The Golden Legend

The Golden Legend

Column of black Gothic printing on white paper, with some black ink underlining.
Aurea Legenda [SGC RBK J.8]
Black Gothic manuscript text in columns, with red lines down the side, a red title, and a blue initial.
Manuscript pastedown from Sermonum decades quinque… [SGC RBK B.469]

These two texts have a lot in common: they are both the story of St Cecilia from the Golden Legend.

They even look similar.

However, there is one major difference between them. The one on the left is a manuscript fragment, reused in the binding of a book of sermons from 1567, and the one on the right is an early printed book from 1496.

They look similar because early printed books imitated manuscripts. The manuscript is written in a form of Gothic script, and the printed book also uses a Gothic font. This was common for early printed books from areas where Gothic script for manuscripts prevailed.

Latin was usually abbreviated in manuscripts, and the same was true for early printed books. However, as books were printed on paper, rather than expensive parchment, and printing was less labour-intensive than copying by hand, this soon changed. In fact, in this example, the printed book is more abbreviated than the manuscript. For example, semper (Latin for ‘always’) has been abbreviated like this in the manuscript: An abbreviation of the word 'semper' which has been reduced to 'semp' with an abbreviation mark under the p

And like this in the printed book: An abbreviation of the word 'semper' which has been reduced to just 'sp' with an abbreviation mark under the p

After the introduction of the printing press to Europe in the 1440s, manuscripts were quickly replaced by printed books, which were not only cheaper, but more reliable. Editors would combine manuscript versions of texts to produce a definitive edition, rather than relying on one version which might contain copying errors. Although many of the phrases are the same between the manuscript and the printed book, there are also some differences; the printed book contains additional information (the start of St Cecilia’s life is in the previous column) and the phrasing is slightly different; there is an extra suo after pectore in the manuscript.

One feature that is commonly thought of as dividing manuscripts from printed books is the use of illumination. This manuscript does not contain very elaborate illumination, but there is some decoration down the side of the text, the initials are ornamented, and the titles are rubricated (in red). However, early printed books could also contain these features. On the page depicted here, a gap has been left for an initial C to be inserted by hand. The book would have been sold with these gaps and the purchaser could have filled them in himself, or paid someone to do it for him. This has not happened here, and so the gaps remain.

The survival of the manuscript fragment is due to parchment’s robustness. It is much stronger than paper, and so manuscript fragments frequently appear bound into later books to strengthen them.

Anne Courtney, Assistant Archivist

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.