Amongst the Earliest Printed Books: Incunabula


When people think of the early days of book printing, they often remember Johannes Gutenberg and his first complete book, The Gutenberg Bible (1455). However other books were also published around this time.

Before the year 1500, using a printing press to create books was still a very experimental process. As a result, printed books made during this period have their own special name: Incunabula*. Originally the name did not reference printing. In fact, it had nothing to do with books at all. In Latin, incunabula indicated swaddling clothes or a cradle. The term therefore was intended to indicate that these books were in their infancy and were still developing.

During this early period, two different styles of book printing competed with one another: wood block and movable type. Wood block pages were created by using a carved piece of wood. To create a 300 page book, the printer would need to have at least 300 carved wood blocks. Movable type books, also known as typographic books, were made a bit differently. The printer had to cast metal letters that they would move within their press to create different words. This gave the printer a great deal of flexibility when making books, but it was still an arduous process.

Because making these newfangled books took a great deal of effort, printing towns arose to support them. Though printing towns had typically been established long before the invention of the printing press, the towns transformed in the 15th and 16th centuries to take advantage of the new industry. A sampling of these cities include Venice, Rome, Milan, Nuremberg, Paris, Milan, and Mainz. Some of them are still centers of publishing today.

Perhaps the best known and most common incunabulum is The Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493. The book tells the story of human history beginning with Biblical tales and focusing heavily on Germanic history. There are about 1250 extant copies, which is a minor miracle considering most incunabula have fewer than 20 surviving copies.

Though incunabula may seem positively archaic, they played a vital role in the creation of more modern printing technology. Writers and printers used these books to innovate and figure out better ways to make readable materials. As a result, books and reading ultimately became more accessible to a broader audience. In some small way, I suppose that you could say that Nooks, Kindles, and other e-readers are all great-great-great-grandchildren of incunabula.

If you are interested in learning more about incunabula, check out the British Library’s Incunabula Short Title Catalogue. It is very thorough. And if you have any favorite early books – though I might be the only person who has a favorite incunabulum – then feel free to share. I’d love to hear about them.


*Incunable is one of those words that is linguistically between cultures. It was originally Latin but became highly anglicized. Therefore even though it was originally incunabulum for the singular and incunabula for the plural, people today often use incunable/incunables instead. For consistency’s sake, I use the Latin terms throughout the post.


—     —     —

Image Attribution: Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, Hartmann Schedel, The Nuremberg Chronicles, 99v 100r, 1493. 




23 thoughts on “Amongst the Earliest Printed Books: Incunabula

  1. This is fascinating, Kristen…I love learning about the history of print, it’s often ignored. When you think about the work and cost involved these books are true treasures. Just reading the comment above must say I’m so excited to learn there is a Gutenberg Museum…now I want to there!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love this. Incunabula…swaddling clothes…doesn’t that describe the book writing process perfectly? I remember seeing an original copy of William Blake’s Innocence and Experience in the rare books library at SFU Library in Canada. It was a special moment to see the book that Blake had printed, engraved, and illuminated himself in 1789.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I really enjoyed this article. I have never even thought about the evolution of printing, for some strange reason, I thought moveable type and printing presses appeared almost by magic and it is great to have someone fill in the gaps and put everything into an historical perspective. It makes so much more sense now. Thanks. Off now to investigate some of your earlier posts.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s