Page from Valerius Maximus, Facta et dicta memorabilia, printed in red and black by Peter Schöffer (Mainz, 1471). The page exhibits a rubricated initial letter "U" and decorations, marginalia, and ownership stamps of the "Bibliotheca Gymnasii Altonani" (Hamburg).
Illumination with doodles and drawings (marginalia), including an open-mouthed human profile, with multiple tongues sticking out. Copulata, "De Anima", f. 2a. HMD Collection, WZ 230 M772c 1485.
Image of two facing pages from "Phisicorum", fols. 57b and 58a, with doodles and drawings. HMD Collection, WZ 230 M772c 1485.

An incunable, or sometimes incunabulum (plural incunables or incunabula, respectively), is a book, pamphlet, or broadside (such as the Almanach cracoviense ad annum 1474) that was printed—not handwritten—before the year 1501 in Europe. "Incunable" is the anglicised singular form of "incunabula", Latin for "swaddling clothes" or "cradle",[1] which can refer to "the earliest stages or first traces in the development of anything."[2] A former term for "incunable" is "fifteener", referring to the 15th century.

The first recorded use of incunabula as a printing term is in the Latin pamphlet De ortu et progressu artis typographicae ("Of the rise and progress of the typographic art", Cologne, 1639) by Bernhard von Mallinckrodt, which includes the phrase prima typographicae incunabula, "the first infancy of printing", a term to which he arbitrarily set an end of 1500 which still stands as a convention.[3] The term 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."[4]

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.

As of 2014, there are about 30,000 distinct incunable editions known to be extant, while the number of surviving copies in Germany alone is estimated at around 125,000.[5][6]


There are two types of incunabula in printing: the Block book printed from a single carved or sculpted wooden block for each page, by 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 typographic ones only.[7]

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, 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

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

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 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.[8]

Statistical data

Printing towns
Distribution by region
Distribution by language

The data in this section were derived from the Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue.[9]

Town or city No. of editions % of ISTC recorded editions
Venice 3,549 12.5
Paris 2,764 9.7
Rome 1,922 6.8
Cologne 1,530 5.4
Lyon 1,364 4.8
Leipzig 1,337 4.7
Augsburg 1,219 4.3
Strasbourg 1,158 4.1
Milan 1,101 3.9
Nuremberg 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

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.[10]

