A manuscript (abbreviated MS for singular and MSS for plural) was, traditionally, any document that is written by hand or, once practical typewriters became available, typewritten as opposed to being mechanically printed or reproduced in some indirect or automated way. More recently, the term has come to be understood to further include any written, typed, or word-processed copy of an author's work, as distinguished from its rendition as a printed version of the same. Before the arrival of printing, all documents and books were manuscripts. Manuscripts are not defined by their contents, which may combine writing with mathematical calculations, maps, explanatory figures or illustrations. Manuscripts may be in book form, scrolls or in codex format. Illuminated manuscripts are enriched with pictures, border decorations, elaborately embossed initial letters or full-page illustrations.

Before the invention of woodblock printing in China or by moveable type in a printing press in Europe, all written documents had to be both produced and reproduced by hand. Historically, manuscripts were produced in form of scrolls (volumen in Latin) or books (codex, plural codices). Manuscripts were produced on vellum and other parchment, on papyrus, and on paper. In Russia birch bark documents as old as from the 11th century have survived. In India, the palm leaf manuscript, with a distinctive long rectangular shape, was used from ancient times until the 19th century. Paper spread from China via the Islamic world to Europe by the 14th century, and by the late 15th century had largely replaced parchment for many purposes.

Ironically, the manuscripts that were being most carefully preserved in the libraries of antiquity are virtually all lost. Papyrus has a life of at most a century or two in relatively moist Italian or Greek conditions; only those works copied onto parchment, usually after the general conversion to Christianity, have survived, and by no means all of those.

The study of the writing, or "hand" in surviving manuscripts is termed palaeography. In the Western world, from the classical period through the early centuries of the Christian era, manuscripts were written without spaces between the words (scriptio continua), which makes them especially hard for the untrained to read. Extant copies of these early manuscripts written in Greek or Latin and usually dating from the 4th century to the 8th century, are classified according to their use of either all upper case or all lower case letters. Hebrew manuscripts, such as the Dead Sea scrolls make no such differentiation. Manuscripts using all upper case letters are called majuscule, those using all lower case are called minuscule. Usually, the majuscule scripts such as uncial are written with much more care. The scribe lifted his pen between each stroke, producing an unmistakable effect of regularity and formality. On the other hand, while minuscule scripts can be written with pen-lift, they may also be cursive, that is, use little or no pen-lift.

In other contexts, however, the use of the term "manuscript" no longer necessarily means something that is hand-written. By analogy a typescript has been produced on a typewriter.

Vellum comes from the Latin word vitulinum which means of calf/made from calf. For modern parchment makers and calligraphers, and apparently often in the past, the terms parchment and vellum are used based on the different degrees of quality, preparation and thickness, and not according to which animal the skin came from, and because of this, the more neutral term "membrane" is often used by modern academics, especially where the animal has not been established by testing.

A book of hours is a type of devotional text which was widely popular during the Middle Ages. They are the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscripts. Each book of hours contain a similar collection of texts, prayers, and psalms but decoration can vary between each and each example. Many have minimal illumination, often restricted to ornamented initials, but books of hours made for wealthier patrons can be extremely extravagant with full-page miniatures. These books were used for owners to recite prayers privately eight different times, or hours, of the day.

Merovingian script, or "Luxeuil minuscule", is named after an abbey in Western France, the Luxeuil Abbey, founded by the Irish missionary St Columba ca. 590. Caroline minuscule is a calligraphic script developed as a writing standard in Europe so that the Latin alphabet could be easily recognized by the literate class from different regions. It was used in the Holy Roman Empire between approximately 800 and 1200. Codices, classical and Christian texts, and educational material were written in Carolingian minuscule throughout the Carolingian Renaissance. The script developed into blackletter and became obsolete, though its revival in the Italian renaissance forms the basis of more recent scripts. In Introduction to Manuscript Studies, Clemens and Graham associate the beginning of this text coming from the Abby of Saint-Martin at Tours.

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