The traditional abbreviations are MS for manuscript and MSS for manuscripts, while the forms MS., ms or ms. for singular, and MSS., mss or mss. for plural (with or without the full stop, all uppercase or all lowercase) are also accepted. The second s is not simply the plural; by an old convention, it doubles the last letter of the abbreviation to express the plural, just as pp. means "pages".
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.
When Greek or Latin works were published, numerous professional copies were made simultaneously by scribes in a scriptorium, each making a single copy from an original that was declaimed aloud.
The oldest written manuscripts have been preserved by the perfect dryness of their Middle Eastern resting places, whether placed within sarcophagi in Egyptian tombs, or reused as mummy-wrappings, discarded in the middens of Oxyrhynchus or secreted for safe-keeping in jars and buried (Nag Hammadi library) or stored in dry caves (Dead Sea scrolls). Manuscripts in Tocharian languages, written on palm leaves, survived in desert burials in the Tarim Basin of Central Asia. Volcanic ash preserved some of the Roman library of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum.
Gharib al-Hadith, by Abu 'Ubaid al-Qasim ibn Sallam al-Harawi (d. 837 AD). The oldest known dated Arabic manuscript on paper in Leiden University Library
, dated 319 AH
Inside the letter is a picture of a master in cathedra expounding on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. Initial "V" rendered as "U" of "Vita brevis, ars vero longa", or "Life is short, but the art is long". "Isagoge", fol. 15b. HMD Collection, MS E 78.
Image of two facing pages of the illuminated manuscript of "Isagoge", fols. 42b and 43a. On the top of the left hand page is an illuminated letter "D" - initial of "De urinarum differencia negocium" (The matter of the differences of urines). Inside the letter is a picture of a master on bench pointing at a raised flask while lecturing on the "Book on urines" of Theophilus. The right hand page is only shown in part. On its very bottom is an illuminated letter "U" - initial of "Urina ergo est colamentum sanguinis" (Urine is the filtrate of the blood). Inside the letter is a picture of a master holding up a flask while explaining the diagnostic significance of urine to a student or a patient. HMD Collection, MS E 78.
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.
Originally, all books were in manuscript form. In China, and later other parts of East Asia, woodblock printing was used for books from about the 7th century. The earliest dated example is the Diamond Sutra of 868. In the Islamic world and the West, all books were in manuscript until the introduction of movable type printing in about 1450. Manuscript copying of books continued for a least a century, as printing remained expensive. Private or government documents remained hand-written until the invention of the typewriter in the late 19th century. Because of the likelihood of errors being introduced each time a manuscript was copied, the filiation of different versions of the same text is a fundamental part of the study and criticism of all texts that have been transmitted in manuscript.
In Southeast Asia, in the first millennium, documents of sufficiently great importance were inscribed on soft metallic sheets such as copperplate, softened by refiner's fire and inscribed with a metal stylus. In the Philippines, for example, as early as 900AD, specimen documents were not inscribed by stylus, but were punched much like the style of today's dot-matrix printers. This type of document was rare compared to the usual leaves and bamboo staves that were inscribed. However, neither the leaves nor paper were as durable as the metal document in the hot, humid climate. In Burma, the kammavaca, Buddhist manuscripts, were inscribed on brass, copper or ivory sheets, and even on discarded monk robes folded and lacquered. In Italy some important Etruscan texts were similarly inscribed on thin gold plates: similar sheets have been discovered in Bulgaria. Technically, these are all inscriptions rather than manuscripts.
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.