iincunabulum - A book printed during the first fifty years of the use of moveable type, from its pioneering use by Johann Gutenberg (German, c. 1400-c. 1468) until 1501. Gutenberg's Mazarin Bible (c. 1455) is considered the first book printed with such type. see thumbnail to rightSee a page from this Bible. "Incunabulum" is sometimes used to mean an artifact of an early period, because it originated as a Latin word meaning "swaddling clothes" and "cradle" -- from the time of printing's infancy. The plural form is incunabula.

Incunabula represent the revolutionary transition from the time of hand written manuscripts and that of mechanically printed media. From the study of incunabula we gain insight into the origins of a tradition that has vastly affected the course of human culture and development, and reveals much about the life, customs, and tastes of the educated during the Renaissance. The import of incunabula is in some ways analogous to the that of such new media as you see on the Internet today.


see thumbnail to rightA set of eight woodcuts from the 16th century depict the various parts of the printing trade

first row:
A. Making vellum
B. Making paper
C. Casting type
D. Setting type and working the press

second row:
E. Drawing illustrations
F. Cutting wood blocks
G. Printing the woodcuts
H. Binding books.

(pr. in'cue-na"bia-lum)




see thumbnail to rightNetherlands, The Apocalypse of St. John, c. 1440, hand-colored woodcut incunabulum, 0.262 x 0.198 m, Louvre. See Gothic and text.




see thumbnail to leftGerman, Euclid's Elementa Geometriae, printed in 1482, one page of this incunabulum, incorporating woodcut initials and illustrations, Bancroft Library, U of California, Berkeley. Euclid (Greek, 3rd century BCE) was a pioneer in the development of geometry.





see thumbnail to rightFrance, Paris, Phillippe Pigouchet for Simon Vostre, Book of Hours, 1500, incunabulum, printed on vellum, Grolier Club, New York City.





see thumbnail to leftFrance, Troyes, Dance of Death, 16th century, incunabulum, illustrated with hand-colored woodcuts, Saxon State Library, Dresden, Germany. Based on a fourteenth-century morality poem by an unidentifiable author, the Dance of Death evolved into a set of illustrated verses depicting a dialogue between Death and people of all social ranks. The theme was very popular in 15th and 16th century Christian Europe, reminding the living that rank and station in life were meaningless in the face of death. The illustrations show representations of ecclesiastical and secular society being carried off by Death. The pages displayed here show the Pope, the Emperor, a cardinal, and a king. See dance and vanitas.


Related resources:

The Gutenberg Bible at the British Library, London.

Bodeliean Library, Oxford University's best collection of books.

Also see illuminated manuscript.



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