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"Incunabula" redirects here. For other uses, see Incunabula (disambiguation).
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, 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 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",[1] which can refer to "the earliest stages or first traces in the development of anything."[2] A former term for "incunable" is "fifteener", referring to the 15th century.

The first recorded use of incunabula as a printing term is in a Latin pamphlet by Bernhard von Mallinckrodt, De ortu et progressu artis typographicae ("Of the rise and progress of the typographic art", Cologne, 1639), which includes the phrase prima typographicae incunabula, "the first infancy of printing", a term to which he arbitrarily set an end, 1500, which still stands as a convention.[3] The term 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."[4]

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.

As of 2008, there are between 28,000 and 30,000 distinct incunable editions known to be extant, while the number of surviving copies in Germany alone is estimated at around 125,000.[5][6]


There are two types of incunabula in printing: the Block book printed from a single carved or sculpted wooden block for each page, by 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.[7]

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 vernaculars (or translations of standard works) began to appear.

Examples and collections[edit]

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

Incunabula include the Gutenberg Bible of 1455, the Peregrinatio in terram sanctam of 1486—printed and illustrated by Erhard Reuwich—both from Mainz, 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.[8]

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.[9]

Notable collections, with the approximate numbers of incunabula held, include:

LibraryLocationNumber of copiesNumber of editionsRef.
Bavarian State LibraryMunich20,0009,756[10]
British LibraryLondon12,50010,390[11]
Bibliothèque nationale de FranceParis12,0008,000[12]
Vatican LibraryVatican City8,6005,400 (more than)[13]
Austrian National LibraryVienna8,000[14]
Württembergische LandesbibliothekStuttgart7,076[citation needed]
National Library of RussiaSaint Petersburg7,000[citation needed]
Bodleian LibraryOxford6,7555,623[15]
Library of CongressWashington, DC5,600[citation needed]
Russian State LibraryMoscow5,300[citation needed]
Cambridge University LibraryCambridge4,650[16]
Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele IIINaples4,563[17]
John Rylands LibraryManchester4,500[citation needed]
Danish Royal LibraryCopenhagen4,425[18]
Berlin State LibraryBerlin4,442[19]
Harvard UniversityCambridge, Massachusetts4,3893,627[20]
National Library of the Czech RepublicPrague4,200[21]
National Central Library (Florence)Florence4,000[22]
Jagiellonian LibraryCracow3,671[23]
Yale University (Beinecke)New Haven, Connecticut3,525 (all collections)[citation needed]
Biblioteca Nacional de EspañaMadrid3,1592,298[24]
Herzog August LibraryWolfenbüttel3,000[citation needed]
Biblioteca MarcianaVenice2,883[citation needed]
Uppsala University LibraryUppsala2,500[25]
Biblioteca comunale dell'ArchiginnasioBologna2,500[26]
Bibliothèque MazarineParis2,370[27]
Bibliothèque municipaleColmar2,300[28]
Bibliothèque nationale et universitaireStrasbourg2,098 (circa)[29]
Morgan LibraryNew York2,000 (more than)[citation needed]
National Central Library (Rome)Rome2,000[30]
National Library of the NetherlandsThe Hague2,000[citation needed]
National Széchényi LibraryBudapest1,814[citation needed]
University Library HeidelbergHeidelberg1,800[citation needed]
Abbey library of Saint GallSt. Gallen1,650[citation needed]
Turin National University LibraryTurin1,600[31]
Biblioteca Nacional de PortugalLisbon1,597[32]
Biblioteca Universitaria di PadovaPadua1,583[33]
Strahov Monastery LibraryPrague1,500 (more than)[34]
Bibliothèque Sainte-GenevièveParis1,450[35]
Walters Art MuseumBaltimore, Maryland1,250[36]
Bryn Mawr CollegeBryn Mawr, Pennsylvania1,214[citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipaleLyon1,200[37]
Biblioteca ColombinaSeville1,194[38]
University of Illinois at Urbana–ChampaignUrbana, Illinois1,100 (more than)[39]
Bridwell LibraryDallas, Texas1,000 (more than)[40]
University of GlasgowGlasgow, UK1,000 (more than)[41]
Newberry LibraryChicago1,000 (more than)[citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipale de BesançonBesançon1,000 (circa)[citation needed]
Huntington LibrarySan Marino, California827[42]
Free Library of PhiladelphiaPhiladelphia800 (more than)[citation needed]
Princeton University LibraryPrinceton, New Jersey750 (including the Scheide Library)[citation needed]
Leiden University LibraryLeiden700[citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipaleGrenoble654[citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipaleAvignon624[43]
Bibliothèque de la SorbonneParis614 (including the Victor Cousin collection)[44]
Bibliothèque municipaleCambrai600[citation needed]
National Library of MedicineBethesda, Maryland580[45]
Humanist Library of SélestatSélestat550[46]
Médiathèque de la Vieille ÎleHaguenau541[47]
Bibliothèque municipaleRouen535[citation needed]
Boston Public LibraryBoston525[citation needed]
Vernadsky National Library of UkraineKyiv524[citation needed]
Biblioteca del Seminario VescovilePadua483[48]
Univerzitná knižnica v BratislaveBratislava465[citation needed]
Bibliothèque de GenèveGeneva464[citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipaleMetz463[citation needed]
University of Michigan LibraryAnn Arbor, Michigan450 (circa)[49]
Fondazione Ugo Da ComoLonato del Garda, Italy450[citation needed]
Brown University LibraryProvidence, Rhode Island450[50]
Bancroft LibraryBerkeley, California430[citation needed]
University of ZaragozaZaragoza406[citation needed]
The College of Physicians of PhiladelphiaPhiladelphia400 (more than)[citation needed]
Médiathèque de la ville et de la communauté urbaineStrasbourg394 (5,000 destroyed by fire in the 1870 Siege of Strasbourg)[51][52]
Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at AustinAustin, Texas380[53]
National Library of FinlandHelsinki375[54]
University of Chicago LibraryChicago350 (more than)[55]
Bibliothèque municipaleBordeaux333[56]
Smithsonian Institution LibrariesWashington, DC320[citation needed]
Vilnius University LibraryVilnius327[57]
Bibliothèque universitaire de MédecineMontpellier300[58]
Bibliothèque municipaleDouai300[citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipaleAmiens300[citation needed]
University of SevilleSeville298[59]
Bibliothèque municipalePoitiers289[citation needed]
Bibliothèque du Grand SéminaireStrasbourg238[60]
State Library of New South WalesSydney231[61]
Library of the Kynžvart CastleLazne Kynzvart230[62]
Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of AmericaNew York216[63]
Stanford University LibrariesPalo Alto, California178[64]
Cardiff University LibraryCardiff, UK173[65]
Médiathèque protestante de StrasbourgStrasbourg94[66]
Odesa National Research LibraryOdessa52[citation needed]
Lviv National Scientific LibraryLviv49[citation needed]
Bibliothèque centrale / Grand'rueMulhouse18 (7 [library] + 10 [fonds Armand Weiss] + 1 [fonds Gérard])[67][68][69]

