A manuscript (Latin manu scriptus, "written by hand"), strictly speaking, is any written document that is put down by hand, in contrast to being printed or reproduced some other way. Information may be hand-recorded in other ways than in manuscripts, as inscriptions that are scratched upon a hard material (the original meaning of graffiti), or in cuneiform writing, impressed with a pointed stylus in a flat tablet of unbaked clay.
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 900CE, 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 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.
Manuscripts in history
The traditional abbreviations are ms for manuscript and mss for manuscripts. (The second s, by the way, is not simply the plural, but, by an old convention, doubles the last letter of the abbreviation to express the plural, just as pp means "pages".)
Before the invention of printing by inked carved blocks (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, codices). Manuscripts were produced on vellum and other parchments, on papyrus, and on paper. In Russia birch bark documents as old as from the 11th century have survived.
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 mss have been preserved by the perfect dryness of their resting places, whether placed within sarcophagi in Egyptian tombs, or reused as mummy-wrappings, discarded in the middens of Oxyrhyncus or secreted for safe-keeping in jars and buried (Nag Hammadi) 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. Manuscripts preserved in volcanic ash preserve some of the Greek library of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum.
Ironically, the mss that were being most carefully preserved in the libraries of Antiquity are all lost.
The study of the writing, or "hand" in surviving manuscripts is termed palaeography. In the West from the classical period through the early centuries of the Christian era, mss were written without spaces between the words (scriptio continua), which makes them especially hard for the untrained to read. Extant copies of these early mss 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. Manuscripts using all upper case letters are called uncials, those using all lower case are called cursives. Early Hebrew mss, such as the Dead Sea scrolls make no such differentiation.
According to Library and Information Science, a manuscript is defined as any hand-written item in the collections of a library or an archive; for example, a library's collection of the letters or a diary that some historical personage wrote.
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.
In book, magazine, and music publishing, a manuscript is an original copy of a work written by an author or composer. In film and theatre, a manuscript, or script for short, is an author's or dramatist's text, used by a theater company or film crew during the production of the work's performance or filming.
In insurance, a manuscript policy is one that is negotiated between the insurer and the policyholder, as opposed to an off-the-shelf form supplied by the insurer.
The word manuscript is often abbreviated to MS., plural MSS.