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Page from Valerius Maximus, Facta et dicta memorabilia, printed in red and black by Peter Schöffer (Mainz, 1471). The page exhibits a rubricated initial letter "U" and decorations, marginalia, and ownership stamps of the "Bibliotheca Gymnasii Altonani" (Hamburg).
Illumination with doodles and drawings (marginalia), including an open-mouthed human profile, with multiple tongues sticking out. Copulata, "De Anima", f. 2a. HMD Collection, WZ 230 M772c 1485
Image of two facing pages from "Phisicorum", fols. 57b and 58a, with doodles and drawings. HMD Collection, WZ 230 M772c 1485

An incunable or incunabulum (plural incunables or incunabula, respectively), is a book, pamphlet, or broadside that was printed in Europe before the year 1500. Incunabula are distinct from manuscripts, which are documents written by hand. Incunabula were produced early in the history of printing in Europe, before the printing press became widespread on the continent. Some authorities include block books from the same time period as incunabula, whereas others limit the term to works printed using movable type.

As of 2021, there are about 30,000 distinct incunable editions known to remain extant.[1] The probable number of surviving individual copies is much higher, estimated at around 125,000 in Germany alone.[2] Through statistical analysis, it is estimated that the number of lost editions is at least 20,000.[3] Around 550,000 copies of around 27,500 different works have been preserved worldwide.[4]


Incunable is the anglicised form of incunabulum,[5] reconstructed singular of Latin incunabula,[6] which meant "swaddling clothes", or "cradle",[7] and so which could metaphorically refer to "the earliest stages or first traces in the development of anything".[8] A former term for incunable is fifteener, in the meaning of "fifteenth-century edition".[9]

The term incunabula was first used in the context of printing by the Dutch physician and humanist Hadrianus Junius (Adriaen de Jonghe, 1511–1575), in a passage in his work Batavia (written in 1569; published posthumously in 1588). He referred to a period "inter prima artis [typographicae] incunabula" ("in the first infancy of the typographic art").[10][11] The term has sometimes been falsely attributed to Bernhard von Mallinckrodt (1591–1664), in his Latin pamphlet De ortu ac progressu artis typographicae ("On the rise and progress of the typographic art"; 1640), but he was simply quoting Junius.[12][13]

The term incunabula came to denote the printed books themselves in the late 17th century.[citation needed] It is not found in English before the mid-19th century.[8]

Junius set an end-date of 1500 to his era of incunabula, which remains the convention in modern bibliographical scholarship.[10][11] This convenient but entirely arbitrary end-date for identifying a printed book as an incunable does not reflect any notable changes in the printing process, and many books printed for a number of years after 1500 continue to be visually indistinguishable from incunables. The term "post-incunable" is now used to refer to books printed after 1500 up to another arbitrary end date – typically 1520 or 1540, but there is no universal agreement among specialists. From around this period the dating of any edition becomes easier, as the practice of printers including information such as the place and year of printing in a colophon or on the title page became more widespread.[citation needed]


There are two types of incunabula in printing: the block book, printed from a single carved or sculpted wooden block for each page, employing the same process as the woodcut in art (these may be called xylographic); and the typographic book, made with individual pieces of cast-metal movable type on a printing press. Many authors reserve the term incunabula for the latter kind only.[14]

The spread of printing to cities both in the north and in Italy ensured that there was great variety in the texts chosen for printing and the styles in which they appeared. Many early typefaces were modelled on local forms of writing or derived from the various European forms of Gothic script, but there were also some derived from documentary scripts (such as most of Caxton's types), and, particularly in Italy, types modelled on handwritten scripts and calligraphy employed by humanists.