Statistical data[edit]

Printing towns
Distribution by region
Distribution by language

The data in this section were derived from the Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue.[70]

Town or cityNo. of editions % of ISTC recorded editions


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."[71] For books printed on the Continent, the term generally covers 1501–1540, and for books printed in England, 1501–1520.[71]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 1933, I:188.
  3. ^ Glomski, J (2001). "Incunabula Typographiae: seventeenth-century views on early printing". The Library 2: 336. doi:10.1093/library/2.4.336. 
  4. ^ Evelyn, The Diary of John Evelyn From 1641 to 1705/6.
  5. ^ British Library: Incunabula Short Title Catalogue gives 29,777 editions as of 8 January 2008, which also includes some prints from the 16th century though (retrieved 11 March 2010).
  6. ^ 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 28,107 titles published before 1501.
  7. ^ Oxford Companion to the Book, ed. M.F. Suarez and H.R. Woudhuysen, OUP, 2010, s.v. 'Incunabulum', p. 815.
  8. ^ Daniel De Simone (ed), A Heavenly Craft: the Woodcut in Early Printed Books, New York, 2004, p. 48.
  9. ^ "ISTC". Retrieved 2009-05-16. 
  10. ^ "Incunabula". Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. Retrieved 2013-05-20. 
  11. ^ "Incunabula Collections". British Library. Retrieved 2013-05-20. 
  12. ^ "Les Incunables". Bibliothèque nationale de France. Retrieved 2013-09-07. 
  13. ^ "All catalogues". Vatican Library. Retrieved 2013-05-21. 
  14. ^ "Research on Holdings". Österreichische Nationalbibliothek. Retrieved 2012-09-30. 
  15. ^ "Rare Books (Western) - Bodleian Library". Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Retrieved 2012-11-15. 
  16. ^ "Incunabula Cataloguing Project". Cambridge University Library. Retrieved 2012-03-30. 
  17. ^ "Guida rapida: Informazioni utili" (in Italian). Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli. Retrieved 2011-03-07. 
  18. ^ Catalogue of Incunables at the Danish Royal Library
  19. ^ "Zahlen und Fakten" (in German). Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Retrieved 2011-03-07. 
  20. ^ 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. 
  21. ^ "Incunabula". National Library of the Czech Republic. Retrieved 2014-05-16. 
  22. ^ "La Biblioteca - Informazioni generali - Patrimonio librario" (in Italian). Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. Retrieved 2011-03-07. 
  23. ^ "The Jagiellonian University Library Collection". Biblioteka Jagiellońska. 2009-12-31. Retrieved 2011-03-07. 
  24. ^ "Biblioteca Nacional de España - Colecciones - Incunables" (in Spanish). Biblioteca Nacional de España. Retrieved 2013-05-01. 
  25. ^[dead link]
  26. ^ "Raccolte - Opere a stampa" (in Italian). Biblioteca comunale dell'Archiginnasio. Retrieved 2011-03-08. 
  27. ^ "Collections" (in French). Bibliothèque Mazarine. Retrieved 2011-03-08. 
  28. ^ "Patrimoine : Manuscrits et Livres anciens" (in French). Bibliothèque de Colmar. Retrieved 2014-12-12. 
  29. ^ "Les incunables" (in French). Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg. Retrieved 2014-12-12. 
  30. ^ "Collezioni" (in Italian). Biblioteca nazionale centrale di Roma. Retrieved 2011-03-08. 
  31. ^ "Incunaboli" (in Italian). Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino. Retrieved 2011-03-08. 
  32. ^ "Incunabula". Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal. Retrieved 2011-03-15. 
  33. ^ "Il patrimonio bibliografico" (in Italian). Biblioteca Universitaria di Padova. Retrieved 2011-03-08. 
