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A page from a rare Blackletter Bible (1497) printed in Strasbourg by Hans Grüninger. The coloured chapter initials were hand written after the page was printed.

Incunabulum (plural incunabula) is the Latin for swaddling clothes or cradle, and can refer to "the earliest stages or first traces in the development of anything."[1] In printing, an incunabulum is a book, or even a single sheet of text,[2] that was printed — not handwritten — before the year 1501 in Europe, at a time when some fastidious book-collectors eschewed printed books in their personal libraries.

The first recorded use of incunabula as a printing term is in a 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. The end date for identifying a printed book as an incunabulum is convenient, but was chosen arbitrarily. It does not reflect any notable developments in the printing process around the year 1500. The term came to denote the printed books themselves from the late seventeenth century. The plural incunabula is sometimes Anglicized to incunable. A former term is fifteener, referring to the fifteenth century.


[edit] Types

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, made with individual pieces of cast metal movable type on a printing press, in the technology made famous by Johann Gutenberg. 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.

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.

[edit] Famous examples and collections

Famous 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 of Hartmann Schedel, printed by Anton Koberger in 1493, and the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, printed by Aldus Manutius with important illustrations by an unknown artist. Other well-known incunabula printers were Albrecht Pfister of Bamberg, Günther Zainer of Augsburg, Johannes Mentelin and Heinrich Eggestein of Strasbourg, Heinrich Gran of Haguenau and William Caxton of Bruges and London.

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 seventeenth 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 nineteenth 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.

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

Hand-coloured woodcut by Erhard Reuwich of the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, from the first illustrated incunabulum, the Peregrinatio in terram sanctam of 1486.

[edit] Statistical data

Extrapolated from the Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue in 2007 and subject to slight change as new copies are reported; exact figures given, but should be treated as close estimates. They refer to extant editions.

The number of printing 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.

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.

Only about one edition in ten (i.e. just over 3000) has any illustrations, woodcuts or metalcuts. The 'commonest' incunabulum 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.

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 incunabulum may consist of a slip, or up to ten volumes. In terms of format, the 29,000 odd editions comprise: 2000 broadsides, 9000 folios, 15,000 quartos, 3000 octavos, 18 12mos, 230 16tos, 20 32tos, and 3 64tos.

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 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.

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

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