An incunable, or sometimes incunabulum (plural incunables or incunabula, respectively), is a book, pamphlet, or broadside printed in Europe before the year 1501. Incunabula are not manuscripts, which are documents written by hand. As of 2014, there are about 30,000 distinct known incunable editions extant, but the probable number of surviving copies in Germany alone is estimated at around 125,000.
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.
The term incunabula as a printing term was first used by the Dutch physician and humanist Hadrianus Iunius (Adriaan de Jonghe, 1511–1575) and appears in a passage from his posthumous work (written in 1569): Hadrianus Iunius, Batavia, [...], [Lugduni Batavorum], ex officina Plantiniana, apud Franciscum Raphelengium, 1588, p. 256 l. 3: «inter prima artis [typographicae] incunabula», a term ("the first infancy of printing") to which he arbitrarily set an end of 1500 which still stands as a convention.
Only by a misunderstanding was Bernhard von Mallinckrodt (1591–1664) considered to be the inventor of this meaning of incunabula; the identical passage is found in his Latin pamphlet De ortu ac progressu artis typographicae ("On the rise and progress of the typographic art", Cologne, 1640): Bernardus a Mallinkrot, De ortu ac progressu artis typographicae dissertatio historica, [...], Coloniae Agrippinae, apud Ioannem Kinchium, 1640 (in frontispiece: 1639), p. 29 l. 16: «inter prima artis [typographicae] incunabula», within a long passage of several pages, which he (correctly) quotes entirely in italic characters (that is between quotation marks), referring to the name of author and work cited: «Primus istorum [...] Hadrianus Iunius est, cuius integrum locum, ex Batavia eius, operae pretium est adscribere; [...]. Ita igitur Iunius» (ibid., p. 27 ll. 27-32, followed by the long passage, «Redeo → sordes», ibid., p. 27, l. 32 – p. 33 l. 32 [= Batavia, p. 253 l. 28 – p. 258 l. 21]). So the source is only one, the other is a quotation.
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 practice of printers including information such as the 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 latter kind 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, 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.
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 c. 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.
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 mainland 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, Dutch, 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 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.
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 (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 and , 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 only; 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 (4): 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 (8th ed.). New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press and the British Library. p. 172. ISBN 1-58456-112-2. Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 November 2017. 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
- "ISTC". Retrieved 16 May 2009.
- "Incunabula". Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. Archived from the original on 9 June 2013. Retrieved 20 May 2013.
- "Early Printed Books". British Library. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
- "Les Incunables". Bibliothèque nationale de France. Retrieved 7 September 2013.
- "All catalogues". Vatican Library. Retrieved 21 May 2013.[permanent dead link]
- "Research on Holdings". Österreichische Nationalbibliothek. Archived from the original on 27 October 2012. Retrieved 30 September 2012.
- "Rare Books (Western) - Bodleian Library". Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Retrieved 15 November 2012.
- "Incunabula Cataloguing Project". Cambridge University Library. Archived from the original on 7 January 2012. Retrieved 30 March 2012.
- "Guida rapida: Informazioni utili" (in Italian). Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli. Archived from the original on 22 January 2011. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
- "Catalogue of Incunables at the Danish Royal Library". Archived from the original on 18 June 2013. Retrieved 7 April 2013.
- "Zahlen und Fakten" (in German). Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Archived from the original on 20 June 2010. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
- Whitesell, David (2006). First supplement to James E. Walsh's Catalogue of the fifteenth-century printed books in the Harvard University Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Library. p. xiii. ISBN 978-0-674-02145-7. OCLC 71691077.
- "Incunabula". National Library of the Czech Republic. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
- "La Biblioteca - Informazioni generali - Patrimonio librario" (in Italian). Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
- "The Jagiellonian University Library Collection". Biblioteka Jagiellońska. 31 December 2009. Archived from the original on 7 June 2011. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
- "The State Library in Numbers". Bamberg State Library. Retrieved 15 August 2019.
- "Herzog August Library - Inkunabeln -Bestandsgeschichte" (in German). Retrieved 15 October 2015.
- "Biblioteca Nacional de España - Colecciones - Incunables" (in Spanish). Biblioteca Nacional de España. Retrieved 1 May 2013.
- "http://www.ub.uu.se/arv/special/einkunab.cfm". Archived from the original on 7 June 2007. External link in
- "Raccolte - Opere a stampa" (in Italian). Biblioteca comunale dell'Archiginnasio. Archived from the original on 7 February 2010. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
- "Collections" (in French). Bibliothèque Mazarine. Archived from the original on 10 August 2010. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
- "Les collections en chiffres" (in French). Les Dominicains – Bibliothèque patrimoniale Jacques Chirac. Archived from the original on 29 November 2014. Retrieved 9 January 2020.
- "Inkunabeln" (in German). Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Tirol. Retrieved 20 March 2015.
- "Les incunables" (in French). Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg. Retrieved 9 January 2020.
- "Incunabula Short Title Catalogue". British Library. Retrieved 12 July 2015.