  34. ^ "Concise history of the monastic library". Royal Canonry of Premonstratensians at Strahov. Retrieved 2014-05-16. 
  35. ^ "Les imprimés" (in French). Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. Retrieved 2011-03-08. 
  36. ^ "Manuscript and Rare Books". Walters Art Museum. Retrieved 2011-03-08. 
  37. ^ "Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon" (in French). Lectura. Retrieved 2011-03-08. 
  38. ^ "Institución Colombina - Biblioteca Colombina - Incunables" (in Spanish). Institución Colombina. Retrieved 2013-05-01. 
  39. ^ "Rare Books". Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois. Retrieved 2011-08-22. 
  40. ^ "Incunabula: Printing in Europe before 1501". Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. Retrieved 2011-01-04. 
  41. ^ "Glasgow Incunabula Project". University of Glasgow. Retrieved 2012-08-16. 
  42. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  43. ^ "Médiathèque Ceccano" (in French). Mairie d'Avignon. Retrieved 2011-03-09. 
  44. ^ Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne. Retrieved on 2011-02-20.[verification needed]
  45. ^ U.S. National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division. Retrieved on 2012-02-29.
  46. ^ "La Bibliothèque Humaniste en quelques chiffres & dates" (in French). Bibliothèque Humaniste de Sélestat. Retrieved 2011-03-09. 
  47. ^ "Médiathèque de la Vieille Ile. Haguenau, Bas-Rhin" (in French). Catalogue collectif de France (CCFr). Retrieved 2014-12-12. 
  48. ^ [1]
  49. ^ "Collections". Special Collections Library, The University of Michigan. Retrieved 2013-04-07. 
  50. ^
  51. ^ "Strasbourg - Médiathèque André Malraux" (in French). Catalogue collectif de France (CCFr). Retrieved 2014-12-12. 
  52. ^ La bibliothèque municipale de Strasbourg | Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France. Retrieved on 2011-02-20.
  53. ^ "Incunabula". Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved 2011-05-12. 
  54. ^ "Åbo Akademis biblioteks inkunabler" (in Swedish). Åbo Akademi University. Retrieved 2013-09-16. 
  55. ^ "Rare Book Collections". University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center. Retrieved 2011-08-20. 
  56. ^ Bordeaux : Culture – Bibliothèque. Retrieved on 2011-02-20.
  57. ^ Vilnius University Library. Retrieved on 2013-10-29.
  58. ^ (French) Patrimoine documentaire / Documentation / Université Montpellier 1 – Université Montpellier 1. Retrieved on 2011-02-20.
  59. ^ [2]
  60. ^ "La bibliothèque ancienne du Grand Séminaire" (in French). Séminaire Sainte Marie Majeure - Diocèse de Strasbourg. Retrieved 2014-12-12. 
  61. ^ specimens&searchscope=2 "Incunabula specimen search". SL-NSW. Retrieved 2014-11-08. 
  62. ^ Kynžvart Castle: Library (Czech)
  63. ^ First Impressions: Hebrew Printing in the Fifteenth Century, The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Retrieved on 2011-02-20.
  64. ^ Guide to the Incunabula Collection at Stanford University, 1467-1500
  65. ^ List of incunabula in Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University
  66. ^ "Catalogue de la Médiathèque protestante". Médiathèque protestante. Retrieved 2014-12-15. 
  67. ^ "Bibliothèque-médiathèque. Mulhouse, Haut-Rhin" (in French). Catalogue collectif de France. Retrieved 2014-12-14. 
  68. ^ "Armand Weiss" (in French). Catalogue collectif de France. Retrieved 2014-12-14. 
  69. ^ "Gérard" (in French). Catalogue collectif de France. Retrieved 2014-12-14. 
  70. ^, 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.
  71. ^ a b 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. 

External links[edit]