An Introduction to Incunabula

Phil Barber, Cambridge, Mass. 02139
Telephone (617) 492-4653,

What It Means

"Incunabula" is a generic term coined by English book collectors in the seventeenth century to describe the first printed books of the fifteenth century. It is a more elegant replacement for what had previously been called "fifteeners", and is formed of two Latin words meaning literally "in the cradle" or "in swaddling clothes". The word is plural; in referring to a single fifteenth century book, "incunabulum" is correct. This term is also occasionally Anglicized as "Incunable". The first Incunabulum is the Gutenberg Bible of 1455, although there is today some debate among scholars over whether this may be correctly considered the first printed book, as items had been printed in Europe from solid block type, rather than moveable type, since the fourteenth century. Books made in 1500 are the last incunabula, printed in the final year of the fifteenth century. In correct usage the new century began (as all do) on January 1, 1501, as the year 1500 is simply the one hundredth and final year of the fifteenth century.

Masterpieces of the Printer's Art

The art of printing is virtually unique in the human experience in that it emerged fully formed. The works of the pioneering master printers are absolutely breathtaking in their technical and artistic perfection. They set standards for excellence that remained unrivaled until the rise of the modern "art" printing house a century ago; and yet these works are still unequaled, when it is taken into account the laborious, entirely manual processes of their manufacture. The power and the charm of Incunabula are quite as unique as their impact on human history was profound.

Printing was such an immense improvement over the hand copying of books that it caught on immediately and within two generations the art of the illuminated manuscript had become all but extinct. The earliest printers, however, continued many of the traditions of the scribes, making use of textual contractions and elisions to reduce the volume of matter to be printed. In addition many incunabula were designed to be rubricated by hand, that is, to be decorated with flourishing initial letters and other embellishments, done by the now underemployed and presumably discontented scribes. Book illustrations in the Incunabula period were prepared from woodcuts, that is, printed from blocks of wood hand engraved with their subjects by skilled artists and artisans. This form of illustration allows great artistic expression, and the results of this technology are eagerly collected today, and appreciated for what they are, the first commercial art to be available to all people.

Printing Changes the World

There was a flood tide of demand for the new printed books. In the forty five years of the incunabula period tens of thousands of titles were printed, amounting to millions of copies of books on all topics. Now knowledge, the key to power, became available at a tiny fraction of the cost of a handwritten book. This development proved an enormous impetus to literacy, and banished forever the dark days when only a few Church officials and noblemen held the key to deciphering the magic letters of the old parchments. The printed book arrived just as an emerging middle class of tradesman and artisans was rising in social, political, and economic power, further challenging the institutions that had held Europeans in their absolute control for a thousand years. This explosion of knowledge, coupled with the new humanist world view of the Renaissance, swept away the lingering intellectual darkness of Medievalism, and ushered in the centuries of social and technological progress that have made possible the unprecedented prosperity of the modern world.

Where It All Began

Printing began in Mainz, Germany, with Gutenberg, in the 1450's. After the city was sacked in 1459, many of Gutenberg's followers removed to Cologne. From there printing spread across Europe with remarkable speed. In 1470 there were fourteen printing houses on the continent; in 1480 there were more than a hundred. From the German states printing moved almost immediately into France and the Italian Kingdoms, then arrived in Holland in 1472, Belgium in 1473, Spain in 1474, finally reaching England in 1477.

How Books Were Originally Sold

A visit to an early printer to buy books was nothing like a modern trip to a book shop. The earliest books lack titlepages and were presented for sale undecorated and unbound. The browser would be greeted by the sight of a display of sample books whose signatures (groups of pages) were loose, just tied together with string, with the author and title of the work on a small attached slip of paper. When the book pages were purchased, the new owner would have them embellished and bound according to his means. Many printers kept an in-house staff of rubricators (also called "rubrishers" in old books) and binders, as well as printers, type-cutters and sometimes paper-makers. Because of this tradition copies of the same work may be found today in the simplest of vellum (sheepskin) bindings with no decoration, or lavishly rubricated in color and even gold leaf, and bound in the most sumptuous tooled and gilt leather, perhaps even fitted with clasps of chased silver.