- "Collezioni" (in Italian). Biblioteca nazionale centrale di Roma. Archived from the original on 25 June 2013. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
- "Incunaboli" (in Italian). Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino. Archived from the original on 22 July 2011. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
- "Incunabula". Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal. Retrieved 15 March 2011.
- "Il patrimonio bibliografico" (in Italian). Biblioteca Universitaria di Padova. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
- "Concise history of the monastic library". Royal Canonry of Premonstratensians at Strahov. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
- "Les imprimés" (in French). Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
- "Manuscript and Rare Books". Walters Art Museum. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
- "Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon" (in French). Lectura. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
- "Institución Colombina - Biblioteca Colombina - Incunables" (in Spanish). Institución Colombina. Retrieved 1 May 2013.
- "Ratsschulbibliothek Zwickau" (in German). Ratsschulbibliothek Zwickau. Retrieved 20 July 2019.
- "Rare Books". Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois. Archived from the original on 11 September 2011. Retrieved 22 August 2011.
- "Incunabula: Printing in Europe before 1501". Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. Archived from the original on 25 June 2013. Retrieved 4 January 2011.
- "Glasgow Incunabula Project". University of Glasgow. Retrieved 16 August 2012.
- As of August 07, 2019, the BML holds 882 incunabula, including a significant number of Hebrew medical texts, according to its president. https://legacy.countway.harvard.edu/bml/index.htm. The previously published figure was 565, in Garland, JE (1975). The Centennial History of the Boston Medical Library, 1875-1975. Boston: The Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. p. 126.
- "The Huntington Library". catalog.huntington.org.
- "Médiathèque Ceccano" (in French). Mairie d'Avignon. Retrieved 9 March 2011.
- Catalogue des incunables du canton de Fribourg par Romain Jurot. Avec la collaboration de Joseph Leisibach et Angéline Rais. Fribourg : Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire, 2015. ISBN 978-2-9700704-9-8.
- Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne. Bibliotheque.sorbonne.fr. Retrieved on 2011-02-20.[verification needed]
- U.S. National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division. http://nlm.nih.gov/hmd Archived 5 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on 2012-02-29.
- "Histoire" (in French). Bibliothèque Humaniste de Sélestat. Retrieved 9 January 2020.
- "Médiathèque de la Vieille Ile. Haguenau, Bas-Rhin" (in French). Catalogue collectif de France (CCFr). Retrieved 12 December 2014.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 22 July 2011. Retrieved 7 March 2011.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- Kopp, Maggie. "Renaissance and Reformation | World History & Culture | L. Tom Perry Special Collections". sites.lib.byu.edu. Harold B. Lee Library. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
- "Printed Books". Folger Shakespeare Library. Retrieved 3 October 2015.
- "Collections". Special Collections Library, The University of Michigan. Retrieved 7 April 2013.
- "Home - Medieval Studies". brown.edu.
- "Incunabula". Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Archived from the original on 8 June 2010. Retrieved 12 May 2011.
- "Åbo Akademis biblioteks inkunabler" (in Swedish). Åbo Akademi University. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
- "State Library Victoria search - incunabula specimens". search.slv.vic.gov.au.
- "Rare Book Collections". University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center. Retrieved 20 August 2011.
- "Présentation des Fonds" (in French). Portail des médiathèques de la ville et de l'Eurométropole de Strasbourg. Retrieved 9 January 2020. Text "patrimoniaux " ignored (help)
- Bordeaux : Culture – Bibliothèque. Bordeaux.fr. Retrieved on 2011-02-20.
- Vilnius University Library Archived 11 September 2013 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on 2013-10-29.
- (in French) Patrimoine documentaire / Documentation / Université Montpellier 1 – Université Montpellier 1. Univ-montp1.fr. Retrieved on 2011-02-20.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 1 April 2008. Retrieved 19 April 2008.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- [Hand-list of Incunabula in the National Library of Wales compiled by Victor Scholderer (N.L.W. Journal Supplement Series 1, No. 1, 1940)]
- "La bibliothèque ancienne du Grand Séminaire" (in French). Séminaire Sainte Marie Majeure - Diocèse de Strasbourg. Retrieved 12 December 2014.
- "Incunabula specimen search". SL-NSW. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
- "Zámecká knihovna - Kynžvart". zamek-kynzvart.cz.
- "Incunabula". University of Toronto. Retrieved 7 January 2016.
- First Impressions: Hebrew Printing in the Fifteenth Century, The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary Archived 28 May 2010 at the Wayback Machine. Jtsa.edu. Retrieved on 2011-02-20.
- Latimer Family Library brochure, May 2015.
- "Guide to the Incunabula Collection at Stanford University, 1467-1500". oac.cdlib.org.
- "Dartmouth College Library /All". libcat.dartmouth.edu. Retrieved 26 January 2017.
- "UCL Special Collections". ucl.ac.uk/library/special-collections. Retrieved 2 December 2019.
- 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. Archived from the original on 27 November 2017. (Includes annotated bibliography)
- "Rinascimento: Manuscripts & Incunabula". Research Guides. US: Harvard University Library.