from the Middle Ages when they wanted a copy of a book? [Instructor: talk about other reasons why manuscript copies were made, e.g., texts wouldn't have had enough of an audience to justify cost of printing; dangerous to print; authors didn’t want their books printed.]
  14. What aspects of medieval book culture still survive? 
  15. Think about how we use computers today. What similarities can you think of between the internet and books from the Middle Ages or Renaissance? What terminology remains the same? [Background reading for instructor: "The legacy of the explosion of print today" in From Manuscript to Print, web exhibit, University of Manchester Library.]
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