An incunable, or sometimes incunabulum (plural incunables or incunabula, respectively), is a book, pamphlet, or broadside (such as the Almanach cracoviense ad annum 1474) that was printed—not handwritten—before the year 1501 in Europe.
"Incunable" is the anglicised singular form of incunabula, Latin for "swaddling clothes" or "cradle", which can refer to "the earliest stages or first traces in the development of anything". A former term for "incunable" is "fifteener", referring to the 15th century.
It has often been said that the first recorded use of incunabula as a printing term would be in the Latin pamphlet De ortu et progressu artis typographicae ("On the rise and progress of the typographic art", Cologne, 1639) by Bernhard von Mallinckrodt, which includes the phrase prima typographicae incunabula, "the first infancy of printing", a term to which he arbitrarily set an end of 1500 which still stands as a convention.
However, a study in 2009 identified an earlier source than Mallinckrodt for this lexical invention; instead, credit appears to belong to the Dutch physician Hadrianus Junius (Adriaan de Jonghe, 1511/1512–1575). In his Batavia, published in Leiden in 1588 but written in 1569, Junius used the term "incunabula" when referring to the time of the first productions of the typographic technique: "...id observatum fuerat inter prima artis incunabula".
The term incunabula came to denote the printed books themselves in the late 17th century. John Evelyn, in moving the Arundel Manuscripts to the Royal Society in August 1678, remarked of the printed books among the manuscripts: "The printed books, being of the oldest impressions, are not the less valuable; I esteem them almost equal to MSS." The convenient but arbitrarily chosen end date for identifying a printed book as an incunable does not reflect any notable developments in the printing process, and many books printed for a number of years after 1500 continued to be visually indistinguishable from incunables.
"Post-incunable" typically refers to books printed after 1500 up to another arbitrary end date such as 1520 or 1540. From around this period the dating of any edition becomes easier, as the inclusion of information by printers – such as place and year of printing – became more widespread.
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 typographic ones only.
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, nobles and professionals who formed their major customer base. Standard works in Latin inherited from the medieval tradition formed the bulk of the earliest printing, but as books became cheaper, works in the various local vernaculars (or translations of standard works) began to appear.
The most 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.
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.
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. After c1540 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.
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." For books printed in the UK, the term generally covers 1501–1520, and for books printed in Europe, 1501–1540.
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|
The 18 languages that incunabula are printed in, in descending order, are: Latin, German, Italian, French, Spanish, English, Hebrew, Catalan, Czech, Greek, Church Slavonic, Portuguese, Swedish, Breton, Danish, Frisian and Sardinian (see diagram).
The 'commonest' incunable is Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle ("Liber Chronicarum") of 1493, with c 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.
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).
Apart from migration to mainly North American and Japanese universities, there has been remarkably 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 – i.e. about 97.75% remain north of the equator. However many incunabula are sold at auction or through the rare book trade every year.
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, 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.
Notable collections, with the approximate numbers of incunabula held, include:
- British Library: Incunabula Short Title Catalogue gives 30,375 editions as of March 2014, which also includes some prints from the 16th century though (retrieved 23 July 2015).
- 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, München 2008, ISBN 978-3-598-11772-5, pp. 207–224 (207f.) the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue lists 30,375 titles published before 1501.
- C.T. Lewis and C. Short, A Latin Dictionary, Oxford 1879, p. 930. The word incunabula is a neuter plural; the singular incunabulum is never found in Latin and not used in English by most specialists.
- Oxford English Dictionary, 1933, I:188.
- "An Introduction to Incunabula". Barber, Phil. Retrieved 6 July 2017.
"Incunabula" is a generic term coined by English book collectors in the seventeenth century to describe the first printed books of the fifteenth century. It is a more elegant replacement for what had previously been called 'fifteeners', and is formed of two Latin words meaning literally 'in the cradle' or 'in swaddling clothes'. The word is plural; in referring to a single fifteenth century book, "incunabulum" is correct.
- "Fifteener" is a coinage of the bibliographer Thomas Frognall Dibdin, a term endorsed by William Morris and Robert Proctor. (Carter & Barker 2004, p. 130).
- Glomski, J (2001). "Incunabula Typographiae: seventeenth-century views on early printing". The Library. 2: 336. doi:10.1093/library/2.4.336.
- Sordet, Yann (2009). "Le baptême inconscient de l'incunable : non pas 1640 mais 1569 au plus tard". Gutenberg Jahrbuch (in French). 84: 102–105.
- Evelyn, The Diary of John Evelyn From 1641 to 1705/6.
- Oxford Companion to the Book, ed. M.F. Suarez and H.R. Woudhuysen, OUP, 2010, s.v. 'Incunabulum', p. 815.
- Daniel De Simone (ed), A Heavenly Craft: the Woodcut in Early Printed Books, New York, 2004, p. 48.
- Walsby, Malcolm; Kemp, Graeme, eds. (2011). The Book Triumphant: Print in Transition in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Brill. p. viii. ISBN 9789004207233.
- Walsby & Kemp 2011, p. viii.
- Carter, John; Barker, Nicolas (2004). ABC for Book Collectors (PDF) (8th ed.). New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press and the British Library. p. 172. ISBN 1-58456-112-2. Retrieved 28 May 2010.
- Carter & Barker 2004, p. 172.
- BL.uk, 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.
- "Index: Place of Publication: Venice", Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, retrieved 3 December 2017
- "Index: Place of Publication: Paris", Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, retrieved 3 December 2017
- "Index: Place of Publication: Rome", Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, retrieved 3 December 2017
- "Index: Place of Publication: Cologne", Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, retrieved 3 December 2017
- "Index: Place of Publication: Lyons", Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, retrieved 3 December 2017
- "Index: Place of Publication: Leipzig", Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, retrieved 3 December 2017
- "Index: Place of Publication: Augsburg", Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, retrieved 3 December 2017
- "Index: Place of Publication: Strassburg", Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, retrieved 3 December 2017
- "Index: Place of Publication: Milan", Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, retrieved 3 December 2017
- "Index: Place of Publication: Nuremberg", Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, retrieved 3 December 2017
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Incunabula.|
- Centre for the History of the Book
- British Library worldwide Incunabula Short Title Catalogue
- Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke (GW), partially English version
- History of Incunabula Studies
- UIUC Rare Book & Manuscript Library
- Grand Valley State University Incunabula & 16th Century Printing digital collections
- Incunable Collection at the US Library of Congress
- Digital facsimiles of several incunabula from the website of the Linda Hall Library
- Kristian Jensen (2016). "Introduction to the study of incunabula". Lyon: Ecole Nationale Superieure des Sciences de l'information et des Bibliotheques, Institut d'histoire du livre. (Includes annotated bibliography)
- "Rinascimento: Manuscripts & Incunabula". Research Guides. US: Harvard University Library.