Incunabula: Early Printed Books

This is post #9 of #BlogchatterA2Z.

This includes blogging every day in April for 26 days, except on Sundays. What’s special about it is that every day’s post will be corresponding to each letter of the alphabet. 

My theme for 2021 is Bookish TriviaIf you liked this post, don’t forget to “roll” me on Blogchatter’s website!

All my #BlogchatterA2Z posts 2021 can be found here.

The invention of the printing press is considered to be one of the turning points in history. Books that were created before and after this major cultural event are vastly different.

Movable type printing press
Wooden movable type printing press

Book collectors, librarians, and historians have given the term “incunabula” to books that were printed during this time of transition.

Incunabula could be books, documents, or pamphlets that were printed using metal type before the beginning of the 16th century in Europe.

Use of the term “incunabula”

In 1639, when the famous bibliophile Berhnhard von Mallinckrodt released a pamphlet to mark the bicentennial anniversary of printing with movable type, the word “incunabula” was first recorded to have been used.

The title of the pamphlet was “Of the Rise and Progress of the Typographic Art” or “De ortu et progressu artis typographicae.”

Mallinckrodt used the phrase “prima typographicae incunabula” or “the first infancy of printing” to refer to books printed before 1500.

(Note that this is not a hard and fast date. It was simply chosen for convenience and probably because it was a rounded number.)

In fact, printed books began to transform in the way they looked only in about 1530.

Incanabula is the plural of Incanabulum, a Latin word meaning “cradle.” The meaning of the word evolved to signify “beginning” or “place of birth.”

In book terminology, incunabulum describes books that were printed with movable type up to the year 1500.

Gutenberg’s Bible

Johann Gutenberg is credited with inventing printing technology with movable type (1400 – 1468). Apparently, he had developed the idea behind the technology by 1439 but could accomplish the printing of a full book (the Gutenberg Bible) only by 1452.

The Gutenberg Bible

Did you know that in Latin, the word for Bible is biblia? And that this is originally a Greek word, meaning “books?”

Before the printing press came into use, books were copied by hand (called manuscripts). Mostly, Christian religious works were reproduced and scribes hand drew beautiful decorative features on the pages.

Interestingly, Gutenberg’s “42-line Bible” was not a fully printed work. He designed it such that decorative lettering called illumination could be applied by hand after printing.

Thus, early printed books were designed to look exactly like manuscripts.

For instance, there was:

  1. use of abbreviations and contractions in sentences,
  2. rubrication in the beginning of a chapter,
  3. use of different typefaces depending on genre and region, and
  4. frequent use of marginal notes and columns.

In 1480, the title page began to be added. Previously, the text began just after the title, which was called “the incipit.”

In the colophon (a section at the back of the book), details about the printer, the year of printing, and the place of printing were added. However, information about the printer could also be missing. Gutenberg’s name does not appear in many of the books he is supposed to have printed.

But with the printing press, it was now around 8 times faster to reproduce books and consequently, the price of books was reduced.

Rapid increase in book production

Gutenberg’s invention is significant because it changed the way that Europe looked at literature and books. It was now possible to print hundreds of copies faster and more cheaply.

It’s safe to say that the floodgates of literature had been thrown open after the invention of the printing press.

  • In 1480, more than 1,000 books were produced.
  • In the beginning of the 17th century, over 3,000 books had been printed, and
  • At the start of the 19th century, the number had reached 5,000.

Watch this video to see some stunning examples of incunabula:





8 thoughts on “Incunabula: Early Printed Books

  1. Incunabula sounds like a Telugu surname!:) On a serious note, I love how you are introducing us to all aspects of a book! Thank you.

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