Manuscripts after Print c.1450-1550 (MaP): Producing and Reading Books during Technological Change

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: School of English Literature,Language an


The way we read is in flux. We are in the midst of the 'digital revolution' which challenges the way in which books are available to their readers and how they are produced, sold, and read. Yet printed books and handwriting continue to flourish, with printed books in the UK last year increasing in sales to their highest level since 2012 while eBook sales dropped (The Publishers Association Press Release, 2017) and pleas made for handwriting's continuing educational and social value (Professor Dominic Wise, UCL, Guardian, March 2018). This Early Career Leadership Fellow project takes advantage of the current, crucial moment in the history of book technology to ask: what happens to the production and the readership of old books when new book technology is invented?

The introduction of print in Europe in the fifteenth century had a marked effect on the perception of manuscripts, the handwritten book trade, and changed reading practices. Johannes Trithemius, a German Benedictine abbot who lived through this technological change, lamented the introduction of print, famously stating, 'He who ceases from zeal of writing because of printing is no true lover of the scriptures' (De Laude Scriptorium, 1492-4). What Trithemius feared was the fall of the handwritten book - the manuscripts that, after print, could have seemed old technology. But the reality was not a linear transition from manuscript to print but something far messier. Manuscripts produced after print start to exhibit features of print technology and hybrid print-manuscript books are produced.

The limited critical engagement with this important question so far has rejected the earlier notion that the rise of 'print culture' meant the decline of 'scribal culture'; yet the terms 'scribal culture' and 'print culture' are still used in binary opposition. These terms reduce the nuanced development of book technology into ordered, chronological categories, meaning that the complex interactions between manuscript and print are lost. In analysing the first hundred years after print in Europe, c.1450-1550, this project challenges the supersession model of book production, that manuscripts were supplanted by print, and goes beyond the more recent claims that manuscript and print simply coexisted, to demonstrate how manuscript production adapted and changed after print and how handwriting revived and flourished as a result. It examines the lasting significance of handwriting and so analyses the non-linear development of book production that continues into the digital age. In doing so, the project has excellent potential to reach book producers and readers beyond academia. At this critical moment in the history of the book, the growth of the digital book, it is vital to examine how readers access texts, how books are marketed, bought and sold, and why old book technology is of continuing importance. In particular, it is crucial to examine the impact of digital books on print and on handwriting.

The findings of this project will both indicate the impact of technological change on reading practice and have the potential to inform the way in which book technology might develop in the future. Engaging with artists, creative practitioners, and the wider reading public, the open access digital outputs of this project, especially the Hands-on Reading app which combines handwriting with digital books, are innovative ways of examining how we read now and the way in which we may wish to read in the future.

Planned Impact

One of the two overarching aims of the project is to collaborate with non-academic groups and the wider public in scholarly investigations into the impact of digital books on older book forms. There are a number of non-academic collaborators that are interested in the way in which book production and reading habits have changed in recent years. The proposed project therefore has strong potential to achieve wide-reaching impact beyond its academic beneficiaries and to offer the opportunity of further future collaborations. The following groups will benefit from the leadership activities of the proposed project:

Commercial/private sector
Book producers and professional creative practitioners (independent commercial artists, calligraphers, and print makers targeted via the PI's open call and her links with a Fellow of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators, Sue Hufton) will benefit from the research because the project asks questions pertinent to their fields - why their work is relevant and increasingly sought after in a digital age. It provides a platform for discussing how they might capitalise on the momentum created by renewed interests in hybrid books and in handwriting (Script Print Code Hackathon and Public event, postgraduate workshop, academic conference). It brings together book producers and creative practitioners with established book sellers Forum Books, an independent bookshop with a national public reach, in order to facilitate the creation of future networks, offering potential future economic and creative benefits. Beyond the project, there is potential to increase the sustainability of the Hands-on Reading app by developing further research with digital book producers, ensuring the project's enduring impact.

Voluntary/Third sector
The changes in the way in which books are produced and read has inspired a renewed interest in handwriting as a craft. The project offers the opportunity for voluntary groups of artists and creative practitioners, The Letter Exchange, The Typographic Circle, The Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Circle, The Society of Scribes and Illuminators, and Northern Print to display their work (Script Print Code Public event, online exhibition) to academic, non-academic, and public audiences. This has the benefit of offering new networks which will lead to further artistic and funding opportunities, such as the Arts Council England National Lottery Project Grants (which require project partners and networks).

