One things that’s interesting about looking at a mediæval manuscript codex like the Dragon Prayer Book is that the differences from modern printed boos are are immediately salient. The pages are parchment, not paper. The shapes of the letters which make up the text are unfamiliar, often unrecognizable. Beyond that – and even allowing for their hand-made nature – they are not uniform, but vary with context; we see a plethora of ligatures. Abbreviations are ubiquitous and far more common than in modern works.
It turns out, however, that many of these changes are not abrupt; there is remarkable continuity between mediæval manuscript book production and early modern printing, and the changes wrought by the press were gradual.
As we noted, the Dragon Prayer Book was written on parchment sheets, following centuries-old European practice in book production. Before long, parchment book pages were largely a thing of the past – but the transition was not precisely associated with printing. Paper was widely used for manuscript books well before Gutenberg, of course. Perhaps more surprising is that books were also printed on parchment; several copies of Gutenberg’s 40-line Bible were printed on vellum, including the copy now held at Göttingen. To be sure, the majority of Gutenberg’s Bibles were printed on paper, though, as it would have been a decidedly nontrivial task to procure the hides to produce 161 bifolia for each of 180 copies – and as print runs increased, parchment was simply no longer an option.
Moving from the support to the text, we see that there are many unfamiliar aspects to the way the Latin is written. The above image reads, “Deus, qui Ecclesiam tuam mira Beati Thomae Confessoris tui eruditionne clarificas,” and in a modern book that is precisely how one would expect to see it rendered. Here, though, we see the very common use of the macron to mark deleted m or n (as in tuā for tuam); us in Deus replaced with an abbreviation sign reminiscent of a numeral 9; confessoris written with another abbreviation sign which resembles a rotated c (not to mention ‘straight’ ſ and r ‘rotunda’); and ecclesiam abbreviated eccl’am, with the final m in a stylized and rotated space-saving form.
We can compare this with an image from the book of Genesis in a Gutenberg Bible. Here we read, “praeessent diei ac nocti, et dividerent lucem ac tenebras. Et vidit Deus quod esset bonum. Et factum est vespere et mane dies quartus.” It is immediately obvious that the letter-forms are far more regular than in the manuscript form, which is of course unsurprising. There is far less use of abbreviation; whereas in the passage from the Dragon Prayer Book nine of eleven words are abbreviated, here nine of twenty-three are. But the abbreviations are not gone: the 9-shaped abbreviation of us remains, as does the macron. We also see the et abbreviation; while this is in the Tironian form, the form based on a ligature of the letters et persisted in widespread use throughout the first centuries of print and indeed remains in limited use as our modern ampersand. We see other ligatures here: some obvious ones are the de in deus, the double-ſ in praeessent, the ct in nocti; others are more subtle. These ligatures form a link to scribal practice, but most quickly fell out of use in the print era because they complicated typesetting. The ct ligature, though, remained in common use in French and English typesetting until modern times, and the double-ſ until the disappearance of ſ altogether. The double-f and related ligatures (fl, fi, ffl, etc.) remain in use today in proper typography.
We can also compare two near-contemporary snippets from a Benedictine collectarium of the Congregatio Bursfeldensis, one manuscript and one printed. It is immediately clear that they are part of the same textual tradition, despite the clear differences between the scribal hand and the printed letters. What is remarkable here, though, is that the manuscript copy is from circa 1516, while the printed one is from 1485; clearly, print did not replace manuscript all at once.