Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
An incunabulum is a book, single sheet or image that was printed — not handwritten — before the year 1500 in Europe. These are usually very rare and fragile items whose nature can only be verified by experts. The origin of the word is the Latin incunabula for "swaddling clothes", used by extension for the infancy or early stages of something. The first recorded use of "incunabula" as a printing term is in a pamphlet by Bernard von Mallinckrodt, De ortu et progressu artis typographicae ("Of the rise and progress of the typographic art"), published in Cologne in 1639, which includes the phrase "prima typographicae incunabula", "the first infancy of printing". The term came to denote the printed books themselves from the late 17th century. The plural is incunabula and the word is sometimes Anglicized to incunable.
There are two types of incunabula: the xylographic (made from a single carved or sculpted block for each page) and the typographic (made with movable type on a printing press in the style of Johann Gutenberg). Many authors reserve the term incunabulum for the typographic ones only.
The end date for identifying a 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. Incunabula usually refers to the earliest printed books, completed at a time when some books were still being hand-copied.
The gradual spread of printing 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 humanistic hands. These humanistic typefaces are often used today, barely modified, in digital form.
Printers tended to congregate 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.
Famous incunabula include the Gutenberg Bible of 1455 and the Liber chronicarum of Hartmann Schedel, printed by Anton Koberger in 1493. Other well-known incunabula printers were Albrecht Pfister of Bamberg, Günther Zainer of Augsburg, Johann Mentelin of Straßburg and William Caxton of Bruges and London.
The tally of editions and titles issued before 1500 runs into thousands, and the most authoritative listing is in the German catalogue, the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke which is still being compiled at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin . The British Library has compiled the Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue which includes the holdings of most libraries world-wide.
The largest collections, with the approximate numbers of incunabula held, include:
- Bayerische Staatsbibliothek , Munich (18,550)
- British Library (12,500)
- Bibliotheque Nationale de France (12,000)
- Vatican Library (8,000)
- Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek , Vienna (8,000)
- Stuttgart Landesbibliothek (7,000)
- Huntington Library (5,600)
- Library of Congress (5,600)
- Bodleian Library (5,500)
- Cambridge University Library (4,600)
- John Rylands Library (4,500)
- Harvard University (3,600)
- Yale University (Beinecke 3,100, others 425)
- Koninklijke Bibliotheek (2,000)
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