Wider Public
Most readers have a preference between paper books and digital books, and between handwriting and digital writing, which sparks strong feeling and debate. Two articles published in quick succession in The Guardian, 'EBooks are stupid' (20 Feb 2018) and 'Ebooks are not stupid' (21 Feb 2018), demonstrates this strength of feeling. Taking advantage of this awareness of book forms and book technologies, the project benefits readers interested in the way they process information, the way books are changing, and the way reading is changing as a result. It has the potential to enable new collaborations beyond academia with the reading public, offering the wider public the chance to engage meaningfully with the shape of book technology now and in the future.

Education/Public sector
The relationship between handwriting, reading, and learning is of increasing importance to teachers and education providers, with paediatricians warning that a loss of handwriting due to technology results in a loss of cognitive skills. Following the project end date, the PI will seek ways of enhancing the legacy of the Hands-on Reading app by collaborating with teachers in order to develop the app for use in the classroom.


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Nafde A (2020) Replicating the Mechanical Print Aesthetic in Manuscripts before circa 1500 in Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures

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Nafde, A. (2021) Hands-On Reading: An Experiment in Slow Digital Reading in Digital Humanities Quarterly

Title The Art of Handwriting 
Description Since writing by hand first emerged around 5,000 years ago, it has remained a vital tool for recording and relaying information. Handwriting's durability comes not from stability, but rather its ability to adapt to and coexist with new technological developments: from paper and pens to the printing press, the computer and the internet. This exhibition investigates the changing role of handwriting. It brings together books and documents from Newcastle University Library's Special Collections and Archives with the work of contemporary calligraphers to explore handwriting's place in our past, present and future. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact The exhibition has gathered significant public interest and has been used by calligraphers as well as academics in postgraduate teaching. 
Description This project takes advantage of our current, crucial moment in book history, the 'digital revolution', to examine the enduring relevance of handwriting through a series of technological changes. The two key questions asked by the project are:
- what was the value of handwriting after the invention of the printing press?
- what is the value of handwriting in a digital age?
The first of these is explored through archival research to challenge the linear trajectory of technological development, that new technology at first supplements and eventually supplants the old. Disrupting that linear model of succession, the project explored handwriting's ability to adapt and change in order to reassert is value afresh. The multiple and varied ways in which it does this indicates the cultural value we continue to associate with handwriting.

The project produced a number of resources that explore these values. A digital exhibition brings together medieval and early modern books with the work of contemporary calligraphers to demonstrate the way handwriting's durability comes from its ability to modify itself in relation to new technological developments, from the printing press to the internet. A digital reading and writing app, Hands-On Reading, explores the slow craft of writing in relation to 'active reading', mimicking medieval practices of writing as a process of reading. Such findings open fresh questions about the considerable value of writing, crucial in the current climate of virtual communication and collaboration, fast-paced digital information, and online learning.
Exploitation Route For examination of the impact of handwriting on processes of reading in students and young people.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Title Hands-On Reading 
Description The Hands-on Reading app examines the relationship between handwriting and digital reading. Until the rise in popularity of digital reading, readers freely annotated, decorated, and doodled in the margins of printed books. Digital reading, however, has severely limited the ways in which readers can interact with a text to a reduced set of common activities: underlining, highlighting, and typing comments in the margins of ebooks. In order to investigate the relationship between handwriting and digital reading, Hands-On Reading encourages users to freely interact with the digital book, modelled on the types of reader interventions that can be found in early printed books: decorations, doodles, large initials, etc. The app anonymously collects the reader interactions so that these can be studied and compared. This allows us to ask two crucial questions: 1) whether handwriting changes or affects the way we read digital texts; 2) whether a more hands-on approach to reading can lead to a deeper engagement with the text. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact The app is still undergoing initial testing and so large scale impact cannot yet be described. However, those that tested the app in a Beta testing workshop found it caused them to think more carefully about the relationship between handwriting, slow reading, and thinking. 
Description Art of Handwriting: Online Exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Aimed at undergraduate students, postgraduate students, and the general public, the online exhibition brings together manuscript material housed in Newcastle University's Special Collections with the work of contemporary calligraphers to explore the role and relevance of handwriting in the past, present, and future. The feedback suggests that viewers are actively rethinking what it means to write by hand in a digital age.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
Description Script, Print, Code Hackathon 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Three sectors of artists and professionals - calligraphers, academics, and coders - met with the purpose of answering two questions: 'what is the relevance of handwriting in a digital age' and 'how might the book look in the future?' All three groups reported that their views on the relevance of handwriting changed as a result of the session. The discussion formed the basis of the development of the Hands-On Reading app and the Art of Handwriting Exhibition.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Script, Print, Code: Beta Testing Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Following the Script, Print, Code Hackathon and development of the Hands-on Reading app, the workshop allowed the beta-testing of the app with the aim of understanding its target audience and sparking further discussion about the future of handwriting. The event was open to both professional practitioners (calligraphers, coders) and the general public.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019