An ‘Incunable’, also incunabula for plural as it is known, is a book, document, or manuscript that was printed not handwritten, in movable type before 1500AD. Incunabula; Latin for the swaddling of clothes, or infancy, can refer to the earliest stages of printing in books. The term incunabula itself was coined by Bernhard von Mallinckrodt in 1639 when he created a printed document highlighting the importance of movable type to the future publishing of books named ‘De ortu et progressu artis typographicae’ (of the rise and progress of typographic art). Within this great literary piece he used the phrase “prima typographicae incunabula”, later transcribed as the first infancy of printing, describing books that were printed before 1500AD. During this period of printing there were two very different forms or types of incunabula; the ‘Block book’, and the ‘Typographic book’. The first of these pair was carved from a singular block of wood for each page, and the latter was made with individual pieces of metal which were smeared with ink and placed into a printing press. Generally only the second type is synonymous with incunabula. The term ‘Incunable’ has serious bibliographical significance to the study of books, as being the first printed books it was an innovative leap in the production of texts, in comparison to what was previously being done. “The invention of printing transformed books into a tradable commodity that required, like any other, a system of production, sales, and distribution” (David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery). Its importance can only be measured by its contribution to production. Before the creation of the printing press in 1450 by Johannes Guttenberg, texts were manually written by monks and clergymen in literary workshops known as ‘scriptorium’. “From about the sixth century AD until printing superseded the manuscript in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, books were reproduced by scribes according to a range of conventions” (Cavallo 2003). Books were generally written onto parchment or vellum, into Latin for education and universities. A scribe would have to write multiple copies of his own section if replicas were required. This process was inhibited by the fact that production could only occur during daylight. A collaboration of workers were needed for a manuscripts creation as scribes only wrote the body; headings, titles and illustrations were entrusted to a ‘rubricator’, and as a whole this process was slow. The printing press allowed a singular compositor to set type, headings, and titles all onto one sheet which could be completed in a matter of minutes. An ‘incunable’ bares its importance from being the end product in the advancement of book production and transformation to becoming a commercial item, moving away from intellectual centres towards commercial centres. Lotte Hellinga’s ‘Gutenburg Revolutions’ is the perfect insight into how the very first ‘Incunabula’ were created and the amount of work needed to do so perfectly. Despite giving praise to Gutenburg for creating the printing press her admiration for steels movable type is trusted upon Nicolas Jenson. The first section of her work demonstrates how compositors would have separate type for capital letters and small case letters, and that various letters would be in greater demand than others. The technique of the printing press whereby a whole sheet could be placed in the printer she attributes to an advancement made in the early 1470’s “a movable carriage which enabled the printer to place a whole sheet on the press and print it in just two pulls with two successive moves of the carriage”, all factors that lead to ‘Incunabula’ creation. The second scholarly work which the term incunabula has relevance is in Tomas E. Keys’ ‘The Library Quarterly’ in which Keys speaks of the significance of moveable type to the production of the earliest medical books. He announces and underlines the importance of keeping relevant measure and account for incunabula for the study of medical history “Without important check lists and indexes to aid the student of medical history such bibliographic studies as this one would be most inadequate”. Throughout both articles and relevant research it is clear that ‘Incunabula’ bears significance on us as readers and how a book is composed. Without the creation of the printing press and the creation of an ‘incunable’, perhaps it would be adequate to say that how we visualise texts in printed form would be changed. In fact the very nature of how we the reader perceive books in print would be different; and this is where ‘Incunabula’s’ bibliographical importance lies.
David Finkelstein & Alistair McCleery, An Introduction To Book History, 2nd Edition, Routledge, London New-York, 2013.
Thomas E. Keys, ‘The Library Quarterly’; The Earliest Medical Books Printed In Movable Type: A Review, Vol 10. No. 2, University of Chicago Press, 1940.
Lotte Hellinga, ‘Gutenburg Revolutions’, Simon Eliot & Jonathan Rose, A Companion To The History of The Book, Wiley- Blackwell, 2009
Contributed by Eibheann Keegan.