The word manuscript derives from the Medieval Latin ‘manuscriptum’, meaning literally "written by hand".
The earliest texts were all manuscripts, as they were written and illustrated by hand, until the invention of the movable type and printing press in 1439.
After this point in time, manuscripts refer to the handwritten or typed drafts of documents. They can relate to a variety of topics, such as political, literary, religious, or musical, and some are considered extremely historically significant.
Manuscripts arose alongside the development of a written alphabetical language, and were produced by the Ancient Egyptians. Papyrus reeds were used as a lighter, more practical writing surface than stone and clay tablets. The reeds were stuck together to create scrolls which could be rolled up for storage or transport.
However, the dry nature of papyrus meant it was easily cracked and damaged. Scrolls were slowly replaced by the codex (plural codices), a series of pages bound together along one side between protective covers. The codex is the forerunner of modern books and the design has changed very little in almost 2000 years.
Codices were popularised by Christians around the first century AD, as the format for the first Bibles. This far more practical and sturdy format was slowly adopted throughout the Greco-Roman world, and by around the sixth century it had almost entirely replaced the scroll.
During this time papyrus was also replaced with parchment, a thin material made from calf, sheep or goat-skin. Used as early as the 5th century BC, it became more commonly used during the 2nd century BC as the supply of papyrus (which grew only in the Nile Delta) became more expensive.
Middle Ages and onwards
Parchment became the main material for manuscripts across Europe around 400AD, when the fall of the Roman Empire led to severed trade links with the Egyptians. However, its high price was prohibitive and it was used nearly exclusively by monasteries for religious texts, Bibles, Books of Hours and liturgical calendars.
Books were highly-prized and highly expensive possessions at this time: during the Middle Ages a Bible could require the skins of several hundred animals and take over a year to inscribe. Such books were usually commissioned by wealthy patrons for their libraries, and created in scriptoriums by revered monks.
They were richly illuminated with colourful illustrations, often using gold and silver leaf which added to their expense. The highest quality parchment (called vellum) was used for the majority of these manuscripts, meaning many of them survive today.
However, as the demand for such works became greater, commercial scriptoriums began to spring up in major cities across Europe during the 14th century. By the beginning of the 15th century the Chinese invention of paper (discovered in 105AD) had finally made its way to Europe, and records show paper mills in both Germany and Italy at the turn of the century. This development meant manuscripts became far less expensive to produce and the market for them increased.
Moveable type and the printing press
The driving force of this market led to the most important inventions of the modern period: moveable type and the printing press. Developed by Johannes Gutenberg in around 1439, they revolutionised the world and played a vital role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation and the Scientific Revolution.
Prior to this revolutionary invention, all written material was a manuscript. When people discuss manuscripts from this point in history onwards, they generally refer to a unique handwritten or typed draft of a document that was later printed for public consumption, or remained unpublished.
Types of manuscript
Most (though not all) early manuscripts are religious in nature. The Bible was the most studied book of the Middle Ages, and was produced in manuscript form again and again, by monasteries, monks and scholars, as works of devotion.
Due to the reverential nature of these works, religious manuscripts were commonly illuminated. Illuminated manuscripts are enriched with pictures, border decorations, elaborately engrossed initial letters or full-page illustrations. Many of these are detailed in rich colour, particularly gold and silver.
Books of Hours are the most common surviving illuminated manuscript from prior to the invention of the printing press. A Book of Hours is a devotional text popular during the Middle Ages containing a collection of prayers and psalms, with varying amounts of decoration.
With the development of the printing press the demand for illuminated manuscripts vanished. A small number continued to be made into the early 16th century, but they were produced solely for the very wealthy.
As religious manuscripts were generally produced on parchment, there are many surviving examples. However, many remain within the hands of the Church, religious institutions, and museums.
Musical manuscripts indicate handwritten sheet music. These might be written on paper or parchment, and state musical notation, and sometimes text such as lyrics. The famous musical pieces of historical composers are extremely rare. Often mere fragments of a musical manuscript are all that remains, but even these will be highly sought after by collectors.
In early days, composers were required to draw their own staff lines onto blank paper before the printing press made ready-staffed paper available.
In the 20th century, many composers hired copyists to hand-copy individual parts for each musician or instrument from a composer’s musical score. These copies would be less desirable to a collector than the original musician’s copy.
Today, musical scores can be written on graphics computer software, so the art of handwriting musical manuscripts is dying out.
The musical scores of famous composers for famous pieces are the most valuable and sought after.
Literary manuscripts indicate the drafts of literary works – plays, poems, novels etc – written by authors, either by hand or typed. These are unique original items rather than those mass printed for readers.
In modern publishing and academia, a text submitted to the publisher or printer in preparation for publication is referred to as a manuscript. Thus literary manuscripts are not necessarily handwritten, but still unique as the original draft from which later copies were produced.
Many collectors focus on literary manuscripts, desiring to own the earliest manifestation of some of history’s greatest and most influential literary works.
Sometimes an unknown literary manuscript by a famous writer which was never printed will be discovered years or centuries down the line.
