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Incunabulum
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Incunabulum

An incunabulum is a book, single sheet or image that was printed before the year 1500 in Europe. These are usually very rare and fragile items whose nature can only be verified by experts. The origin of the word is the Latin in cuna, meaning "in the cradle". The plural is incunabula ("swaddling clothes"), in which form the word usually appears.

There are two types of incunabula: the xylographic (made from a single carved or sculpted block for each page) and the typographic (made with movable type on a printing press in the style of Johann Gutenberg). Many authors reserve the term incunabulum for the typographic ones only.

The gradual spread of printing ensured that there was great variety in the texts chosen for printing and the styles in which they appeared. Many early typefaces were modelled on local forms of writing or derived from the various European forms of Gothic script, but there were also some derived from documentary scripts (such as most of Caxton's types), and, particularly in Italy, types modelled on humanistic hands. These humanistic typefaces are often used today, barely modified, in digital form.

Printers tended to congregate in urban centres where there were scholars, ecclesiastics, lawyers, nobles and professionals who formed their major customer-base. Standard works in Latin inherited from the medieval tradition formed the bulk of the earliest printing, but as books became cheaper, works in the various vernaculars (or translations of standard works) began to appear.

Famous incunabula include the Gutenberg Bible of 1455 and the Schedelsche Weltchronik printed by Anton Koberger in 1493. Other well-known incunabula printers were Albrecht Pfisterer of Bamberg, Günter Zainer of Augsburg, Johannes Mentelin of Straßburg, and William Caxton of Bruges and London.

The tally of editions and titles issued before 1500 runs into thousands, and the most authoritative listing is in the German catalogue, the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke which is still being compiled. The British Library has compiled the Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue which includes the holdings of most libraries world-wide.

The main libraries, with the approximate numbers of incunabula held:

See also