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

Library Location Number of copies Number of editions Ref.
Bavarian State Library Munich 20,000 9,756 [11]
British Library London 12,500 10,390 [12]
Bibliothèque nationale de France Paris 12,000 8,000 [13]
Vatican Library Vatican City 8,600 5,400 (more than) [14]
Austrian National Library Vienna 8,000 [15]
Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart 7,076 [citation needed]
National Library of Russia Saint Petersburg 7,000 [citation needed]
Bodleian Library Oxford 6,755 5,623 [16]
Library of Congress Washington, DC 5,600 [citation needed]
Russian State Library Moscow 5,300 [citation needed]
Cambridge University Library Cambridge 4,650 [17]
Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III Naples 4,563 [18]
John Rylands Library Manchester 4,500 [citation needed]
Danish Royal Library Copenhagen 4,425 [19]
Berlin State Library Berlin 4,442 [20]
Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts 4,389 3,627 [21]
National Library of the Czech Republic Prague 4,200 [22]
National Central Library (Florence) Florence 4,000 [23]
Jagiellonian Library Cracow 3,671 [24]
Yale University (Beinecke) New Haven, Connecticut 3,525 (all collections) [citation needed]
Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel 3,477 2,835 [25]
Biblioteca Nacional de España Madrid 3,159 2,298 [26]
Biblioteca Marciana Venice 2,883 [citation needed]
Uppsala University Library Uppsala 2,500 [27]
Biblioteca comunale dell'Archiginnasio Bologna 2,500 [28]
Bibliothèque Mazarine Paris 2,370 [29]
Bibliothèque municipale Colmar 2,300 [30]
University and State Library Tirol Innsbruck 2122 1889 [31]
Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire Strasbourg 2,098 (circa) [32]
Morgan Library New York 2,000 (more than) [citation needed]
Newberry Library Chicago 2,000 (more than) [33]
National Central Library (Rome) Rome 2,000 [34]
National Library of the Netherlands The Hague 2,000 [citation needed]
National Széchényi Library Budapest 1,814 [citation needed]
University Library Heidelberg Heidelberg 1,800 [citation needed]
Abbey library of Saint Gall St. Gallen 1,650 [citation needed]
Turin National University Library Turin 1,600 [35]
Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal Lisbon 1,597 [36]
Biblioteca Universitaria di Padova Padua 1,583 [37]
Strahov Monastery Library Prague 1,500 (more than) [38]
Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève Paris 1,450 [39]
Walters Art Museum Baltimore, Maryland 1,250 [40]
Bryn Mawr College Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania 1,214 [citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipale Lyon 1,200 [41]
Biblioteca Colombina Seville 1,194 [42]
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign Urbana, Illinois 1,100 (more than) [43]
Bridwell Library Dallas, Texas 1,000 (more than) [44]
University of Glasgow Glasgow, UK 1,000 (more than) [45]
Bibliothèque municipale de Besançon Besançon 1,000 (circa) [citation needed]
Huntington Library San Marino, California 827 [46]
Free Library of Philadelphia Philadelphia 800 (more than) [citation needed]
Princeton University Library Princeton, New Jersey 750 (including the Scheide Library) [citation needed]
Leiden University Library Leiden 700 [citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipale Grenoble 654 [citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipale Avignon 624 [47]
Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire Fribourg (Switzerland) 617 537 [48]
Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne Paris 614 (including the Victor Cousin collection) [49]
Bibliothèque municipale Cambrai 600 [citation needed]
National Library of Medicine Bethesda, Maryland 580 [50]
Humanist Library of Sélestat Sélestat 550 [51]
Médiathèque de la Vieille Île Haguenau 541 [52]
Bibliothèque municipale Rouen 535 [citation needed]
Boston Public Library Boston 525 [citation needed]
Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine Kyiv 524 [citation needed]
Biblioteca del Seminario Vescovile Padua 483 [53]
Univerzitná knižnica v Bratislave Bratislava 465 [citation needed]
Bibliothèque de Genève Geneva 464 [citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipale Metz 463 [citation needed]
Folger Shakespeare Library Washington, D.C. 450 (circa) [54]
University of Michigan Library Ann Arbor, Michigan 450 (circa) [55]
Fondazione Ugo Da Como Lonato del Garda, Italy 450 [citation needed]
Brown University Library Providence, Rhode Island 450 [56]
Bancroft Library Berkeley, California 430 [citation needed]
University of Zaragoza Zaragoza 406 [citation needed]
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Philadelphia 400 (more than) [citation needed]
Médiathèque de la ville et de la communauté urbaine Strasbourg 394 (5,000 destroyed by fire in the 1870 Siege of Strasbourg) [57][58]
Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin Austin, Texas 380 [59]
National Library of Finland Helsinki 375 [60]
University of Chicago Library Chicago 350 (more than) [61]
Bibliothèque municipale Bordeaux 333 [62]
Smithsonian Institution Libraries Washington, DC 320 [citation needed]
Vilnius University Library Vilnius 327 [63]
Bibliothèque universitaire de Médecine Montpellier 300 [64]
Bibliothèque municipale Douai 300 [citation needed]
Bibliothèque municipale Amiens 300 [citation needed]
University of Seville Seville 298 [65]
Bibliothèque municipale Poitiers 289 [citation needed]
National Library of Wales Aberystwyth 250 [66]
Bibliothèque du Grand Séminaire Strasbourg 238 [67]
State Library of New South Wales Sydney 231 [68]
Library of the Kynžvart Castle Lazne Kynzvart 230 [69]
Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America New York 216 [70]
Latimer Family Library at Saint Vincent College Latrobe, Pennsylvania 200 (circa) [71]
Stanford University Libraries Palo Alto, California 178 [72]
Cardiff University Library Cardiff, UK 173 [73]
Médiathèque protestante de Strasbourg Strasbourg 94 [74]
National Library of Malta Valletta 60 [75]
Odesa National Research Library Odessa 52 [citation needed]
Lviv National Scientific Library Lviv 49 [citation needed]
Bibliothèque centrale / Grand'rue Mulhouse 18 (7 [library] + 10 [fonds Armand Weiss] + 1 [fonds Gérard]) [76][77][78]


