Illuminating Histories: The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews James Raven’s erudite and informative history of that ubiquitous invention, the book

In the Exeter Book, one of the jewels in the crown of Anglo-Saxon literature, a riddle appears which begins:

Some enemy deprived me of my life
And took away my worldly strength, then wet me,
Dipped me in water, took me out again,
Set me in sunshine …

The speaker, it turns out, is an animal that has been killed by a parchment-maker so the animal’s skin can be used to make vellum (a word related etymologically to veal). As David Rundle observes in his chapter on books in medieval western Europe, the animal, through death, is transformed into ‘something holy, a manuscript conveying God’s word’. A ‘metamorphosis’ from ‘creature to creation in touch with the Creator’ has taken place. Of course, the links between bodies and books is preserved in the language we use to describe their shape, such as when we speak of the ‘spine’ of a book.

The history of the book as a piece of technology is a long one, spanning some 5,000 years (and possibly even longer). ‘Books’ in the broadest sense of the term have been fashioned from a variety of materials during that time, including clay, skin, or a number of natural fibres; more recently, they have been nothing more substantial than a series of pixels and electrons, albeit appearing on a small portable device whose size and heft is not too far removed from the average hardcover book. The complex history of the book’s development, and its protean and yet durable nature, has now been told, through a series of enlightening and scholarly essays collected in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book, edited by James Raven and published by Oxford University Press.

As that title indicates, this is an illustrated history of the book, and a beautifully presented one at that: a tabletop book containing detailed textual accounts of the book’s curious history but also replete with large images and figures which illuminate the fascinating historical and geographical stories the contributors bring to life. To give one example, on page 10 there is a full-page image of a page from the Garima Gospels, a work written on goatskin in the Ethiopian language of Ge’ez some time between the year 330 and 650. It’s not only one of the earliest illustrated Christian books, but also rather beautiful. Yet I had no idea it existed until I read The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book.

As this example suggests, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book is no selective history of the book focused overwhelmingly on the Western world: this is no Eurocentric or Occident-heavy study of the development of the Roman codex through to the European illuminated manuscripts before marching steadily on to the modern-day e-reader developed in the US. No: here we find essays on the ancient world, Byzantium, medieval and early modern East Asia, medieval western Europe, the Renaissance and Reformation, the Islamic world, the Enlightenment, modern Asia, globalisation, and recent technological developments that have transformed the way we engage with ‘the book’. As you will see from this (partial) list of the book’s capacious range, Asian contributions to the development of the book are not just acknowledged but revealed in admirable detail.

The essays collected together in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book are scholarly and well-researched, but accessible to the lay reader: those of us who aren’t professional academic book historians. And I learnt a great deal from them. For instance, even when books were prized, rare, and expensive items – before Gutenberg revolutionised the world with movable type in the mid-fifteenth century – book burnings had become common. Only the ‘right’ kinds of books were prized: others were viewed as dangerous, seditious, or scandalous. The Sicilian humanist poet Panormita (Antonio Beccadelli, 1394-1471) wrote a number of poems ‘in which he did not blush to describe all sorts of sexual acts’; these poems, David Rundle tells us, were burnt in the public squares of Italian cities. As ever, such brutal censorship did nothing to stop the circulation of his work.

Chinese innovations in printing books are also discussed, in an insightful chapter by Cynthia Brokaw. Woodblock printing was developed in China long before Gutenberg developed movable type in the West, and was in use for the widespread dissemination of texts from as early as the seventh century; but woodblocks remained the main way of printing books in China until modern times. What’s also interesting is that in China and Korea, from a very early stage in the development of the book, the state played a key role in both sponsoring books it liked and censoring those it didn’t. Japan, by contrast, had a much more liberal approach to book-printing, and ‘Japanese governments seem to have been largely indifferent to the political uses and implications of print.’

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book is, at over 400 pages, a detailed study of the various histories – for perhaps it is more appropriate to speak in the plural – of that multifaceted invention known as the book. I would highly recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about how this ubiquitous – and, to many of us, indispensable – invention was shaped by different cultures over millennia.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.

3 thoughts on “Illuminating Histories: The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book”

    • I can really recommend it: it has the high production standards you’d expect from OUP, and there’s plenty of in-depth material in the articles themselves, but the addition of the pictures (including quite a few full-page illustrations) made it such a joy to read!


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