Incunabula Impact of Printing

Impact of Printing

The invention of moveable type resulted in a revolution in the literary world. Previously, books were handwritten by scribes, often monks in monasteries. The problem with handwritten books was that to make a copy of a book took almost the same amount of time as the original production. It was a labor intensive endeavor that was very time consuming.


A monk could only work in a scriptorium for approximately six hours a day, six days a week. They would almost always only work by natural light since flames were a danger to the original book as well as the copy. Weather could affect production and scribes had to continue to sharpen their quills during the day. One scribe claimed to have sharpened sixty quills at the beginning of a day so that he would be prepared for his work.


With the rise of universities, more texts were needed by scholars and students. This led to the pecia system of copying. A stationer would possess a portfolio of book exemplars divided into sections. These exemplars were then rented out to students and scribes to make copies. This way a student could make his own copy of the text during the week he had the exemplar or a professional scribe would make copies to sell to wealthier students or teachers.

Production by Scribes

It could take a scribe a year or two to copy a large book like an entire bible. Therefore, books were very valuable with collections and libraries growing very slowly. For example, Exeter Cathedral’s collection of books only increased from five books in 1050 to 66 books in 1072 (66 books in 22 years; three books a year). Reading Abbey had over 300 books produced between 1121 and the late twelfth century (less than four books a year). When Cosimo de Medici (1389-1464) was building his library, he employed 45 scribes for twenty-two months to produce 200 volumes (about 2.5 books a year per scribe).

Book of Hours

Production by Printing

With the invention of movable type in printing, books could be produced much more quickly. Although a scribe might only copy a page or two an hour, a typesetter could set type at about 1000 letters per hour. Where scribes could only work six hours a day, printers could work 12-14 hours a day and produce up to 600 folio pages during that period. Early printers would often produce 250 to 300 books per edition and this would increase to editions of 500 books or more as demand grew. It has been estimated that there were perhaps 30,000 books in all of Europe before Gutenberg printed his Bible but by 1500 there were as many as ten to twelve million books in print.

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