Before Johann Gutenberg introduced his printing press to the world in the mid-1400s, copier repairs would have involved something like bandaging a person’s injured hand or perhaps putting a broken or sprained wrist in some kind of sling. In other words, the only way to make copies of a document was to have someone copy it out by hand.
(And while the “copier” was out for repairs, it might have been very hard to find a “copier” to rent. The number of people who could read and write in the ancient world was very low – especially when you’re talking about Latin, which was the language of the church.)
In the Middle Ages, the book most likely to be copied would have been the bible. Or, to be more accurate, since the long, arduous process of copying the entire bible would be an almost impossible undertaking for a single scribe, one of the various books contained in the bible. As Christianity Today points out, “It would take a scribe several months to copy just one Gospel. In some secular Greek manuscripts, scribes left a note at the end that indicates the patient labor involved: ‘As the traveler rejoices to see the home country, so the scribe rejoices to see the end of a manuscript!’”
In addition to being slow and cumbersome, having to rely on people to copy things by hand had a number of drawbacks. “Whenever something is copied by hand, frailties of human eyesight enter in, particularly if that document is old and some ink has faded,” Christianity Today says. “For over a thousand years, everything was done by hand, and the more times an ancient text was copied, the more chance for errors to creep in.”
Scholars can’t pin down an exact date, but they generally agree that what we call eyeglasses were invented in Italy sometime during the 13th or 14th centuries. No doubt, that would have helped cut down the number of mistakes that would make their way into any given manuscript, but it really wasn’t until the revolutionary Guttenberg press came along in the 15th century that duplicate copies of a manuscript that were all the same could be produced. (Of course, there was nothing to prevent the person who was setting the type from making a mistake, which would then appear in every copy.)
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