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Images from Medical History: Incunabula

Incunabula, not a word that drops into a conversation very often. So don’t feel odd if the first things you think of are perhaps incandescent, candelabra or just "what is that?" Translated from the Latin, incunabulum (the singular form) literally means "in the cradle" and as such it refers to a thing’s origin. Used in the book world, the term means any book printed before 1501.

(click to enlarge)
Woodcut initial by an unknown artist
From Opusculum repertorii pronosticon
Translated by Petro de Abano
Published in Venice by Erhardus Ratdolt, 1485

Well of course the next question that begs an answer is why 1501? For those who like a "good" reason for everything, there is not one in this instance. An arbitrary date selected for convenience, 1501 does not correlate to any specific development or invention in history of printing. But, it does provide an end date to the almost 50 year period that followed Gutenberg’s printing of the famous 42-line Bible in 1456. Known today as the Gutenberg Bible, this was the first example of a book printed in the West using moveable type. This fifty-year period is the "infancy" of the printing industry in the West.

While the West likes to claim "firsts," printing began in China as early as 868 with the use of wood blocks. And actually, the first book printed with movable type was printed in Korea in 1403. But the reason Gutenberg is given such credit is that he put together several processes already in use, such as:

Today we as a society are so inundated with information - print, electronic, or visual - that we can scarcely conceive of a world in which all text was laboriously written out by hand. But before printing and movable type that’s how information was duplicated. Monks usually did this type of copy work. In fact many monasteries had a separate room set aside, called a "scriptorium," used solely for copying manuscripts. Beginning in 800 and continuing until the advent of printing, hand copied and illuminated manuscripts ruled. Then with the advent of the mass production of books, volumes began to move away from such illustration. However, during the "incunabula" period, some volumes combined printing and hand lettering.

This page from Opusculum repertorii pronosticon shows such an example. The text is printed but the red lettering was done by hand.

As one can imagine, incunabula are rare. The most recent estimate places the total number of incunabula at just over 35,000. The University Archives in the Scott Library has three examples of incunabula. Opusculum repertorii pronosticon (1485) on astrology featured here; Incipit prologs formicarii (1484) on occultism; and Opera/Lactantius (1493) a collected work on religion.

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