Political manuscripts are the handwritten or typed drafts of significant historical political documents. There is a lot of crossover with historical and political letters & documents, for example the paper copies of political speeches. Other significant examples of political manuscripts include the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta, the Emancipation Proclamation, treaties and surrenders, wills, laws, military and government records etc.
The world’s most valuable manuscripts
The most expensive manuscript ever sold at auction is the Codex Leicester, a 72 page handwritten manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci. The book, dating from 1506 -1510, features many of da Vinci’s drawings and scientific theories. It was purchased at auction in 2004 by Microsoft founder Bill Gates for a world record price of $30.8m.
The Gospels of Henry the Lion is a 266 page illuminated manuscript containing the four gospels, and some of the most stunning full page illustrations of any medieval manuscript. It was commissioned in 1188 by Henry the Lion, prince of Saxony and Bavaria. The book was bought by the West German government for £8,140,000 in 1983, which at that time, was the highest price paid for any work of art.
The Vita Christi, or the Life of Christ, is another illustrated manuscript chronicling the life of Jesus with historical commentary and theological insight, instructions and prayers. It contains over 100 hand painted images. Many manuscript copies were produced, each unique in their illustrations and artistry. One copy sold in London for £1,700,500 at Sotheby’s in December 2007.
The Magna Carta is a 13th century document containing the written promises between King John and his people, to aid the creation of a fair feudal system. It is considered one of the foundations of modern law. Various manuscript copies were produced bearing the King’s seal. One of these sold for $21.3 million at a Sotheby’s New York auction in December 2007.
The Northumberland Bestiary is a 13th century encyclopaedia of animals, real and imaginary, with 112 coloured ink drawings. The manuscript was unique. It was sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2007. Though it is not known who sold the manuscript or how much the museum paid for it, some experts believe that it was somewhere in the range of $20 million.
The Rochefoucauld Grail is a four volume illustrated manuscript which tells English and French Arthurian legend. It was produced in the 14th century. The manuscript went on to be translated and reproduced into multiple European languages. The manuscript was sold by Sotheby’s, London in December 2010 for £2,393,250.
The Histoire de ma vie is Casanova’s autobiography, which was published in the 1820s to great interest and acclaim. In February 2010, the original handwritten manuscript was sold for £6 million to Bibliotheque Nationale de France.
The first edition of J.K. Rowling’sThe Tales of Beedle The Bard (2007) was constructed as a manuscript, just seven handwritten and illustrated copies produced, six of them given to the author’s friends. The seventh, the only copy to be sold, achieved £1,950,000 at Sotheby’s, bought by online retailer Amazon.co.uk. The proceeds went to charity.
A working manuscript of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, completed in 1824 when Beethoven was completely deaf, sold for £2.1 million at a Sotheby’s auction in May 2003.
Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank is one of the most famous manuscripts ever written. It has been printed in book form and read by generations across the world. The original handwritten diary manuscript is on view in the Anne Frank Museum.
Manuscripts are often collected due to historical interest, and the desire to preserve the original writings of the author, maintaining a record of the past.
Most collectors will have one particular area of interest, such as the types mentioned above: religious, musical, literary, political, or also science, medicine, exploration, finance, magic, sports, cooking, aviation, architecture, etc. They also often focus on one period of history.
They can be quite an elite item to collect, representing the true original form of a document, being unique and one of a kind. This rarity often makes them expensive as evidenced by the notable manuscripts mentioned above. However, if your attention can be turned to the less elite and desirable items, some manuscripts can be found for less, even as little as a few hundred dollars.
Certain elements in a manuscript alongside the writing make them more interesting to collectors – the addition of mathematical calculations, maps, figures and illustrations for example. Illuminated manuscripts are particularly sought after by collectors. Many illuminated manuscripts are broken down over the years into single pages (or leaves) to be sold individually to collectors, sometimes for as much as several thousand dollars each. It is far rarer to find complete manuscripts, and as such their value can be incredibly high depending on their condition.
If looking at collecting manuscripts as an investment, factors to consider are the historical significance of the writer and their appeal in the context of modern society, the importance of the subject matter and its relation to major events in the life of the writer or in history, and in as good condition as possible.
It is useful for a collector to familiarise themselves with the terminology used in the practice of manuscript collecting. View our list of manuscript collecting terms to learn some of these.
There are various groups and societies dedicated to collecting manuscripts, such as The Manuscript Society. Institutions such as the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers and the Antiquarian Booksellers Association (ABA) also deal in manuscripts and may have a lot to offer a collector.
There are many notable large collections of manuscripts open to the public, such as the Library of Alexandria’s autographed manuscript collection, and that of the Library of Congress, Washington, USA, and the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Toronto, Canada.
Manuscripts can be found at auction, through specialist dealers, in antiquarian book shops, and on eBay. Sometimes a large auction, or set of auctions, will be held offering the whole of an eminent collection. These bring numerous significant manuscripts to auction at once. For example, the sales of the Roy Davids Collection of literary manuscripts, held over many years by Bonhams London.
- The Manuscript Society
- A Brief History of Illuminated Manuscripts
- The Evolution of the Book
- Collecting Manuscripts – Roy Davids
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