Rubrication was one of several steps in the medieval process of manuscript making. Practitioners of rubrication, so-called rubricators, were specialized scribes who received text from the manuscript's original scribe and supplemented it with additional text in red ink for emphasis. The term rubrication comes from the Latin rubrico, "to color red".

The practice usually entailed the addition of red headings to mark the end of one section of text and the beginning of another. Such headings were sometimes used to introduce the subject of the following section or to declare its purpose and function. Rubrication was used so often in this regard that the term rubric was commonly used as a generic term for headers of any type or color, though it technically referred only to headers to which red ink had been added. In liturgical books such as missals, red may also be used to give the actions to be performed by the celebrant or others, leading the texts to be read in black. Important feasts in liturgical calendars were also often rubricated, and rubrication can indicate how scribes viewed the importance of different parts of their text.

Rubrication may also be used to emphasize the starting character of a canto or other division of text; this was often important because manuscripts often consist of multiple works in a single bound volume. This particular type of rubrication is similar to flourishing, wherein red ink is used to style a leading character with artistic loops and swirls. However, this process is far less elaborate than illumination, in which detailed pictures are incorporated into the manuscript often set in thin sheets of gold to give the appearance of light within the text.








Quite commonly the manuscript's initial scribe would provide notes to the rubricator in the form of annotations made in the margins of the text. Such notes were effectively indications to "rubricate here" or "add rubric". In many other cases, the initial scribe also held the position of rubricator, and so he applied rubrication as needed without the use of annotations. This is important, as a scribe's annotations to the rubricator can be used along with codicology to establish a manuscript's history, or provenance.






Later medieval practitioners extended the practice of rubrication to include the use of other colors of ink besides red. Most often, alternative colors included blue and green. After the introduction of movable type printing, readers continued to expect rubrication, which might be done by hand, if there were few rubrics to add, or by a separate print using a red-ink form, later the normal method. The "great majority of incunables did not issue from the press in a finished state ... hardly any incunable was considered 'finished' by its printer ...", suggesting that hand rubrication provided a sense of legitimacy to the efforts of early printers and their works. This fact, the notion that something about hand written rubrication completes a printed work by attributing to it a sense of legitimacy and finality, is further supported by the fact that red ink "was not merely's original function was to articulate the text by indicating such parts as headings that were so essential to the function of manuscripts that the printers had to deal with them in some way".




Studying Early Printed Books, 1450-1800: A Practical Guide

Studying Early Printed Books, 1450-1800: A Practical Guide//

A comprehensive resource to understanding the hand-press printing of early books

Studying Early Printed Books, 1450 - 1800 offers a guide to the fascinating process of how books were printed in the first centuries of the press and shows how the mechanics of making books shapes how we read and understand them. The author offers an insightful overview of how books were made in the hand-press period and then includes an in-depth review of the specific aspects of the printing process. She addresses questions such as: How was paper made? What were different book formats? How did the press work? In addition, the text is filled with illustrative examples that demonstrate how understanding the early processes can be helpful to today’s researchers.

Studying Early Printed Books shows the connections between the material form of a book (what it looks like and how it was made), how a book conveys its meaning and how it is used by readers. The author helps readers navigate books by explaining how to tell which parts of a book are the result of early printing practices and which are a result of later changes. The text also offers guidance on: how to approach a book; how to read a catalog record; the difference between using digital facsimiles and books in-hand. This important guide:

  • Reveals how books were made with the advent of the printing press and how they are understood today
  • Offers information on how to use digital reproductions of early printed books as well as how to work in a rare books library
  • Contains a useful glossary and a detailed list of recommended readings
  • Includes a companion website for further research 

Written for students of book history, materiality of text and history of information, Studying Early Printed Books explores the many aspects of the early printing process of books and explains how their form is understood today.

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