Incunables in Special Collections

Printing with moveable type began in Europe in the 1450s in the German city of Mainz with the Gutenberg Bible in 1455. The technology spread swiftly across the continent: in ten years, there were printing presses in operation in Italy. By 1475, printing had spread to France, Switzerland, Holland, Hungary, Belgium, Poland, and Spain, and by 1485, England, Austria, Denmark, and Sweden were also printing. Other regions would follow suit until by 1500, there was a printing press in most countries in Western Europe.

Books produced during the first century of European printing are called "incunables" or "incunabula," a term derived from a Latin phrase referring to the cradle. Incunables were produced by people whose main experience with books had been manuscripts and they often copied aspects of manuscript design into their printing. Most incunables were made using high-quality, expensive materials and those that have survived the centuries have often done so surprisingly well: some 30,000 titles produced in these first years have survived in some form or other.

Incunables have much to teach us. Careful examination of them can reveal much about early printing processes, bookmaking, graphic design, and echoes of manuscript practices in print, to say nothing of the texts they contain or the varying ways people have handled books over the centuries. Although many copies of these books have been printed, none has been through quite the same life as the ones held by Special Collections, which are all unique assemblages of writing, printing, binding, and ownership.

Galleries

The Bible: Printing in the West began with the Bible and Special Collections holds several incunable Bibles and commentaries.

Christian Apologetics: Apologetics were a genre of theology focused on justifying the Christian faith; Special Collections holds three apologetic tracts written by Thomas Aquinas and Eusebius of Caesarea.

Published Sermons: Sermons circulated widely in manuscript and print; Special Collections has a selection of six collections of sermons printed during the period.

Other Religious Matters: Special Collections has a variety of other incunables related to Christian religion, including a bibliography of religious writers, an annotated collection of liturgical hymns, an anti-clerical tract, a treatise on vice and immorality, and a pair of leaves taken from a Book of Hours.

Humanism: Humanism was one of the driving forces of the period commonly called “the Renaissance” and Special Collections holds several incunable humanist works and editions.

Humanist Letters: Letters were not wholly private and could sometimes be collected into a volume and published by their authors. Special Collections has a number of volumes collecting humanists’ letters.

Medieval Histories: History was a broader genre grouping during the Middle Ages than it is today and Special Collections holds a number of items that fall under that category.

Sammelbände: Two of Special Collections’ incunable codices collect multiple books into one volume, a common practice during the handpress era.

Access

A finding aid listing the incunables in chronological order is available. In addition to the incunables listed here, Special Collections holds a number of other incunable leaves:

All the materials are available to researchers during the Department’s regular service hours. Please see Reading Room Rules for more information about accessing this material.

Credits

John Henry Adams