Incunable, or sometimes incunabulum, plural incunabula or incunables, is a book, pamphlet, or even a broadside, that was printed — not handwritten — before the year 1501 in Europe. Incunable is the Anglicized (singular) form of "incunabula", Latin for "swaddling clothes" or "cradle" which can refer to "the earliest stages or first traces in the development of anything." A former term for "incunable" is fifteener, referring to the 15th century.
The first recorded use of incunabula as a printing term is in a Latin pamphlet by Bernhard von Mallinckrodt, De ortu et progressu artis typographicae ("Of the rise and progress of the typographic art", Cologne, 1639), which includes the phrase prima typographicae incunabula, "the first infancy of printing", a term to which he arbitrarily set an end, 1500, which still stands as a convention. The term came to denote the printed books themselves in the late seventeenth century.
The end date for identifying a printed book as an incunable is convenient but was chosen arbitrarily. It does not reflect any notable developments in the printing process around the year 1500, and many books printed for a number of years after 1500 continued to be visually indistinguishable from incunables. The term post-incunable is sometimes used to refer to books printed after 1500 up to another arbitrary end date such as 1520 or 1540.
As of 2008, there are between 28,000 and 30,000 different incunable titles known to be extant, while the number of surviving copies in Germany alone is estimated at around 125,000.
There are two types of incunabula in printing: the Block book printed from a single carved or sculpted wooden block for each page, by the same process as the woodcut in art (these may be called xylographic), and the typographic book, made with individual pieces of cast metal movable type on a printing press, in the technology made famous by Johann Gutenberg. Many authors reserve the term incunabula for the typographic ones only.
The spread of printing to cities both in the north and in Italy 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 handwritten scripts and calligraphy employed by humanists.
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