Incunabula as Collector's Items

The study and collecting of Incunabula has been actively pursued for centuries. The great majority of these early works have perished over time, victims of hard use and the incessant warfare that scourged Europe. The collecting of individual leaves from defective or incomplete works has been an accepted part of the bibliophile's world for an equally long period. Leaves from the Gutenberg Bible are of course the ultimate collectible Incunabula leaves and are avidly collected. A bookseller broke a defective copy of this great classic in 1923, marketing the leaves as "A Noble Fragment", at $300. Today the market value of a Gutenberg Bible leaf is between twenty thousand and thirty five thousand dollars depending on the quality of the rubrication. Fortunately most Incunabula are far less costly, with specimens available for as little as $10. The factors determining an Incunabulum's collectibility are its appearance, printer, and rarity. The more artistic the piece the greater is the collector demand, and hence its value. Leaves with illustrations and fine decoration are currently collectors' favorites. Among the more noted printers, works of the great Venetian printer Aldus Manutius are very popular for the superb quality of their style and execution. The prolific Nuremberg printer Anton Koberger produced many works that are highly esteemed today, including the sumptuous Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, the world's first fully illustrated printed book. Works by William Caxton, the first to print books in English, are not only superbly executed but are also so rare as to be virtually non-existent in today's collector market.

Today these leaves are extremely popular for decorating. Housed in suitable mats and frames they remain lovely works of art and the most affordable artifacts from the Renaissance era. The mats in which they may be housed for display should always be made of archival quality materials, to ensure that their contents will remain undamaged.


Briefly, the enemies of all old documents are heat, humidity, and sunlight. To maintain their fine condition, they should be kept in a stable storage environment free of excess fluctuation in temperature and humidity. There should limited contact with air and strong light. To accomplish these goals, select a dry, cool place in your home to store your collection. Any room suitable for habitation will generally be satisfactory for the preservation of this material.. Never leave it in the basement or attic, where change of temperature and humidity occur regularly and can cause deterioration.
If you frame your collection, include an ultraviolet filtering screen between them and bright light. Secondly, select only archival quality acid free containers for permanent storage. These can be fairly costly if purchased already made up, but with a little ingenuity, some Mylar, and double-sided adhesive tape, you can make your own custom holders at a considerable savings. Documents maybe treated with acid-neutralizing chemical agents, though it is suggested that amateurs do not attempt this process as the solvents can be harmful and the results erratic.

The World Wide Web is a gold mine of helpful information of all kinds for the collector, archivist, and historical hobbyist. Here are a few suggested links for further information on the care and preservation of collectibles of all kinds.

Conservation Information
The Northeast Document Conservation Center ( This excellent site includes an online version of the Center's very helpful book Preservation of Library and Archival Materials: A Manual.
Conservation OnLine ( A project of the Preservation Department of Stanford University Libraries, this site abounds in useful information and has a wide variety of links for further online resources.
UNESCO's "Memory of the World" project ( This very ambition project aims to "promote the preservation of the documentary heritage of mankind" and to this end discusses many way of preserving paper, photos, and modern archival materials. This site contains Tim Padgfield's An Introduction to the Physics of the Museum Environment, a useful discussion on relative humidity and its effect on collections, with techniques for environmental monitoring.
Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections ( Featured here are a number of pamphlets, including several on insect pests and identification of archival quality plastics.

Commercial Websites
University Products. This site sells the finest archival quality supplies to house your collection, and books on how to care for your valued collectibles.
Action Plastic Sales. Here you will find a wide selection of economically priced polyethylene slips (useful for shipping and short term storage) and other useful supplies.
L-W Book Sales & Publishing. Excellent retail source for reference books and price guides in many areas of antiques and collectibles.

You can also visit my information pages on collecting, collector terminology, how to read my general catalog descriptions, and more by selecting this link.

For Further Reading

Berry, The Annals of Printing, Blandford, 1966
Carter, et al., Printing and the Mind of Man, London, 1967
Chappell, A Short History of the Printed Word, Knopf, 1970
McMurtie, The Book, Covici Friede, 1938
Oswald, A History of Printing, Appleton, 1928
Pollard, Early Illustrated Books, London, 1898
Thomas, Great Books and Book Collectors, Excalibur, 1983

Incunabula Union Lists

Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke, Leipzig, 1928 - date
Goff, Incunabula in American Libraries, N.Y., 1972
Hain-Coppinger, Repertorium Bibliographicum, London, 1895 - 1902

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Contents ©:2016 Phil Barber.