The Evolution of the Book in Medieval and Renaissance Society


The Renaissance, which spanned from the 1400s until the 1600s, along with being an unprecedented leap forward in arts and intellectualism, was a time of great literary advancement. There were numerous ways in which the processes of writing, printing, and thinking were profoundly changed during this time of academic and artistic flourishing. Scientific and literary advancements helped usher in a new period of enlightenment. Highlighting the most important changes in Renaissance and Medieval society, we hope that the following serves a comprehensive list of how the written word evolved during this time of cultural explosion.

Key Dates
382- Vulgate Bible: Biblical texts that were translated to Latin

1400s- literature was published in folios and quartos

1410- Statue “Ex officio” declared that books must not contradict the Holy Church

1473- Caxton printing The History of Troy in Germany, the first book printed book to exist in England

1476- The first printing was done in England

1538- Licensing of books began

1525- Bible was translated into English as a result of the Reformation

1557- Geneva Bible was published

Manuscripts and Censorship
Before the invention of the printing press, the work that went into making a book was considerably more strenuous. In order to begin the writing process, ink had to be mixed by hand. The pages for books were also hand-made from animal hides and sewn together. Artists often embellished manuscripts with illustrations, carvings, or jewels, and these books were “treasured as works of art” throughout the fifteenth century (The Department of Medieval Art). These artists were called illuminators, and some of the most prestigious were the Limbourg brothers who impressively “combined elegant, sinuous figure, decrotive color, and selective realism in pictoral details” (Jones, Department of Art). Phillip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy had a taste for expensive illuminated manuscript and housed an extensive library that held a thousand titles at the time of his death (Jones, Department of Art).

The Art of Illumination. Thomas P. Campbell (Director) and Timothy B. Husband (Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters) discuss Herman, Paul, and Jean Limbourg’s Belles Heures of Jean of France, Duc of Berry (54.1.1) (2010).

Literature was written by hand by authors and poets into manuscripts that circulated among readers, who would would then copy down the poems and stories they particularly liked and incorporate them into anthologies. Early bookmakers were often monks who kept libraries filled with religious works. By the twelfth century, the Renaissance, “an urban bookseller coordinated the various stages of production” (The Department of Medieval Art). This bookseller was called a librarie. Writers sold their manuscripts for very low prices. There were also no copyright laws, and writers were not paid for the sales of their books; therefore it was difficult to make a living as a writer. St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was the center of business for books; publishers posted title pages of new books as advertisements. (Norton 547). Though the popularity of the printed book was escalating, some rulers and aristocrats preferred to continue commissioning “books of hours for private devotion” (Jones, Department of Art) As Universities emerged in Europe, single-volume bibles, books of law, and other works that left wide margins for notes and commentary were in high demand (The Department of Medieval Art).

The control and censorship of books was poorly organized, though licensing efforts had been put forth since 1538. (Norton 547). Prior to 1538, the Act of Parliment of 1410 known as Statue “Ex officio” decreed that all books must not be written “contrary to the Catholic faith and the determination of the Holy Church” (qtd. in Reed 158). Constitution VI censored books read at Universities at the discretion of the Archbishop, and Constitution VII made it illegal to translate Scriptures like John Wyclif attempted to (Reed 159). In 1557 the Stationer’s Company was put in charge of licensing books, and two years later government declared that the stationers only license books that had been approved by six privy counselors, or the archbishop of Canterbury as well as the bishop of London (Norton 457). However, books that were not approved were still circulating with only few displays of punishments. Censors were focused on works of history with political undertones that could badly affect the present, and religious treatises; these works often reflected public opinion (Norton 458).

The English Bible
When speaking of the evolution of the book during the Medieval and Renaissance time periods, it is vital to discuss the evolution of the English Bible because religion and religious upheaval is often seen as characteristic of the two times periods. This holy text is a central part of the history and evolution of English society during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The English Bible was, of course, not always produced in the vernacular. During the Medieval time period, Christians used a Latin bible called the Vulgate Bible. The Vulgate was the primary Christian text of Western Europe and came about in 382 when Pope Damasus asked Saint Jerome to translate biblical texts from Greek and Hebrew to Latin. The purpose of the translation was to create a standard version as opposed to the inconsistent versions produced during the early Christian period (“Life and Legacy”). Because the Bible was in Latin as opposed to the vernacular, priests, art and music, and religious ceremonies were responsible for helping laypeople understand the teachings of the Church during the Medieval time period (Norton 538).

