1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Incunabula

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INCUNABULA, a Latin neuter-plural meaning “swaddling-clothes,” a “cradle,” “birthplace,” and so the beginning of anything, now curiously specialized to denote books printed in the 15th century. Its use in this sense may have originated with the title of the first separately published list of 15th-century books, Cornelius a Beughem’s Incunabula typographiae (Amsterdam, 1688). The word is generally recognized all over Europe and has produced vernacular forms such as the French incunables, German Inkunabeln (Wiegendrucke), Italian incunaboli, though the anglicized incunables is not yet fully accepted. If its original meaning had been regarded the application of the word would have been confined to books printed before a much earlier date, such as 1475, or to the first few printed in any country or town. By the end of the 15th century book-production in the great centres of the trade, such as Venice, Lyons, Paris and Cologne, had already lost much of its primitive character, and in many countries there is no natural halting-place between 1490 and 1520 or later. The attractions of a round date have prevailed, however, over these considerations, and the year 1500 is taken as a halting-place, or more often a terminus, in all the chief works devoted to the registration and description of early printed books. The most important of these are (i.) Panzer’s Annales typographici ab artis inventae origine ad annum MD., printed in five volumes at Nuremberg in 1793 and subsequently in 1803 carried on to 1536 by six additional volumes; (ii.) Ham’s Repertorium bibliographicum in quo libri omnes ab arte typographica inventa usque ad annum MD. typis expressi ordine alphabetico vel simpliciter enumerantur vel adcuratius, recensentur (Stuttgart, 1826–1838). In Panzer’s Annales the first principle of division is that of the alphabetical order of the Latin names of towns in which incunabula were printed, the books being arranged under the towns by the years of publication. In Hain’s Repertorium the books are arranged under their authors’ names, and it was only in 1891 that an index of printers was added by Dr Konrad Burger. In 1898 Robert Proctor published an Index to the Early Printed Books in the British Museum: from the invention of printing to the year MD., with notes of those in the Bodleian Library. In this work the books were arranged as far as possible chronologically under their printers, the printers chronologically under the towns in which they worked, and the towns and countries chronologically in the order in which printing was introduced into them, the total number of books registered being nearly ten thousand. Between 1898 and 1902 Dr W. Copinger published a Supplement to Hain’s Repertorium, described as a collection towards a new edition of that work, adding some seven thousand new entries to the sixteen thousand editions enumerated by Hain. From the total of about twenty-three thousand incunabula thus registered considerable deductions must be made for duplicate entries and undated editions which probably belong to the 16th century. On the other hand Dr Copinger’s Supplement had hardly appeared before additional lists began to be issued registering books unknown both to him and to Hain, and the new Repertorium, begun in 1905, under the auspices of the German government, seemed likely to register, on its completion, not fewer than thirty thousand different incunabula as extant either in complete copies or fragments.

In any attempt to estimate the extent to which the incunabula still in existence represent the total output of the 15th-century presses, a sharp distinction must be drawn between the weightier and the more ephemeral literature. Owing to the great religious and intellectual upheaval in the 16th century much of the literature previously current went out of date, while the cumbrous early editions of books still read were superseded by handier ones. Before this happened the heavier works had found their way into countless libraries and here they reposed peacefully, only sharing the fate of the libraries themselves when these were pillaged, or by a happier fortune amalgamated with other collections in a larger library. The considerable number of copies of many books for whose preservation no special reason can be found encourages a belief that the proportion of serious works now completely lost is not very high, except in the case of books of devotion whose honourable destiny was to be worn to pieces by devout fingers. On the other hand, of the lighter literature in book-form, the cheap romances and catchpenny literature of all kinds, the destruction has been very great. Most of the broadsides and single sheets generally which have escaped have done so only by virtue of the 16th-century custom of using waste of this kind as a substitute for wooden boards to stiffen bindings. Excluding these broadsides, &c., the total output of the 15th-century presses in book form is not likely to have exceeded forty thousand editions. As to the size of the editions we know that the earliest printers at Rome favoured 225 copies, those at Venice 300. By the end of the century these numbers had increased, but the soft metal in use then for types probably wore badly enough to keep down the size of editions, and an average of 500 copies, giving a possible total of twenty million books put on the European market during the 15th century is probably as near an estimate as can be made.