Printers congregated in urban centres where there were scholars, ecclesiastics, lawyers, and nobles and professionals who formed their major customer base. Standard works in Latin inherited from the medieval tradition formed the bulk of the earliest printed works, but as books became cheaper, vernacular works (or translations into vernaculars of standard works) began to appear.[citation needed]

Famous examples[edit]

First incunable with illustrations, Ulrich Boner's Der Edelstein, printed by Albrecht Pfister, Bamberg, 1461

Famous incunabula include two from Mainz, the Gutenberg Bible of 1455 and the Peregrinatio in terram sanctam of 1486, printed and illustrated by Erhard Reuwich; the Nuremberg Chronicle written by Hartmann Schedel and printed by Anton Koberger in 1493; and the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili printed by Aldus Manutius with important illustrations by an unknown artist.[citation needed]

Other printers of incunabula were Günther Zainer of Augsburg, Johannes Mentelin and Heinrich Eggestein of Strasbourg, Heinrich Gran of Haguenau and William Caxton of Bruges and London. The first incunable to have woodcut illustrations was Ulrich Boner's Der Edelstein, printed by Albrecht Pfister in Bamberg in 1461.[15]


Many incunabula are undated, needing complex bibliographical analysis to place them correctly. The post-incunabula period marks a time of development during which the printed book evolved fully as a mature artefact with a standard format.[16] After about 1540 books tended to conform to a template that included the author, title-page, date, seller, and place of printing. This makes it much easier to identify any particular edition.[17]

As noted above, the end date for identifying a printed book as an incunable is convenient but was chosen arbitrarily; it does not reflect any notable developments in the printing process around the year 1500. Books printed for a number of years after 1500 continued to look much like incunables, with the notable exception of the small format books printed in italic type introduced by Aldus Manutius in 1501. The term post-incunable is sometimes used to refer to books printed "after 1500—how long after, the experts have not yet agreed."[18] For books printed in the UK, the term generally covers 1501–1520, and for books printed in mainland Europe, 1501–1540.[19]

Statistical data[edit]

Printing towns
Incunabula distribution by region.
Incunabula distribution by language.

The data in this section were derived from the Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue (ISTC).[20]

The number of printing towns and cities stands at 282. These are situated in some 18 countries in terms of present-day boundaries. In descending order of the number of editions printed in each, these are: Italy, Germany, France, Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, England, Austria, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Turkey, Croatia, Montenegro, and Hungary (see diagram).

The following table shows the 20 main 15th century printing locations; as with all data in this section, exact figures are given, but should be treated as close estimates (the total editions recorded in ISTC at May 2013 is 28,395):

Town or city No. of editions % of ISTC recorded editions
Venice[21] 3,549 12.5
Paris[22] 2,764 9.7
Rome[23] 1,922 6.8
Cologne[24] 1,530 5.4
Lyon[25] 1,364 4.8
Leipzig[26] 1,337 4.7
Augsburg[27] 1,219 4.3
Strasbourg[28] 1,158 4.1
Milan[29] 1,101 3.9
Nuremberg[30] 1,051 3.7
Florence 801 2.8
Basel 786 2.8
Deventer 613 2.2
Bologna 559 2.0
Antwerp 440 1.5
Mainz 418 1.5
Ulm 398 1.4
Speyer 354 1.2
Pavia 337 1.2
Naples 323 1.1
TOTAL 22,024 77.6

The 18 languages that incunabula are printed in, in descending order, are: Latin, German, Italian, French, Dutch, Spanish, English, Hebrew, Catalan, Czech, Greek, Church Slavonic, Portuguese, Swedish, Breton, Danish, Frisian and Sardinian (see diagram).

Only about one edition in ten (i.e. just over 3,000) has any illustrations, woodcuts or metalcuts.

The "commonest" incunable is Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle ("Liber Chronicarum") of 1493, with about 1,250 surviving copies (which is also the most heavily illustrated). Many incunabula are unique, but on average about 18 copies survive of each. This makes the Gutenberg Bible, at 48 or 49 known copies, a relatively common (though extremely valuable) edition. Counting extant incunabula is complicated by the fact that most libraries consider a single volume of a multi-volume work as a separate item, as well as fragments or copies lacking more than half the total leaves. A complete incunable may consist of a slip, or up to ten volumes.[citation needed]

In terms of format, the 29,000-odd editions comprise: 2,000 broadsides, 9,000 folios, 15,000 quartos, 3,000 octavos, 18 12mos, 230 16mos, 20 32mos, and 3 64mos.

