Combining the beautiful with pleasant labor: illuminated manuscripts and the handprinting press

In celebration of “March is reading month,” I began thinking upon writing about something book-related. As I kept on thinking about it, I discovered more and more fun things, and ended up with a blog post that covers 1300 years of reading-related history that brings us right up to the minute; well, last weekend at least. Sounds like a lot for a short blog post but don’t worry, I’ve squeezed the first 700 years into one paragraph.

And so to begins with illuminated manuscripts, which were written and decorated entirely by hand—the only way to make a book in the medieval period. Reflecting the spiritual focus of medieval society, its art was always divinely-inspired. Illuminated manuscripts are among the most beautiful examples of how medieval artisans sought to create something glorious that was, at the same time, a thing to be used in everyday life. Illuminated manuscripts are most often liturgical texts, such as psalters, which were later superseded by Books of Hours. Medieval literary texts were illuminated as well, including those of Chaucer, Dante, and the tale of Tondal, written by an Irish monk in Germany. One of the most notable of early illuminated manuscripts are the Lindisfarne Gospels, which were written in 715 in the local vernacular rather than Latin. As paper did not enter the European market until the sixteenth century, illuminated manuscripts are made of parchment or vellum. The style of writing or script that you will see in early manuscripts is ‘book hand,’ also known as Anglicana in its slightly differentiated English style, and later texts may use Court or Secretary hand.

Gutenberg leaf

A Leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, 1450-1455. Copyright Cranbrook Archives, Center for Collections and Research.

In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and henceforth the process of making books was changed. The Gutenberg Bible, as shown in the image above, is one of the earliest books printed using the printing press and it follows the Vulgate translation by St. Jerome that is also one of the earliest illuminated manuscripts. The introduction of the printing press did not put an end to beautifully decorated texts; they became handprinted and illuminated, rather than handwritten. George Gough Booth studied the work of the ancient printers, from Gutenberg and Ulrich Zell—from whom William Caxton learned the craft, to Caxton’s successor Wynkyn de Worde, and Nicholas Jenson. It is Jenson that Booth states perfected the art of printing by improving the Roman characters. The Cranbrook Papers are printed in a modern adaptation of Jenson’s Roman typeface.

Inspired by the work of ancient printers and William Morris’ Kelmscott Press, Booth established the Cranbrook Press in 1900. Text was created using a Lion Reliance Press, then the initials and borders were illuminated by hand by Booth himself. Between 1900 and 1902, nine books were printed and decorated in this way, including reprints of books such as the “Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers” by Caxton, and “Utopia” by Sir Thomas More. The Cranbrook Press also produced original works such as the monthly broadsheet, the “Cranbrook Papers,” and books such as the “Pleasures of Planting”.

By studying the materials in the George Gough Booth Papers at Cranbrook Archives, we can learn about and understand his motivation and vision for the Cranbrook Press:

“…work most agreeable to my tastes and inclinations that combined the beautiful with pleasant labor and inspired by the record of ancient printers and the modern endeavors of Wm. Morris. I have sought here to begin a modest work for the pleasure of striving to do good work not out of harmony with my chosen life work”.

Although the Cranbrook Press ceased in 1902, Booth’s vision to combine the beautiful with good work has an enduring presence at Cranbrook Educational Community. The materials that are preserved and made accessible at Cranbrook Archives help us remember and perpetuate this vision in each of the institutions that form the community.

Last weekend, the Center for Collections and Research hosted an event in collaboration with Signal-Return in Detroit that really shows how the archives can inform our knowledge of local history and inspire the cultivation of handcrafted art. The event, ““Work Most Agreeable”: George Booth and the Cranbrook Press,” was a presentation and hands-on letterpress workshop where participants created handprinted poster with one of George Booth’s mottos using the traditional letterpress method that Signal-Return still employs.

The Center of Collections and Research hosts many events throughout the year, you can see what’s coming up next here and join the newsletter to keep up to date.

– Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

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