However, not all scholars agreed with the Vulgate. In England, The teachings of John Wycliffe (c. 1320-84) resulted in a movement for general access of a bible in the vernacular. Wycliffe and his followers, the Lollards, believed that the Bible contained truths that should guide government and that all people should be able to read the Bible in the language they speak. These ideals provided great controversy during this time. In his book about the evolution of the Bible, H. W. Hoare states that during the Middle Ages “the dethronement of the official Latin Bible by a vernacular version would have seemed to be an insidious attack on the authority and catholicity of the West” (27). During the 1380’s, the Lollards produced a New Testament that was translated from the Vulgate into English. Authorities saw this as heresy, and, as a result, the Archbishop of Canterbury prohibited the reading and translation of the Vulgate into English. As Hoare writes, “It was not the open Bible towards which the England of the monks naturally inclined. Medieval asked not for a book but for religion externalised in an institution. The age was not of reflection but of faithful and undiscriminating obedience” (30). Therefore, the English Bible was put away for another 130 years until the idea was once more ignited during the Reniassance (“Life and Legacy”).

The Geneva Bible, a 1560 edition
The Geneva Bible, a 1560 edition

In 1517 Germany, Martin Luther went against the ancient rule of the Catholic Church by arguing that readings of Scripture should be a private and individual experience. He argued for the importance of private conscience. By believing that secular authority was corrupt, Luther argued that Salvation “depended on […] enabling all of the people to regain direct access to the word of God by vernacular translation of the Bible” (Norton 538). The resulting schism in Western Christianity is known as the Reformation and is a major part of the Renaissance time period. The Reformation also marks an important turn in the evolution of a vernacular version of the Bible. Luther inspired Englishman William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English during 1525. Because Tyndale’s idea was not approved by the religious authorities of England, he moved to Germany and translated the New Testament from Greek into English (“Life and Legacy”). His version of the New Testament wa

However, a new era of the English Bible came about when Henry VIII allowed vernacular translations of the Bible in 1538. He believed that an English Bible would be politically important for the new Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury endorsed the Great Bible, which appeared in 1539 and was a vernacular translation of the Bible based on Tyndale’s work (“Life and Legacy”). Over the years, many competing bibles were published, such as the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible was published in 1557 and 1560 as a result of a group of Protestants fleeing England when Catholicism was reinstated as the Church of England during the reign of Mary I. Eventually, the King James Bible was produced towards the end of the Renaissance between 1608 and 1610 as an effort to reform the tension between the Puritans and the Church of England. While Shakespeare and The King James Bible are accredited as helping define modern English, this version of theĀ  Bible took decades to gain popularity, however, because most people still preferred to use the Geneva Bible (“Life and Legacy”).s smuggled into England. Eventually, Tyndale moved to Antwerp where he was charged with heresy. Many banned books were being produced in Antwerp when he moved there. In 1536, Tyndale was executed.

The evolution of the English Bible during the Medieval and Renaissance Ages is a complicated history. However, the shift from the Vulgate Bible to the English Bible shows how English society greatly influenced the evolution of the book in general.

Structure of Literary Works: Quartos and Folios

Between the 1400s and the 1600s works of literature were published in quartos and folios. The structure of how literary works was published is revealing of the contents of the literary works. “The format in which works of literature were usually published is also telling. We normally find plays and poetry in quartos (or octavos), small volumes which had four(or eight) pages printed on each side of a sheet which was then folded twice (or three times) and stitched together with other such folded sheets to form the book. The more imposing folio format (in which the paper was folded only once, at two pages per side of a sheet) tended to be reserved not just for longer works but for those regarded as meriting especially respectful treatment” (Norton 548). For example, Raphael Holinshed’s history The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande was published as “two volumes containing 2835 small folio pages” (“Chronicles”).

Despite the prominence and esteem of folios they were in fact a later development in the publishing industry than quartos. Shakespeare published fifteen of his thirty seven plays in quartos before his works were published in the folio of 1623 (Lounsbury 53). Shakespeare’s plays were published in four separate folios (“William Pyle Phillips”). Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet were both published in quartos but were soon after drastically changed in new editions, “Between the text seen as a quarto and that of the same play in the folio there were frequently wide discrepancies. Passages found in one would not be found in the other.” (Lounsbury 55).

