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"Incunabula" redirects here. For other uses, see Incunabula (disambiguation).

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

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]

The largest collections, with the approximate numbers of incunabula held, include:

Library Location Number of copies Number of editions Ref.
Bavarian State Library Munich 20,000 9,756 [10]
British Library London 12,500 10,390 [11]
Bibliothèque nationale de France Paris 12,000 8,000 [12]
Vatican Library Vatican City 8,600 5,400 (more than) [13]
Austrian National Library Vienna 8,000 [14]
Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart 7,076
National Library of Russia Saint Petersburg 7,000
Bodleian Library Oxford 6,755 5,623 [15]
Library of Congress Washington, DC 5,600
Russian State Library Moscow 5,300
Cambridge University Library Cambridge 4,650 [16]
Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III Naples 4,563 [17]
John Rylands Library Manchester 4,500
Danish Royal Library Copenhagen 4,425 [18]
Berlin State Library Berlin 4,442 [19]
Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts 4,389 3,627 [20]
National Central Library (Florence) Florence 4,000 [21]
Jagiellonian Library Cracow 3,671 [22]
Yale University (Beinecke) New Haven, Connecticut 3,525 (all collections)
Biblioteca Nacional de España Madrid 3,159 2,298 [23]
Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel 3,000
Biblioteca Marciana Venice 2,883
Uppsala University Library Uppsala 2,500 [24]
Biblioteca comunale dell'Archiginnasio Bologna 2,500 [25]
Bibliothèque municipale Colmar 2,500 [26]
Bibliothèque Mazarine Paris 2,370 [27]
Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire Strasbourg 2,300 (circa) [28]
Morgan Library New York 2,000 (more than)
National Central Library (Rome) Rome 2,000 [29]
National Library of the Netherlands The Hague 2,000
National Széchényi Library Budapest 1,814
University Library Heidelberg Heidelberg 1,800
Abbey library of Saint Gall St. Gallen 1,650
Turin National University Library Turin 1,600 [30]
Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal Lisbon 1,597 [31]
Biblioteca Universitaria di Padova Padua 1,583 [32]
Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève Paris 1,450 [33]
Walters Art Museum Baltimore, Maryland 1,250 [34]
Bryn Mawr College Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania 1,214
Bibliothèque municipale Lyon 1,200 [35]
Biblioteca Colombina Seville 1,194 [36]
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign Urbana, Illinois 1,100 (more than) [37]
Bridwell Library Dallas, Texas 1,000 (more than) [38]
University of Glasgow Glasgow, UK 1,000 (more than) [39]
Newberry Library Chicago 1,000 (more than)
Bibliothèque municipale de Besançon Besançon 1,000 (circa)
Huntington Library San Marino, California 827 [40]
Free Library of Philadelphia Philadelphia 800 (more than)
Princeton University Library Princeton, New Jersey 750 (including the Scheide Library)
Leiden University Library Leiden 700
Bibliothèque municipale Grenoble 654
Bibliothèque municipale Avignon 624 [41]
Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne Paris 614 (including the Victor Cousin collection) [42]
Bibliothèque municipale Cambrai 600
National Library of Medicine Bethesda, Maryland 580 [43]
Humanist Library of Sélestat Sélestat 550 [44]
Médiathèque de la Vieille Ile Haguenau 541
Bibliothèque municipale Rouen 535
Boston Public Library Boston 525
Biblioteca del Seminario Vescovile Padua 483 [45]
Univerzitná knižnica v Bratislave Bratislava 465
Bibliothèque de Genève Geneva 464
Bibliothèque municipale Metz 463
University of Michigan Library Ann Arbor, Michigan 450 (circa) [46]
Fondazione Ugo Da Como Lonato del Garda, Italy 450
Brown University Library Providence, Rhode Island 450 [47]
Bancroft Library Berkeley, California 430
University of Zaragoza Zaragoza 406
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Philadelphia 400 (more than)
Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin Austin, Texas 380 [48]
National Library of Finland Helsinki 375 [49]
University of Chicago Library Chicago 350 (more than) [50]
Médiathèque de la ville et de la communauté urbaine Strasbourg 349 (5,000 destroyed in the fire of 1870) [51][52]
Bibliothèque municipale Bordeaux 333 [53]
Smithsonian Institution Libraries Washington, DC 320
Vilnius University Library Vilnius 315 [54]
Bibliothèque universitaire de Médecine Montpellier 300 [55]
Bibliothèque municipale Douai 300
Bibliothèque municipale Amiens 300
University of Seville Seville 298 [56]
Bibliothèque municipale Poitiers 289
Bibliothèque du Grand Séminaire Strasbourg 237 [57]
Library of the Kynžvart Castle Lazne Kynzvart 230
Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America New York 216 [58]

Statistical data

The data in this section were derived from the Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue.[59]

  • Printing towns: The number of printing towns and cities stands at 282. These are situated in some 20 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, Czechoslovakia, Portugal, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Turkey, Croatia, Montenegro, Balearic Islands, Hungary, and Sicily (see diagram below). 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 28395):
Town or city No. of editions  % of ISTC recorded editions
Venice 3549 12.5
Paris 2764 9.7
Rome 1922 6.8
Cologne 1530 5.4
Lyon 1364 4.8
Leipzig 1337 4.7
Augsburg 1219 4.3
Strasbourg 1158 4.1
Milan 1101 3.9
Nuremberg 1051 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 22024 77.6
  • Languages: 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 below).
  • Illustrations: Only about one edition in ten (i.e. just over 3000) has any illustrations, woodcuts or metalcuts.
  • Survival: The 'commonest' incunable is Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle ("Liber Chronicarum") of 1493, with c 1250 surviving copies (which is also the most heavily illustrated). Very 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 rather common (though extremely valuable) edition.
  • Total number of volumes: 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.
  • Formats: In terms of format, the 29,000 odd editions comprise: 2000 broadsides, 9000 folios, 15,000 quartos, 3000 octavos, 18 12mos, 230 16mos, 20 32mos, and 3 64mos.
  • Caxton: 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).
  • Dispersal: 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 2000 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 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."[60] For books printed on the Continent, the term generally covers 1501–1540, and for books printed in England, 1501–1520.[60]

In popular culture

Lord Peter Wimsey, a fictional gentleman detective, is noted for collecting incunabula.

See also


External links

  • 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

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