ISTC at present cites 528 extant copies of books printed by Caxton, which together with 128 fragments makes 656 in total, though many are broadsides or very imperfect (incomplete).[citation needed]

Apart from migration to mainly North American and Japanese universities, there has been little movement of incunabula in the last five centuries. None were printed in the Southern Hemisphere, and the latter appears to possess less than 2,000 copies, about 97.75% remain north of the equator. However, many incunabula are sold at auction or through the rare book trade every year.[citation needed]

Major collections[edit]

The British Library's Incunabula Short Title Catalogue now records over 29,000 titles, of which around 27,400 are incunabula editions (not all unique works). Studies of incunabula began in the 17th century. Michel Maittaire (1667–1747) and Georg Wolfgang Panzer (1729–1805) arranged printed material chronologically in annals format, and in the first half of the 19th century, Ludwig Hain published the Repertorium bibliographicum— a checklist of incunabula arranged alphabetically by author: "Hain numbers" are still a reference point. Hain was expanded in subsequent editions, by Walter A. Copinger and Dietrich Reichling, but it is being superseded by the authoritative modern listing, a German catalogue, the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke, which has been under way since 1925 and is still being compiled at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. North American holdings were listed by Frederick R. Goff and a worldwide union catalogue is provided by the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue.[31]

Notable collections with more than 1,000 incunabula include:

