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A Revolution in Publishing

The present-day reimagining of what a book can be finds a parallel in the story of a 16th-century book of hours
July 26, 2016
Printed Book of Hours (Use of Rome)

Amy Crist Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Paper Conservation

Printed Book of Hours (Use of Rome) c. 1510. Guillaume Le Rouge (printer), Paris, France. 112 printed folios on parchment, bound. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 2009.276. Displayed is the image of a Dominican nun, folios 84v–85r.


We consumers in the 21st century have an interesting choice to make when we set out to purchase a book. Do we want the physical book consisting of ink on paper, or do we want to download it onto a Kindle? It’s been more than 500 years since readers have found themselves in the midst of such an information revolution. The museum recently acquired a book of hours, printed by Guillaume Le Rouge in Paris, circa 1510, illustrating this last major period of transition. Although this book was printed, and thus easily produced in multiples and more affordable to consumers, it was also customized with hand-applied decoration to resemble the unique, handmade manuscripts that had been the standard for hundreds of years.

By the time the Le Rouge book was printed, books of hours—prayer books created to guide the medieval layperson in daily, private devotion—had been made by hand for 300 years. All books of hours contain a section called the Little Office of the Virgin, a cycle of eight short prayers recited at defined times throughout the day. In addition to this cycle of prayers, books of hours contain a calendar listing saints’ days; selected verses of Psalms; invocations to God, the Holy Spirit, and the saints; and prayers to the deceased. This basic format could be augmented with other biblical passages or prayers to suit the owner’s specific wishes.1 The style and quality of a book of hours relate directly to the wealth and taste of the purchaser. In fact, a high level of personalization is a defining feature of books of hours. Before the advent of printing books with movable type, every book of hours was completely made by hand, and therefore easily customized.


Hand Embellishments

Hand Embellishments Folio 73r from the Le Rouge book of hours, showing extensive hand-applied embellishments in colored paints and gold


However, the concept of books made by hand should not, in this case, conjure images of a solitary monk toiling by candlelight in a monastery.2 By the time the book of hours had come into its own, books were being produced by lay specialists working in communities regulated by the universities of large urban centers. In fact, scholars often call them “medieval best sellers” because, compared to all the other types of books produced throughout the Middle Ages, books of hours were produced in the greatest numbers.3 They were presented as wedding gifts, used to teach children to read, and passed on from generation to generation.4 

The 15th-century book trade in Paris, of which Guillaume Le Rouge was eventually a member, well illustrates the way these specialized craftspeople worked together to produce manuscripts. A potential customer would visit one of the many libraires who had shops on the rue Neuve Notre-Dame, which lay in the shadow of the Notre-Dame Cathedral. A libraire was a bookseller and also something of a general contractor, organizing and subcontracting work to scribes, illuminators, and binders.5 The potential client would discuss his or her wishes with the libraire. For a book of hours, these choices included the addition of extra Bible excerpts or prayers; the style of script; the amount of decorative initials, borders, and illuminations; and the quality of materials used. 

Almost all the homes along the rue Neuve Notre-Dame were occupied by families involved in book production: libraires, parchmenters, apothecaries (who sold pigments), scribes, illuminators, binders, and eventually printers like Guillaume Le Rouge.6 These craftspeople produced manuscripts made from parchment, the skin of an animal (commonly a calf, sheep, or goat) that has been de-haired, stretched and held under tension to dry, then scraped and finished to produce a thin, soft, flexible material suitable for writing, painting, and gilding. Once the parchment was procured, folded, and cut into quires (the individual booklets of pages that form a book), a scribe would design the page layouts by impressing horizontal and vertical ruled guidelines into the pages with a sharp tool. Then the scribe would write the book using ink applied with a quill pen, copying the words from an exemplar, an official version of the text.7 After that, the quires would be passed on to the illuminators, who would add gilded and colored illustrations, decorative initials, and borders. The finished quires were then sewn together and bound by a bookbinder. Through both competition and collaboration, rue Neuve Notre-Dame became one of the most productive centers of book production in all of Europe.8

While Paris was churning out manuscript books, about 300 miles away in Mainz, Germany, Johann Gutenberg was setting up his revolutionary printing press using movable metal type. By August 1456 he had published his 42-line Bible, and it was not long before the printing revolution affected the Paris book trade.9 Within a few years, Parisian libraires were selling books printed in Germany, and by 1470 the printing press had arrived in Paris. Five years later, there were no fewer than 20 Parisian presses in operation.10 The arrival of the printing press, however, did not render the manuscript industry of the rue Neuve Notre-Dame obsolete. For decades, the production of manuscripts and printed books was intertwined because of the tightly connected communities of craftspeople involved in the book trade. 