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."[79] For books printed on the Continent, the term generally covers 1501–1540, and for books printed in England, 1501–1520.[79]

See also


  1. ^ C.T. Lewis and C. Short, A Latin dictionary, Oxford 1879, p. 930. The word incunabula is a neuter plural; the singular incunabulum is never found in Latin and not used in English by most specialists.
  2. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 1933, I:188.
  3. ^ Glomski, J (2001). "Incunabula Typographiae: seventeenth-century views on early printing". The Library. 2: 336. doi:10.1093/library/2.4.336.
  4. ^ Evelyn, The Diary of John Evelyn From 1641 to 1705/6.
  5. ^ 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).
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Oxford Companion to the Book, ed. M.F. Suarez and H.R. Woudhuysen, OUP, 2010, s.v. 'Incunabulum', p. 815.
  8. ^ Daniel De Simone (ed), A Heavenly Craft: the Woodcut in Early Printed Books, New York, 2004, p. 48.
  9. ^, 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.
  10. ^ "ISTC". Retrieved 16 May 2009.
  11. ^ "Incunabula". Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. Retrieved 20 May 2013.
  12. ^ "Incunabula Collections". British Library. Retrieved 20 May 2013.
  13. ^ "Les Incunables". Bibliothèque nationale de France. Retrieved 7 September 2013.
  14. ^ "All catalogues". Vatican Library. Retrieved 21 May 2013.
  15. ^ "Research on Holdings". Österreichische Nationalbibliothek. Retrieved 30 September 2012.
  16. ^ "Rare Books (Western) - Bodleian Library". Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Retrieved 15 November 2012.
  17. ^ "Incunabula Cataloguing Project". Cambridge University Library. Retrieved 30 March 2012.
  18. ^ "Guida rapida: Informazioni utili" (in Italian). Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
  19. ^ Catalogue of Incunables at the Danish Royal Library
  20. ^ "Zahlen und Fakten" (in German). Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
  21. ^ Whitesell, David (2006). First supplement to James E. Walsh's Catalogue of the fifteenth-century printed books in the Harvard University Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Library. p. xiii. ISBN 978-0-674-02145-7. OCLC 71691077.
  22. ^ "Incunabula". National Library of the Czech Republic. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  23. ^ "La Biblioteca - Informazioni generali - Patrimonio librario" (in Italian). Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
  24. ^ "The Jagiellonian University Library Collection". Biblioteka Jagiellońska. 31 December 2009. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
  25. ^ "Herzog August Libary - Inkunabeln -Bestandsgeschichte" (in German). Retrieved 15 October 2015.
  26. ^ "Biblioteca Nacional de España - Colecciones - Incunables" (in Spanish). Biblioteca Nacional de España. Retrieved 1 May 2013.
  27. ^ Template:Wayback
  28. ^ "Raccolte - Opere a stampa" (in Italian). Biblioteca comunale dell'Archiginnasio. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
  29. ^ "Collections" (in French). Bibliothèque Mazarine. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
  30. ^ "Patrimoine : Manuscrits et Livres anciens" (in French). Bibliothèque de Colmar. Retrieved 12 December 2014.
  31. ^ "Inkunabeln" (in German). Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Tirol. Retrieved 20 March 2015.
  32. ^ "Les incunables" (in French). Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg. Retrieved 12 December 2014.
  33. ^ "Incunabula Short Title Catalogue". British Library. Retrieved 12 July 2015.
  34. ^ "Collezioni" (in Italian). Biblioteca nazionale centrale di Roma. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
  35. ^ "Incunaboli" (in Italian). Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria di Torino. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
  36. ^ "Incunabula". Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal. Retrieved 15 March 2011.
  37. ^ "Il patrimonio bibliografico" (in Italian). Biblioteca Universitaria di Padova. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
  38. ^ "Concise history of the monastic library". Royal Canonry of Premonstratensians at Strahov. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  39. ^ "Les imprimés" (in French). Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