Below is a photograph of William Shakespeare’s first folio (“William Pyle Phillips”).

Shakespeare's First Folio, published in 1623 (William Pyle Phillips Collection).
Shakespeare’s First Folio, published in 1623 (William Pyle Phillips Collection).

The Printing Press
Circulation of these religious texts and folios was made possible because of the development of the printing press. Before the invention, readers created personal anthologies by reproducing manuscripts by hand (Norton 547). The rewriting process was both tedious and risky; texts could easily lose their authenticity and be altered. The printing press did not solve all of the difficulties in the book industry because the technology was new and errors were made, but it was the first step in increasing readership and establishing writers. The invention of the printing press transformed society by making information and literature more available. “Printing made books cheaper and more plentiful,” therefore enabling individuals to be well-read (Norton 534). However, it took time for the printing press to develop the book industry and distribute texts throughout society.

William Caxton was determined to learn the art of printing so that he could sell books in English to the English nobility. The first book that Caxton printed was his translation of The History of Troy, which was finished in 1473 or 1474. Not only was this the first printed book to be in circulation in England, but it was also the first book printed in English. At this point, Caxton was still in Cologne, Germany. It was not until 1476 that Caxton printed the first text in England, an indulgence (“Printing in England from Caxton to Barker”). This is a reflection of how Caxton printed what was in demand and what the people in power wanted. Even though he tended to cater to society’s demands, he was still a prominent figure of the time period, making “England the first place commonly to print books in its own language” (First Impressions). Until Caxton’s death in 1491, he printed over 100 books (“Printing in England from Caxton to Barker”).

The printer's device of William Caxton
The printer’s device of William Caxton

Once Caxton established the printing press in England, writers began to sell their manuscripts to the printer for a low price (Norton 547). Unlike today, these printers legally owned the texts that they printed (Norton 1354). However, the printers were not the only ones that created the books. After the work on the printing press was done, the book in progress was sent to specialists, who worked to emphasize certain aspects of the pages. Illuminators inserted formal initials, and rubricators added text by hand in red. Furthermore, the books were intentionally made to look like manuscripts, with intricate type faces that appeared like handwriting (First Impressions). The process was time consuming and involved numerous contributors, yet the printers were the ones who literally marked the printed books with their name.

Renaissance Humanism
Humanism, as an umbrella term, is any beliefs, methods, or philosophies that have a central emphasis on humans. In the scope of the Renaissance, humanism was a educational, social, and philosophical movement that began in Italy and was brought to western Europe and England by government officials and prominent thinkers. Prominent Italian humanists include Petrarch, Coluccio Salutati and Poggio Bracciolini, all of whom had notability and power in the Italian sociopolitical landscape. These Italian humanists collected antique texts and based their philosophy on intellectual advancement through rigorous study in subjects they considered vital. These subjects, now known fittingly as the “humanities” included history, poetry, grammar, rhetoric and moral philosophy. After humanism had been successfully implemented and accepted in upper-class Italian societies, it moved even more rapidly to the rest of Europe.

Henry VIII’s reign gave an unprecedented period of stability that allowed England to have its own renaissance and a quickly progressive humanist movement. The humanist movement was aimed mostly at young men from wealthy families, and its focus was to teach them subjects thought to best prepare them for public service. English humanists had a particular focus on teaching citizens how to communicate intellectually and effectively with each other, which would allow them to be integral parts of an informed society. With a particular focus on Latin, which was widely considered the language of diplomacy and higher learning, humanists sought to use classic literature and ideas to better educate and improve their pupils. As this movement progressed, humanist thinkers had to decide whether they would write their own works in Latin, the highly revered academic language, or English, the common language. They ultimately decided on English, as it was gaining nationalist support as the accepted vernacular and became a point of pride for the nation. This acceptance of English, combined with the humanist movement, led to the translation of many exalted works from other languages to English.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, humanism was an remarkably progressive intellectual movement that was implemented first in Italy and quickly spread across the rest of Europe. It stressed intellectual advancement for the sake of civic duty, as well as the flourishing of an informed and accountable public. This method of education and set of ideals was key for the rapid success of the English renaissance, and helped usher in a new era of intelligence and advancement for the entirety of Europe.

No citations in this section.


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The Printer’s Device of William Caxton. Wikimedia Commons.

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