“document or book written by hand,” 1590s (adj.), c.1600 (n.), from Medieval Latin manuscriptum “document written by hand,” from Latin manu scriptus “written by hand,” from manu, ablative of manus “hand” (see manual (adj.)) + scriptus (neuter scriptum), past participle of scribere “to write” (see script (n.)). Abbreviation is MS, plural MSS. (from etymologyonline.com)
Think it takes you a long time to get a book published today? Imagine living in medieval times. Did you know that most books in medieval times were copied by hand by monks in monasteries? Creating one book could take years, even decades, to complete.
The rooms in which the worked was called a scriptorium (pl. scriptoria, scriptoriums), and the monks were called scribes. Working on a manuscript was a sacred chore. Monks were expected to pray and offer silent devotion to God as they worked.
They worked with only natural light from windows, their tools sometimes left a bit to be desired, they had to know Latin, and their eyesight had to be good. Sometimes, the written words reflected the waning eyesight of the scribe. The book might start exceedingly neat and become messier as they years passed.
Monks, or scribes, were known to write personal notes in the margins of books (called marginalia) such as complaints about the ink being too thin, the darkness of the room, or defects in the page of vellum. They might also, however, describe a beautiful sunny day or remark on a bird seen outside the window.
“Pens” were made from various materials: cane, reed, quills (bird feathers), or metal. As they wore down, writing quality was obvious. Scribes didn’t have erasers. If they made a mistake, they scraped the ink off the vellum with a knife.
Vellum, a common “paper” (similar to what we know as parchment) was made from the skins of calves and lambs.
Books with pictures were called illuminated manuscripts and decorated with silver or gold. Technically speaking, a manuscript is not considered illuminated unless it is decorated with gold. Illuminated books were extremely expensive and typically owned only by wealthy members of society and royal families.
Illuminations (images) in manuscripts were often quite detailed. They included initials, borders, and images. The pigments they used were often toxic (perhaps more on that another time).
Be thankful, you don’t have to manually write every copy of your book, hand draw your images, or constantly sharpen your stylus. Oh, and be thankful for the backspace key — no knife required.