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  1. Plural of incunabulum

Extensive Definition

An incunabulum is a book, single sheet, or image that was printed — not handwritten — before the year 1501 in Europe. These are very rare and valuable items. 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 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 term came to denote the printed books themselves from the late seventeenth century. The plural is incunabula and the word is sometimes Anglicized to incunable. A former term is fifteener, referring to the fifteenth century.


There are two types of incunabula: the block-book printed from a single carved or sculpted wooden block for each page, thus 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 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. Some fastidious book-collectors of the fifteenth century eschewed printed books in their personal libraries.
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 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 of Strasbourg 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 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 W. Copinger and D. 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:


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.
incunabula in Bosnian: Inkunabula
incunabula in Catalan: Incunable
incunabula in Czech: Inkunábule
incunabula in Danish: Inkunabel
incunabula in German: Inkunabel
incunabula in Estonian: Inkunaabel
incunabula in Spanish: Incunable
incunabula in Esperanto: Inkunablo
incunabula in French: Incunable
incunabula in Icelandic: Vögguprent
incunabula in Italian: Incunabolo
incunabula in Hebrew: אינקונבולה
incunabula in Hungarian: Ősnyomtatvány
incunabula in Japanese: インキュナブラ
incunabula in Dutch: Incunabel
incunabula in Norwegian: Inkunabel
incunabula in Polish: Inkunabuł
incunabula in Portuguese: Incunábulo
incunabula in Russian: Инкунабула
incunabula in Slovenian: Inkunabula
incunabula in Serbo-Croatian: Inkunabula
incunabula in Finnish: Inkunaabeli
incunabula in Swedish: Inkunabel
incunabula in Ukrainian: Інкунабули
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