What are the reasons for the significant increase in manuscripts being produced during the later medieval era? Was it due to improving financial conditions, or were there technological advances that simplified production techniques?

Graph of manuscript production showing an increase from 1 million manuscripts produced in the 12th century to 5 times that number three centuries later.

I find either potential explanation not to hold much water as these increase can be witnessed even in the midst of the Black Death, or the many disasters that befell European society during the 13th century. Also manuscript production is a process that seems predicated on extensive manual labour rather than technology.

What am I missing?

  • As an unsourced guess, I'd suggest you're observing the opening stages of the Renaissance: while the period is tied to the rediscovery of arts and classics, western scientists were dutifully studying, re-importing, and spreading scientific know-how to Europe from Spain and Sicily a few centuries earlier. Sep 6 '16 at 10:17
  • @MarkC.Wallace Going from 1 million manuscripts produced in the 12th century to 5 times that number three centuries later is pretty rapid, I'd have thought.
    – Stumbler
    Sep 6 '16 at 11:51
  • @MarkC.Wallace ah yes. The data in this case is related via .png
    – Stumbler
    Sep 6 '16 at 12:02
  • 1
    I have curiosity about how this data was compiled... does it count surviving works or is it due to other measures? In the former case, that could account for a fraction of the differnce
    – SJuan76
    Sep 6 '16 at 16:03
  • Citation? What is the source of the graphic? Google image search suggests that the image is copyrighted and cannot be used without permission.
    – MCW
    Aug 19 at 12:02

I'd say it was a combination of the growing economy and population, increasing urbanization, and the appearance and spread of universities (and other forms of schooling), which meant increased literacy and thus demand for books. There were some technological changes which made books cheaper and easier to produce, such as the shift from parchment to paper1 and the pecia system2, which probably contributed as well.

A good paper looking at this issue is Buringh and van Zanden (2009).

Up until the 13th Century, an important factor was the growth in the number of monasteries (the main centers of both book production and "consumption"), which followed the growth of the population and the economy. Beginning in the 12th and 13th Centuries, the combination of increasing urbanization and the spread of universities created a new source of demand for books.

As for the Black Death, Buringh and van Zanden have this to say:

The Black Death of 1348 and the resulting decline in population levels had a complex effect on book production. In the short term, output probably declined significantly ... However, after this temporary decline, production rebounded significantly, and an even sharper increase in output began, resulting in an almost tenfold increase in the next hundred years.

1. Paper production in Europe seems to have started in Italy in the 13th Century and spread northward to other countries in the 14th Century.

2. The Pecia system essentially parallelized manuscript copying by chopping a book up into multiple parts, each of which was copied by a different scribe. The pecia system was driven by the rise of universities: it developed as a way of supplying books to the growing number of students.

  • So first off you would have to explore the process of book BINDING...or "the process by which paper was held together and thus protected and then made legible." This process as far as we know was invented in Europe around this time and remained basically unchanged until the latter half of the 20th Century (plastic covers with aluminum rings) Sep 7 '16 at 0:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.