The Origins of Typography

Manuscripts were important. They were rich with information about the culture, religion, medicine and the sciences. However, they were expensive, time-consuming to create (As the only way of creating copies of writing was by scribes writing and re-writing texts by hand) and only the literate, rich, religious and important members of society could have access to the knowledge they possess.

The  “Magna charta cum statutis angliae” is a fourteenth century manuscript, written on pigskin in Carolingian minuscule script, is a treaty about the English common law at the time and it kept even the king under the Law, which shows the power that manuscripts had on people.Written language, such as words, can be powerful and important documents are created and used everyday.

A page from the Magna charta cum statutis angliae manuscript

Of course the process of writing books by hand is slow and tedious, and society would never advance fast enough. After the late medieval period “movable type” had an explosive impact.

Johannes Gutenberg (1394-1468) invented the printing press in 1436 (finished 1440). This was the revolution of book production as it kept quality and removed human writing errors in books. The printing press was made up of wooden or metal separate blocks with reversed slightly raised letters that could be individually moved around to create words, and a thin layer of ink would have been applied over all the letters making up a page and used to produce several copies when pressed onto paper. Gutenberg’s printing press was used up until the 20th century.

As there was an explosion of knowledge available to lay people, as books became more easily accessible and therefore cheaper, authority figures felt threatened by competition: “the printed book also led to more stringent attempts at censorship. This was a sign that it was felt by those in authority to be dangerous and challenging to their position.” ( knowledge was power, and people with a higher level of knowledge can make others inferior.

Before the revolution that was the printing press, most books would have been small in size and bigger books could not be made in mass production.

The Gutenberg Bible is the first printed Bible and was successful as it popularised reading and keeping a personal copy of the Bible as it was more legible having printed lettering instead of struggling to read small handwriting. However, the Bible is a huge book and therefore took longer to make and remained expensive to obtain: “It took the skin from about 170 calves to print a single Bible on calf’s skin” (, only about 48 copies of The Gutenberg Bible (c.1455) exist today. The books themselves have been preserved nicely and look ordered and clean. Once translations of the Bible were made into local dialects, it could be spread across communities so that learning the word of the Bible began to no longer be something left up to the church. This had massive repercussions and helped in the success of the Protestant Reformation across Europe.

Even though the ability of writing is an amazing communication tool humans have learnt and created, the Greek Philosopher Socrates (469 B.C- 399 B.C) argued that writing is not natural: “pretending to establish outside the mind what in reality can only be in the mind” (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word ), Socrates stressed that we learn from others. Books are impersonal and can only be a one-way dialogue. You can only receive information directly unlike first-hand information from another where you can debate and ask questions. But of course books preserve the said words and thoughts of others and be preserved for generations.

Unfortunately today books are so normalised, this is how we now react to computers and the internet and how an easy access to information numbs our minds. Back when books were becoming a thing, people might have had the same problem, of just going to books for guidance instead of learning first-hand.  We hold onto calculators to solve maths problems and auto-correct features for spelling mistakes. Auto-correct features affect people’s ability to write properly. Even with smartphones, people can access information straight from their pockets(however “useful” this information may be, it will most likely be social networks). Hanging out with others can feel distant with people who are using their phones instead of conversing. This brings up the idea I spoke about previously about people hiding behind a screen.

Even though typing is revolutionary, cursive writing is beneficial for learning: “Studies have also highlighted how writing can help boost cognitive ability, memory and improve spelling.” (Daily Mail), handwriting is directly from your mind, and it jogs your thinking process as you regurgitate information onto paper.

However, typing on a computer is much faster than by hand and more uniform. The information can be copied at the click of a button and it can be read by anyone without the stress of struggling to read someone else’s messy handwriting(the same effect printing presses first gave): “The national Common Core Standards, adopted by 45 U.S. states, does not include handwriting as part of the curriculum” (Daily Mail) Shockingly, most schools no longer feel the need to teach handwriting, as they feel teaching basic writing skills, a skill we have used since early humans, is just not essential to learn in the Digital Age.

So is cursive language dying?

Personally, I prefer writing by hand. Ideas flow easier, I can take my pen or pencil all over the page in taking notes , with doodles that may follow in coming up with ideas. Handwriting is personal, comes naturally and it’s fast. I can take down quick notes in a notebook (or the back of my hand). Typing at a computer is merely for creating a final piece of written work, for other people to read. It’s too restricted and I feel the need to think carefully about what I need to type before saying anything. I make mistakes easier by typing the wrong keys and documents I create can be lost or corrupted. When you study for an exam, you write and re-write extracts from a book and quotations. In fact, most exams are written by hand as computers have access to material for cheating. So handwriting needs to be fast and still legible.

We live in a world where there are parts of the world that still have no access to electricity. Being able to read and write is valuable.

If children today do not learn to write cursively, paper may merely be seen as the physical document of something they have seen on a computer screen. Maybe even paper might die out in this un-creative and bleak future, as the screen is all the future might need.



Walter J. Ong (1991) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Routledge  (p79,80)


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