The value of time

There were only a few commodities more expensive to buy than a book in the medieval period. You could buy a horse or a mail coat for more than what you’d spend on an average bound book, but not much else. Buying an education was even more costly. In the 14th century, a year spent in a monastery school in England cost as much as buying a cottage. A degree at Oxford was one of the most costly things you could buy in late-medieval England outside real estate, political or ecclesiastical offices or military services.

Medieval books were wildly expensive to make, required time and were extremely valuable. Making a book was closer to the work of a jeweller than to that of an intellectual.

Medieval books were made from scratch. Ink was made from scratch. Parchment was made from scratch. Pens were made from scratch. Bindings were made from scratch. And it all required an awful lot of time.

It became clear to anyone producing books in the medieval period that the way forward was to reduce the time it took to make it. Scribes understood this and found ways to reduce the time it took them to write. New scripts were developed that enabled scribes to gain a few seconds for each word, a few minutes each line, a few hours each page – the progress was astonishing. New strategies were found to distribute the work of copying a text to several scribes working on the same section of the book at the same time. Parallel copying replaced serial reproduction.

Skills and technology may be infinite, but time is not. And in bookmaking as in other areas of production, time was identified as the target of innovation and improvement. Gutenberg’s printing press was a breakthrough response to centuries of innovation in writing, bookmaking and engraving.

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