Library Location Country Number of copies Number of editions Ref.
Bavarian State Library Munich Germany 19,717 9,381 [32]
British Library London UK 12,500 10,390 [33]
Bibliothèque nationale de France Paris France 12,000 8,000 [34]
Vatican Library Vatican City Vatican City 8,600 5,400 (more than) [35]
Austrian National Library Vienna Austria 8,030 [36]
National Library of Russia Saint Petersburg Russia 7,302 [37]
Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart Germany 7,093 [38]
Bodleian Library Oxford UK 6,755 5,623 [39]
Library of Congress Washington, D.C. US 5,700 [40]
Russian State Library Moscow Russia 5,360 [41]
Huntington Library San Marino, California US 5,000 (more than) [42]
Cambridge University Library Cambridge UK 4,650 (more than) [43]
Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III Naples Italy 4,563 [44]
Danish Royal Library Copenhagen Denmark 4,500 [45]
University of Manchester Library Manchester UK 4,500 [46]
Berlin State Library Berlin Germany 4,493 [47]
Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts US 4,389 3,627 [48]
National Library of the Czech Republic Prague Czech Republic 4,200 [49]
National Central Library of Florence Florence Italy 4,089 [50]
Leipzig University Library Leipzig Germany 3,800 [51]
Jagiellonian Library Kraków Poland 3,671 [52]
Library of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich Munich Germany 3,598 [53]
Bamberg State Library Bamberg Germany 3,550 [54]
Yale University (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library) New Haven, Connecticut US 3,525 (all collections) [citation needed]
Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel Germany 3,477 2,835 [55]
University Library Freiburg Freiburg im Breisgau Germany 3,448 [56]
Biblioteca Nacional de España Madrid Spain 3,159 2,298 [57]
Göttingen State and University Library Göttingen Germany 3,100 [58]
Library of the University of Würzburg Würzburg Germany 3,100 [59]
Basel University Library Basel Switzerland 3,000 (more than) [60]
Biblioteca Marciana Venice Italy 2,887 [61]
Frankfurt University Library Frankfurt Germany 2,800 [62]
Uppsala University Library Uppsala Sweden 2,500 [63]
Biblioteca comunale dell'Archiginnasio Bologna Italy 2,500 (circa) [64]
Bibliothèque Mazarine Paris France 2,400 2,120 [65]
Library of the University of Cologne Cologne Germany 2,350 [66]
Les Dominicains de Colmar [fr] Colmar France 2,300 [67]
Newberry Library Chicago US 2,200 (more than) [68]
National Library of the Netherlands The Hague Netherlands 2,200 [69]
Library of the University of Tübingen Tübingen Germany 2,148 [70]
Library of the University of Innsbruck (Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek) Innsbruck Austria 2,122 1,889 [71]
National and University Library Strasbourg France 2,120 (circa) (7,000 destroyed by fire in the 1870 Siege of Strasbourg) [72]
Nuremberg Public Library [de] Nuremberg Germany 2,100 [73]
Morgan Library New York US 2,000 (more than) [citation needed]
Library of the University of Erlangen–Nuremberg Erlangen Germany 2,000 (more than) [74]
Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma Rome Italy 2,000 [75]
National Széchényi Library Budapest Hungary 1,800 (more than) [76]
Heidelberg University Library Heidelberg Germany 1,800 [77]
Turin National University Library Turin Italy 1,600 (more than) [78]
Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Sachsen-Anhalt [de] Halle (Saale) Germany 1,600 [79]
Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal Lisbon Portugal 1,597 [80]
Library [it] of the University of Padua Padua Italy 1,583 [81]
Zentralbibliothek Zürich Zurich Switzerland 1,562 [82]
Strahov Monastery Library Prague Czech Republic 1,500 (more than) [83]
Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève Paris France 1,500 [84]
Universitätsbibliothek Salzburg [de] Salzburg Austria 1,385 [85]
Baden State Library Karlsruhe Germany 1,365 [86]
University Library of Bonn Bonn Germany 1,338 1,307 [87]
Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon Lyon France 1,300 [88]
Library of the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt Eichstätt Germany 1,290 [89]
Walters Art Museum Baltimore, Maryland US 1,280 [90]
Bryn Mawr College Library Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania US 1,225 (more than) [91]
Ratsschulbibliothek Zwickau [de] Zwickau Germany 1,200 [92]
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign Urbana, Illinois US 1,200 (more than) [93]
Biblioteca Colombina Seville Spain 1,194 [94]
University of Graz Library Graz Austria 1,115 [95]
University of Glasgow Glasgow UK 1,062 [96]
Bridwell Library Dallas, Texas US 1,000 (more than) [97]
Abbey library of Saint Gall St. Gallen Switzerland 1,000 [98]
National and University Library in Zagreb Zagreb Croatia 1,000 (circa) [citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipale de Besançon Besançon France 1,000 (circa) [citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The British Library Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (retrieved 16 August 2021) gives 30,518 editions, though this includes some which have been re-dated to the early 16th century.
  2. ^ According to Bettina Wagner: "Das Second-Life der Wiegendrucke. Die Inkunabelsammlung der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek", in Griebel, Rolf; Ceynowa, Klaus (eds.): "Information, Innovation, Inspiration. 450 Jahre Bayerische Staatsbibliothek", K G Saur, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-598-11772-5, pp. 207–224 (207f.) the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue lists 30,375 titles published before 1501.
  3. ^ J. Green, F. McIntyre, P. Needham (2011), "The Shape of Incunable Survival and Statistical Estimation of Lost Editions", Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 105 (2), pp. 141–175. doi:
  4. ^ Badische Landes-Bibliothek (in German)
  5. ^ As late as 1891 Rogers in his technical glossary recorded only the form incunabulum: Rogers, Walter Thomas (1891). A Manual of Bibliography (2nd ed.). London: H. Grevel. p. 195.
  6. ^ The word incunabula is a neuter plural only; the singular incunabulum is never found in Latin, and is no longer used in English by most bibliographers.
  7. ^ C. T. Lewis and C. Short, A Latin Dictionary, Oxford 1879, p. 930.
  8. ^ a b "incunabula, n.". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  9. ^ "Fifteener" is a coinage of the bibliographer Thomas Frognall Dibdin, a term endorsed by William Morris and Robert Proctor. (Carter & Barker 2004, p. 130).
  10. ^ a b Hadrianus Iunius, Batavia, [...], [Lugduni Batavorum], ex officina Plantiniana, apud Franciscum Raphelengium, 1588, p. 256 l. 3.
  11. ^ a b Glomski, J. (2001). "Incunabula Typographiae: seventeenth-century views on early printing". The Library. 2 (4): 336. doi:10.1093/library/2.4.336.
  12. ^ Bernardus a Mallinkrot, De ortu ac progressu artis typographicae dissertatio historica, [...], Coloniae Agrippinae, apud Ioannem Kinchium, 1640 (in frontispiece: 1639), p. 9 l. 16. The term appears within a long passage of several pages (pp. 27–33; corresponding to Batavia, pp. 253–58), set in italics to indicate a quotation, and attributed to Junius.
  13. ^ Sordet, Yann (2009). "Le baptême inconscient de l'incunable: non pas 1640 mais 1569 au plus tard". Gutenberg Jahrbuch (in French). 84: 102–105.
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  20. ^, consulted in 2007. The figures are subject to slight change as new copies are reported. Exact figures are given but should be treated as close estimates; they refer to extant editions.
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External links[edit]