An incunable, or sometimes incunabulum (plural incunables or incunabula, respectively), is a book, pamphlet, or broadside printed in Europe before the year 1501. (Importantly, incunabula are not manuscripts.) As of 2014, there are about 30,000 distinct known incunable editions extant. The number of surviving copies in Germany alone is estimated at around 125,000.[1][2]


"Incunable" is the anglicised singular form of incunabula, Latin for "swaddling clothes" or "cradle",[3] which can refer to "the earliest stages or first traces in the development of anything".[4] A former term for "incunable" is "fifteener", referring to the 15th century.[5][6]

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.[7]

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.[8]

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."[9] 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.[10]

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.

Famous examples

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

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.[11]


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.[12] 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.[13]

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."[14] For books printed in the UK, the term generally covers 1501–1520, and for books printed in Europe, 1501–1540.[15]

Statistical data

Printing towns
Distribution by region
Distribution by language

The data in this section were derived from the Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue (ISTC).[16]

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
Venice [17] 3,549 12.5
Paris [18] 2,764 9.7
Rome [19] 1,922 6.8
Cologne [20] 1,530 5.4
Lyons [21] 1,364 4.8
Leipzig [22] 1,337 4.7
Augsburg [23] 1,219 4.3
Strassburg [24] 1,158 4.1
Milan [25] 1,101 3.9
Nuremberg [26] 1,051 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 22,024 77.6

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).

Only about one edition in ten (i.e. just over 3,000) has any illustrations, woodcuts or metalcuts.

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.

In terms of format, the 29,000-odd editions comprise: 2,000 broadsides, 9,000 folios, 15,000 quartos, 3,000 octavos, 18 12mos, 230 16mos, 20 32mos, and 3 64mos.

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.

Major collections

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.[27]

