Like a closed book


The printed book opened cultures to wider and deeper networks of knowledge, while at the same time reducing the wide variety of forms spawned by the book cultures before the advent of the printing press. Scholars usually refer to this as the ‘closedness’ of the printed book. A printed book is formally complete or achieved, it has a beginning and an end, a set number of pages, a title page, an end page, and it always circulates in a bound format, ‘spined’ and covered.

It’s hard to think that books can be otherwise. Yes, they can be unfinished, yes, they can be open-ended, yes, they can lack a title page and an end page, yes, they can be unbound – but they are not considered books. They may be notebooks, cahiers, loose leaves in a folder.

The printed book represents the apparently complete conquest of the written form and the dominance of one medium over all others.

Book cultures did not begin with the printed book. If anything, the printed book is an upgrade of previous forms, especially the handwritten book, the late-antique codex which really comes into its own in the medieval period to become the medieval manuscript book.

Medieval manuscripts were not closed, even though they tended to become closed as one drew closer to the 15th century. Yet, by its very nature, the medieval manuscript cannot be closed, however sophisticated a straightjacket one may trap it in.

Most books written in the medieval period never lived to find themselves bound together nicely with spine and covers. The books which survive from the 6th to the 15th century have also survived because they were bound and therefore less susceptible to damage and destruction.

A medieval manuscript book may have been written, but it was not always necessarily complete. Books were bound and rebound all the time, more leaves (multiple pages) were being added to existing quires (folded leaves). Many written works were also being updated, amended, enriched, excised, their form evolving over time, sometimes in the same binding.

The manuscript page is also more open than the printed page – but more about this in a future post.

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