Before the invention of the printing press, all documents were
written out by hand. During the Middle Ages, monasteries and religious
houses placed a particular emphasis on the production and recopying
of religious (and sometimes literary) works in scriptoria. The physical
act of writing, involving the preparation of the skins, the creation
of the ink, and the literal scratching of the words into the parchment,
was seen by religious communities as a form of morally constructive
work. Writing improved one’s soul.
As the Middle Ages reached its height, monasteries also began to have increasing pride in the size of their library collections. As members of a religious order would travel around Europe, they might copy out works that they found along their journey that were not already possessed in their house’s library.
The late-thirteenth century saw the beginning of the transferal of manuscript production from religious houses to professional scriptoria. By the late-fourteenth century multiple scriptoria were functioning in London and around the countryside, especially near university towns that had a greater need for the steady production of books.
Books compiled at such scriptoria were generally commissioned by patrons who selected the works to be included within the final manuscript and determined how much elaborate decoration to include (keeping in mind that illumination and the quality of parchment that they chose could raise the price substantially). Some cheaper versions of texts commonly taught by the university professors, however, are thought to have been kept in stock at university scriptoria. These student-quality productions were sold as unbound quires – undecorated gatherings of cheap parchment that could be compiled by the students into a book if they chose to at a later date.
But not all books were copied out and compiled by religious houses or by professional shops; manuscripts were also created by individuals who simply wanted to collect those poems, prayers, or texts that appealed to them within a miscellany or commonplace book. These manuscripts tend to be more simply rendered than those produced at larger scriptoria.