  40. ^ "Manuscript and Rare Books". Walters Art Museum. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
  41. ^ "Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon" (in French). Lectura. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
  42. ^ "Institución Colombina - Biblioteca Colombina - Incunables" (in Spanish). Institución Colombina. Retrieved 1 May 2013.
  43. ^ "Rare Books". Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois. Retrieved 22 August 2011.
  44. ^ "Incunabula: Printing in Europe before 1501". Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. Retrieved 4 January 2011.
  45. ^ "Glasgow Incunabula Project". University of Glasgow. Retrieved 16 August 2012.
  46. ^ ((cite web)): Missing or empty |title= (help)
  47. ^ "Médiathèque Ceccano" (in French). Mairie d'Avignon. Retrieved 9 March 2011.
  48. ^ Catalogue des incunables du canton de Fribourg par Romain Jurot. Avec la collaboration de Joseph Leisibach et Angéline Rais. Fribourg : Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire, 2015. ISBN 978-2-9700704-9-8.
  49. ^ Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne. Retrieved on 2011-02-20. [verification needed]
  50. ^ U.S. National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division. Retrieved on 2012-02-29.
  51. ^ "La Bibliothèque Humaniste en quelques chiffres & dates" (in French). Bibliothèque Humaniste de Sélestat. Retrieved 9 March 2011.
  52. ^ "Médiathèque de la Vieille Ile. Haguenau, Bas-Rhin" (in French). Catalogue collectif de France (CCFr). Retrieved 12 December 2014.
  53. ^ [1]
  54. ^ "Printed Books". Folger Shakespeare Library. Retrieved 3 October 2015.
  55. ^ "Collections". Special Collections Library, The University of Michigan. Retrieved 7 April 2013.
  56. ^
  57. ^ "Strasbourg - Médiathèque André Malraux" (in French). Catalogue collectif de France (CCFr). Retrieved 12 December 2014.
  58. ^ La bibliothèque municipale de Strasbourg | Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France. Retrieved on 2011-02-20.
  59. ^ "Incunabula". Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved 12 May 2011.
  60. ^ "Åbo Akademis biblioteks inkunabler" (in Swedish). Åbo Akademi University. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  61. ^ "Rare Book Collections". University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center. Retrieved 20 August 2011.
  62. ^ Bordeaux : Culture – Bibliothèque. Retrieved on 2011-02-20.
  63. ^ Vilnius University Library. Retrieved on 2013-10-29.
  64. ^ Template:Fr icon Patrimoine documentaire / Documentation / Université Montpellier 1 – Université Montpellier 1. Retrieved on 2011-02-20.
  65. ^ [2]
  66. ^ [Hand-list of Incunabula in the National Library of Wales compiled by Victor Scholderer (N.L.W. Journal Supplement Series 1, No. 1, 1940)]
  67. ^ "La bibliothèque ancienne du Grand Séminaire" (in French). Séminaire Sainte Marie Majeure - Diocèse de Strasbourg. Retrieved 12 December 2014.
  68. ^ specimens&searchscope=2 "Incunabula specimen search". SL-NSW. Retrieved 8 November 2014. ((cite web)): Check |url= value (help)
  69. ^ Kynžvart Castle: Library (Czech)
  70. ^ First Impressions: Hebrew Printing in the Fifteenth Century, The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Retrieved on 2011-02-20.
  71. ^ Latimer Family Library brochure, May 2015.
  72. ^ Guide to the Incunabula Collection at Stanford University, 1467-1500
  73. ^ List of incunabula in Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University
  74. ^ "Catalogue de la Médiathèque protestante". Médiathèque protestante. Retrieved 15 December 2014.
  75. ^ "Collections". Malta Libraries. Ministry for Education. Archived from the original on 10 March 2015.
  76. ^ "Bibliothèque-médiathèque. Mulhouse, Haut-Rhin" (in French). Catalogue collectif de France. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  77. ^ "Armand Weiss" (in French). Catalogue collectif de France. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  78. ^ "Gérard" (in French). Catalogue collectif de France. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  79. ^ a b 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.