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

Library Location Country Number of copies Number of editions Ref.
Bavarian State Library Munich Germany 20,000 9,756 [28]
British Library London UK 12,500 10,390 [29]
Bibliothèque nationale de France Paris France 12,000 8,000 [30]
Vatican Library Vatican City Vatican City 8,600 5,400 (more than) [31]
Austrian National Library Vienna Austria 8,000 [32]
Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart Germany 7,076 [citation needed]
National Library of Russia Saint Petersburg Russia 7,000 [citation needed]
Bodleian Library Oxford UK 6,755 5,623 [33]
Library of Congress Washington, DC US 5,600 [citation needed]
Huntington Library San Marino, California US 5,537 5,228
Russian State Library Moscow Russia 5,300 [citation needed]
Cambridge University Library Cambridge UK 4,650 [34]
Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III Naples Italy 4,563 [35]
John Rylands Library Manchester UK 4,500 [citation needed]
Danish Royal Library Copenhagen Denmark 4,425 [36]
Berlin State Library Berlin Germany 4,442 [37]
Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts US 4,389 3,627 [38]
National Library of the Czech Republic Prague Czech Republic 4,200 [39]
National Central Library Florence Italy 4,000 [40]
Jagiellonian Library Kraków Poland 3,671 [41]
Yale University (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library) New Haven, Connecticut US 3,525 (all collections) [citation needed]
Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel Germany 3,477 2,835 [42]
Biblioteca Nacional de España Madrid Spain 3,159 2,298 [43]
Biblioteca Marciana Venice Italy 2,883 [citation needed]
Uppsala University Library Uppsala Sweden 2,500 [44]
Biblioteca comunale dell'Archiginnasio Bologna Italy 2,500 [45]
Bibliothèque Mazarine Paris France 2,370 [46]
Bibliothèque municipale de Colmar Colmar France 2,300 [47]
Library of the University of Innsbruck (Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek) Innsbruck Austria 2122 1889 [48]
National and University Library Strasbourg France 2,098 (circa) [49]
Morgan Library New York US 2,000 (more than) [citation needed]
Newberry Library Chicago US 2,000 (more than) [50]
Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma Rome Italy 2,000 [51]
National Library of the Netherlands The Hague Netherlands 2,000 [citation needed]
National Széchényi Library Budapest Hungary 1,814 [citation needed]
Heidelberg University Library Heidelberg Germany 1,800 [citation needed]
Abbey library of Saint Gall St. Gallen Switzerland 1,650 [citation needed]
Turin National University Library Turin Italy 1,600 [52]
Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal Lisbon Portugal 1,597 [53]
Library (it) of the University of Padua Padua Italy 1,583 [54]
Strahov Monastery Library Prague Czech Republic 1,500 (more than) [55]
Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève Paris France 1,450 [56]
Walters Art Museum Baltimore, Maryland US 1,250 [57]
Bryn Mawr College Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania US 1,214 [citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon Lyon France 1,200 [58]
Biblioteca Colombina Seville Spain 1,194 [59]
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign Urbana, Illinois US 1,100 (more than) [60]
Bridwell Library Dallas, Texas US 1,000 (more than) [61]
University of Glasgow Glasgow UK 1,000 (more than) [62]
National and University Library in Zagreb Zagreb Croatia 1,000(circa)
Bibliothèque municipale de Besançon Besançon France 1,000 (circa) [citation needed]
Huntington Library San Marino, California US 827 [63]
Free Library of Philadelphia Philadelphia US 800 (more than) [citation needed]
Princeton University Library Princeton, New Jersey US 750 (including the Scheide Library) [citation needed]
Leiden University Library Leiden Netherlands 700 [citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipale de Grenoble Grenoble France 654 [citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipale(fr) Avignon France 624 [64]
Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire Fribourg Switzerland 617 537 [65]
Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne Paris France 614 (including the Victor Cousin collection) [66]
Bibliothèque municipale Cambrai France 600 [citation needed]
National Library of Medicine Bethesda, Maryland US 580 [67]
Humanist Library of Sélestat Sélestat France 550 [68]
Médiathèque de la Vieille Île Haguenau France 541 [69]
Bibliothèque municipale(fr) Rouen France 535 [citation needed]
Boston Public Library Boston US 525 [citation needed]
Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine Kiev Ukraine 524 [citation needed]
Biblioteca del Seminario Vescovile Padua Italy 483 [70]
Univerzitná knižnica v Bratislave Bratislava Slovakia 465 [citation needed]
Bibliothèque de Genève Geneva Switzerland 464 [citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipale Metz France 463 [citation needed]
L. Tom Perry Special Collections Provo, Utah US 450 (circa) [71]
Folger Shakespeare Library Washington, D.C. US 450 (circa) [72]
University of Michigan Library Ann Arbor, Michigan US 450 (circa) [73]
Fondazione Ugo Da Como Lonato del Garda Italy 450 [citation needed]
Brown University Library Providence, Rhode Island US 450 [74]
Bancroft Library Berkeley, California US 430 [citation needed]
University of Zaragoza Zaragoza Spain 406 [citation needed]
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Philadelphia US 400 (more than) [citation needed]
Médiathèque de la ville et de la communauté urbaine(fr) Strasbourg France 394 (5,000 destroyed by fire in the 1870 Siege of Strasbourg) [75][76]
Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin Austin, Texas US 380 [77]
National Library of Finland Helsinki Finland 375 [78]
State Library of Victoria Melbourne Australia 355 [79]
University of Chicago Library Chicago US 350 (more than) [80]
Bibliothèque municipale Bordeaux France 333 [81]
Smithsonian Institution Libraries Washington, DC US 320 [citation needed]
Vilnius University Library Vilnius Lithuania 327 [82]
Bibliothèque universitaire de Médecine Montpellier France 300 [83]
Bibliothèque municipale Douai France 300 [citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipale Amiens France 300 [citation needed]
University of Seville Seville Spain 298 [84]
Bibliothèque municipale Poitiers France 289 [citation needed]
National Library of Wales Aberystwyth UK 250 [85]
Bibliothèque du Grand Séminaire (fr) Strasbourg France 238 [86]
State Library of New South Wales Sydney Australia 236 [87]
Library of the Kynžvart Castle(cs) Lázně Kynžvart Czech Republic 230 [88]
Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America New York US 216 [89]
Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto Toronto Canada 200 (more than) [90]
Latimer Family Library at Saint Vincent College Latrobe, Pennsylvania US 200 (circa) [91]
Stanford University Libraries Palo Alto, California US 178 [92]
Cardiff University Library Cardiff UK 173 [93]
Dartmouth College (Rauner Special Collections Library) Hanover, New Hampshire US 170 [94]
National Library of Greece Athens Greece 149
Boston College Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts US 79 [95]

See also


  1. ^ 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).
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 1933, I:188.
  5. ^ "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. 
  6. ^ "Fifteener" is a coinage of the bibliographer Thomas Frognall Dibdin, a term endorsed by William Morris and Robert Proctor. (Carter & Barker 2004, p. 130).
  7. ^ Glomski, J (2001). "Incunabula Typographiae: seventeenth-century views on early printing". The Library. 2: 336. doi:10.1093/library/2.4.336. 
  8. ^ Sordet, Yann (2009). "Le baptême inconscient de l'incunable: non pas 1640 mais 1569 au plus tard". Gutenberg Jahrbuch (in French). 84: 102–105. 
  9. ^ Evelyn, The Diary of John Evelyn From 1641 to 1705/6.
  10. ^ Oxford Companion to the Book, ed. M.F. Suarez and H.R. Woudhuysen, OUP, 2010, s.v. 'Incunabulum', p. 815.
  11. ^ Daniel De Simone (ed), A Heavenly Craft: the Woodcut in Early Printed Books, New York, 2004, p. 48.
  12. ^ Walsby, Malcolm; Kemp, Graeme, eds. (2011). The Book Triumphant: Print in Transition in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Brill. p. viii. ISBN 9789004207233. 
  13. ^ Walsby & Kemp 2011, p. viii.
  14. ^ 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.  Free to read
  15. ^ Carter & Barker 2004, p. 172.
  16. ^ 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.
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External links