Fittingly, the physical and aesthetic characteristics of manuscripts were emulated in early printed books, so much so that the Le Rouge Hours could easily be mistaken for a true manuscript. One important attribute that gives this book the feeling of a manuscript is its parchment, rather than paper, pages. Parchment is much more expensive than paper and a more technically difficult surface on which to print. A sheet of parchment has two distinct sides: the side that was on the outside of the animal, the “hair side,” and the side that was on the inside of the animal, the “flesh side.” Though a skilled parchmenter took great pains to create sheets with two uniform sides, except for the very finest sheets the hair side is usually harder and shinier than the flesh side. Therefore, the surfaces will not absorb ink the same way. In order to create good impressions on both sides of the sheet, a printer might adjust variables like ink consistency, press pressure, and dwell time, making the process far less efficient than it would be with paper.11 Another inherent feature of parchment that complicates printing is its uneven thickness. Again, a parchmenter would aim to make sheets of uniform thickness, but even small variations can complicate printing. As the parchment sheet meets the bed of type, the thicker areas of the sheet are the first to receive the ink and the pressure from the letters (which create the characteristic “punch” of letter-set type). In order for the ink to transfer to the thinner areas of the sheet, the type must sink further into the thicker areas, creating an uneven impression. To overcome discrepancies in surface texture and sheet thickness, a printer would sand down the skins before printing, adding a time-consuming, labor-intensive step that is unnecessary when printing on paper.12 

Another feature of the Le Rouge Hours that is imitative of manuscripts is its text, printed in both black and red ink. Letters, words, and lines of text written in red ink, or rubrics, were used to differentiate chapter headings and titles from the rest of the text, which was normally written in black or dark brown ink.13 A scribe writing a manuscript simply needed to dip a separate pen into a pot of red ink, or leave space for a rubricator to add the red letters later. Many early printed books, including the Gutenberg Bible, were printed in just one color of ink with spaces retained for rubrics to be hand applied after printing. For books where both the black and red inks are printed, like the Le Rouge Hours, each page was printed twice. The first pass through the press printed the black letters with voids left for the red letters, and then a second impression printed the red letters in the reserved spaces. 


Out of Register

Out of Register Detail of folio 95r. Note the slightly misaligned printing in two colors of ink and the horizontal and vertical printed lines meant to imitate the lines that scribes ruled to guide their handwriting.


The inscribed horizontal and vertical lines of manuscript books, impressed into the parchment by scribes to indicate page layout, must have been an important visual characteristic for the medieval reader, because an overwhelming majority of early printed books, including the Le Rouge Hours, have ersatz scribe lines printed onto each page. These lines are purely formal, having no usefulness to the printer. Like the use of parchment and two colors of ink, printing these lines added extra steps to the printing process, but perpetuated an aesthetic highly evocative of a manuscript.

Beyond these printed embellishments, the Le Rouge Hours transcends the status of a printed book because of the extensive use of paint and gold, hand-applied in the style of manuscript illumination. Every image in the Hours is fully colored, from foreground to background, using a full palette of colorful paints extensively embellished with shell gold.14 The full-page illustrations were further enhanced with elaborate, classically inspired architectural borders. In addition to the full-page illustrations, large initials were decorated with floral designs over a gold background, and small initials were painted gold over blue or red backgrounds. The practice of hand decorating printed books of hours is well known, but specimens of this quality and scope are unusual. There is not a single opening in the book that does not contain hand-applied decoration. 


One Saint Bernard, three treatments

One Saint Bernard, three treatments These three images of St. Bernard are from three different copies of the same printed book of hours by Guillaume Le Rouge. The degree to which each book is decorated influences the overall aesthetic impression.

Left to right: from the Cleveland Museum of Art; Heribert Tenschert, Bibermühle, Switzerland; and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France


Recalling the structure of the book trade in Paris, it was a natural evolution of the industry for libraires, many of whom were not only selling printed books but also working as printers or contracting with printers, to involve the services of manuscript illuminators to provide custom decoration to printed books.15 If the customer chose to purchase a printed book of hours, perhaps because it was more affordable or perhaps because of the allure of the new technology, there still remained myriad ways to customize the book in order to make a unique, personal object of devotion. Compare, for example, the image of St. Bernard from the Le Rouge Hours with those from other editions of the same book, one completely devoid of hand illumination and another illuminated by a different hand. The versions are so different from one another that, although they were printed together, they can hardly be treated as multiples. Because of the longstanding bookmaking tradition in which a libraire catered to the personal tastes of the client by subcontracting work to allied craftspeople such as illuminators and rubricators, books like the Le Rouge Hours, not quite manuscript but far more unique than a printed copy, occupy a fascinating, liminal zone in the history of the book.  



1 Robert Harthan, Books of Hours and Their Owners (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), 12–15.

2 Christopher De Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (London: Phaidon Press, 1994), 85, 186.

3 The term was coined by Dr. L. M. J. Delaissé, whose writings were posthumously published in the article “The Importance of Books of Hours for the History of the Medieval Book,” in Gatherings in Honor of Dorothy Miner, edited by L. Randall (Baltimore: Walters Art Gallery, 1974), 203–25.

4 Harthan, Books of Hours and Their Owners, 35.

5 Richard H. Rouse and Mary A. Rouse, Manuscripts and Their Makers: Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris 1200–1500 (Turnhout, Belgium: Harvey Miller, 2000), 14.

6 Ibid., 418.

7 De Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, 86.

8 Rouse and Rouse, Manuscripts and Their Makers, 15.

9 “Gutenberg, Johann.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T035756 (accessed September 21, 2009).

10 Rouse and Rouse, Manuscripts and Their Makers, 320–23.

11 Penny Jenkins, “Printing on Parchment or Vellum,” Paper Conservator 16 (1992): 37–38.

12 Ibid., 32.

13 Michelle P. Brown, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 1994), 111.

14 Shell gold is ground gold to which a binder is added and applied like a paint. Shell gold is different from gold leaf, extremely thin sheets of pure gold laid down over a prepared ground and burnished. 

15 Rouse and Rouse, Manuscripts and Their Makers, 328.


Cleveland Art, July/August 2010