Very many incunabula contain no information as to when, where or by whom they were printed, but the individuality of most of the early types as compared with modern ones has enabled typographical detectives (of whom Robert Proctor, who died in 1903, was by far the greatest) to track most of them down. To facilitate this work many volumes of facsimiles have been published, the most important being K. Burger’s Monumenta Germaniae et Italiae Typographica (1892, &c.), J. W. Holtrop’s Monuments typographiques des Pays-Bas (1868), O. Thierry-Poux’s Premiers monuments de l’imprimerie en France au XVe siècle (1890), K. Haebler’s Typographie ibérique du quinzième siècle (1901) and Gordon Duff’s Early English Printing (1896), the publications of the Type Facsimile Society (1700, &c.) and the Woolley Facsimiles, a collection of five hundred photographs, privately printed.

In his Index to the Early Printed Books at the British Museum Proctor enumerated and described all the known types used by each printer, and his descriptions have been usefully extended and made more precise by Dr Haebler in his Typenrepertorium der Wiegendrucke (1905, &c.). With the aid of these descriptions and of the facsimiles already mentioned it is usually possible to assign a newly discovered book with some certainty to the press from which it was issued and often to specify within a few weeks, or even days, the date at which it was finished.

As a result of these researches it is literally true that the output of the 15th-century presses (excluding the ephemeral publications which have very largely disappeared) is better known to students than that of any other period. Of original literature of any importance the half-century 1450–1500 was singularly barren, and the zeal with which 15th-century books have been collected and studied has been criticized as excessive and misplaced. No doubt the minuteness with which it is possible to make an old book yield up its secrets has encouraged students to pursue the game for its own sake without any great consideration of practical utility, but the materials which have thus been made available for the student of European culture are far from insignificant. The competition among the 15th-century printers was very great and they clearly sent to press every book for which they could hope for a sale, undaunted by its bulk. Thus the great medieval encyclopaedia, the Specula (Speculum naturale, Speculum historiale, Speculum morale, Speculum doctrinale) of Vincent de Beauvais went through two editions at Strassburg and found publishers and translators elsewhere, although it must have represented an outlay from which many modern firms would shrink. It would almost seem, indeed, as if some publishers specially affected very bulky works which, while they remained famous, had grown scarce because the scribes were afraid to attempt them. Hence, more especially in Germany, it was not merely the output of a single generation which came to the press before 1500, but the whole of the medieval literature which remained alive, i.e. retained a reputation sufficient to attract buyers. A study of lists of incunabula enables a student to see just what works this included, and the degree of their popularity. On the other hand in Italy the influence of the classical renaissance is reflected in the enormous output of Latin classics, and the progress of Greek studies can be traced in the displacement of Latin translations by editions of the originals. The part which each country and city played in the struggle between the old ideals and the new can be determined in extraordinary detail by a study of the output of its presses, although some allowance must be made for the extent to which books were transported along the great trade routes. Thus the fact that the Venetian output nearly equalled that of the whole of the rest of Italy was no doubt mainly due to its export trade. Venetian books penetrated everywhere, and the skill of Venetian printers in liturgical books procured them commissions to print whole editions for the English market. From the almost complete absence of scholarly books in the lists of English Incunabula it would be too much to conclude that there was no demand for such books in England. The demand existed and was met by importation, which a statute of Richard III.’s expressly facilitated. But that it was not commercially possible for a scholarly press to be worked in England, and that no man of means was ready to finance one, tells its own tale. The total number of incunabula printed in England was probably upwards of four hundred, of which Caxton produced fully one-fourth. Of the ten thousand different incunabula which the British Museum and Bodleian library possess between them, about 4100 are Italian, 3400 German, 1000 French, 700 from the Netherlands, 400 from Switzerland, 150 from Spain and Portugal, 50 from other parts of the continent of Europe and 200 English, the proportion of these last being about doubled by the special zeal with which they have been collected. The celebration in 1640 of the second centenary (as it was considered) of the invention of printing may be taken as the date from which incunabula began to be collected for their own sake, apart from their literary interest, and the publication of Beughem’s Incunabula typographiae in 1688 marks the increased attention paid to them. But up to the end of the 17th century Caxtons could still be bought for a few shillings. The third centenary of the invention of printing in 1740 again stimulated enthusiasm, and by the end of the 18th century the really early books were eagerly competed for. Interest in books of the last ten or fifteen years of the century is a much more modern development, but with the considerable literature which has grown up round the subject is not likely to be easily checked.

The chief collections of incunabula are those of the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris, Royal library, Munich, and British Museum, London, the number of separate editions in each library exceeding nine thousand, with numerous duplicates. The number of separate editions at the Bodleian library is about five thousand. Other important collections are at the University library, Cambridge, and the John Rylands library, Manchester, the latter being based on the famous Althorp library formed by Earl Spencer (see Book-Collecting).  (A. W. Po.)