“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.”

Incunabula are early printed books, especially ones printed before 1501 and do not include hand-written manuscripts. 

The term incunabula, as a printing term, was first used by the Dutch physician and humanist Hadrianus Iunius and appears in a passage from his posthumous work (1569).

Many incunabula are undated, needing complex bibliographical analysis to place them correctly. The post-incunabula period marks a time of development during which the printed book evolved fully as a mature artefact with a standard format. After circa 1540 books tended to conform to a template that included the author, title-page, date, seller, and place of printing. This makes it much easier to identify any particular edition.

There are two types of incunabula in printing: the block book, printed from a single carved or sculpted wooden block for each page, employing the same process as the woodcut in art; and the typographic book, made with individual pieces of cast-metal movable type on a printing press. Many authors reserve the term incunabula for the latter kind only.

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, and, particularly in Italy, types modelled on handwritten scripts and calligraphy employed by humanists.

Printers congregated in urban centres where there were scholars, ecclesiastics, lawyers, and nobles and professionals who formed their major customer base. Standard works in Latin inherited from the medieval tradition formed the bulk of the earliest printed works.

The most famous incunabula include the Gutenberg Bible of 1455, the Peregrinatio in terram sanctam of 1486, and the Nuremberg Chronicle in 1493.

I came across incunabula several times in a long life of reading and never got around to looking it up until now. Aren’t you glad I did?

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