Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries & Beyond


Our early predecessors transmitted thoughts and ideas through storytelling and word of mouth. The written form of language developed over millennia as humans sought to record events and stories, in a tangible form. The form changed over time, but the mechanism remained the same. One needs a device with which to write, whether it is one’s finger, a stick or stylus, or a quill. One also needs a surface on which to write, whether it is clay, stone, cloth, skin, or paper. And finally, if not carving into a surface such as clay or stone, one needs a type of paint or ink.

A “manuscript” is a document written by hand. When you take pen to paper and write a letter to a friend, you are creating a manuscript. If you take all the letters you have written and tie them together on one end, you have created a codex. A codex, therefore, is many manuscripts put together. A codex is the earliest form of a “book”.

By the middle ages in the western world, manuscripts and codices became more elaborate, as decoration, colored inks, and illustrations embellished the texts. Many of these manuscript books were created for religious purposes in monasteries and convents. Styles of handwriting were regional and led to standard forms of alphabets.

Below: A highly illuminated Book of Hours from about 1460 in USC Libraries Special Collections. 

For more details on illuminated manuscripts at USC, see: Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts at USC

Image Header: Chansonnier de Jean de Montchenu. Facsimile of a 15th century heart-shaped manuscript. USC Libraries ML96.4.C428 C4 2007.

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