An incunable or incunabulum (plural incunables or incunabula, respectively), is a book, pamphlet, or broadside that was printed in Europe up to the year 1500. Incunabula are distinct from manuscripts, which are documents written by hand. Incunabula were produced early in the history of printing in Europe, before the printing press became widespread on the continent. Some authorities include block books from the same time period as incunabula, whereas others limit the term to works printed using movable type.
As of 2021,[update] there are about 30,000 distinct incunable editions known to remain extant. The probable number of surviving individual copies is much higher, estimated at around 125,000 in Germany alone. Through statistical analysis, it is estimated that the number of lost editions is at least 20,000. Around 550,000 copies of around 27,500 different works have been preserved worldwide.
Incunable is the anglicised form of incunabulum,reconstructed singular of Latinincunabula, which meant “swaddling clothes”, or “cradle“, and so which could metaphorically refer to “the earliest stages or first traces in the development of anything”. A former term for incunable is fifteener, in the meaning of “fifteenth-century edition”.
The term incunabula was first used in the context of printing by the Dutch physician and humanist Hadrianus Junius (Adriaen de Jonghe, 1511–1575), in a passage in his work Batavia (written in 1569; published posthumously in 1588). He referred to a period “inter prima artis [typographicae] incunabula” (“in the first infancy of the typographic art”). The term has sometimes been falsely attributed to Bernhard von Mallinckrodt (1591–1664), in his Latin pamphlet De ortu ac progressu artis typographicae (“On the rise and progress of the typographic art”; 1640), but he was simply quoting Junius.
The term incunabula came to denote the printed books themselves in the late 17th century. It is not found in English before the mid-19th century.
Junius set an end-date of 1500 to his era of incunabula, which remains the convention in modern bibliographical scholarship. This convenient but entirely arbitrary end-date for identifying a printed book as an incunable does not reflect any notable changes in the printing process, and many books printed for a number of years after 1500 continue to be visually indistinguishable from incunables. The term “post-incunable” is now used to refer to books printed after 1500 up to another arbitrary end date – typically 1520 or 1540, but there is no universal agreement among specialists. From around this period the dating of any edition becomes easier, as the practice of printers including information such as the place and year of printing in a colophon or on the title page became more widespread.