Incunabula refers to the first printed books from the 1450s to the 1500s.

The word comes from the Latin word “Cunabula,” or Cradle, which refers to how the invention of printing mimicked a child’s first steps and the birth of a new technology. Human involvement remained a central facet of the printing process. A printer’s individual techniques–and any mistakes made–constituted a unique text. 

According to scholar Michael Scully, the emergence of incunabula changed storytelling, in part because it reduced the cost to manufacture books. Less expensive printing allowed for the publication of more books, which led to a burst of innovation, including new genres beyond religious texts and books printed in local dialects instead of just in Latin. Cheaper printing also contributed to increasing literacy, as it made books more accessible to people who were not wealthy. In this way, the expansion of printing resulted in economic growth and the emergence of a merchant class in Europe.

How did human influence in bookmaking persist alongside the printing press?

Mechanical printing eliminated the need for the handwritten element of bookmaking, however human elements were not completely lost. Printers added illustrations, initials, and colored text (also known as “rubrication”) by hand. Likewise, artisans created hand-carved woodcuts and publishing stamps that added further detail within texts.

Early Printing Centers

The cities above had printing presses in the 15th century, with large printing centers marked in black. By 1500, the printing press had spread to hundreds of cities across Europe, most of which were concentrated in present-day Germany and Italy. 

Today, only around 30,000 distinct incunabula survive, many of which are inaccessible in private collections. This limitation of access complicates historical preservation and communication. 

The transformation of these artifacts into assets within private collections produces financial incentive for better maintenance and a wider economic justification for incunabula studies. However, private ownership reduces public access and can lead to bad preservation practices such as book breaking. 

Click through to the next page to see some examples of incunabula from our collection!