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Guide to Early Printed Books

A guide to help you locate and use books printed in the major languages of Western Europe between 1450 and 1700

What Are Incunabula?

Title page from Contra fratrem hieronymum heresiarcham

The word "incunabula" is Latin, a neuter plural meaning "swaddling clothes" or "cradle." In book history, it is used to refer to all books printed with metal type from the beginning of Gutenberg's movable type printing press, around 1455, to the end of 1500. This is an arbitrary but traditional date that marks the end of the "infancy" of printing, as it rapidly spread to centers across Europe and into the Americas. Known as "incunables" in Spanish and French (and often in English), "incunaboli" in Italian, and "incunábulos" in Portuguese, these earliest of printed books have long been of great interest to librarians, book collectors, and historians of the book.  

Searching for Incunabula

Many libraries catalog their incunabula separately from other books. You may be able to find a separate catalog of incunabula at the institution where you are searching. There are many printed catalogs of the incunabula held in various libraries of particular countries.

Nearly all extant incunabula are listed in the British Library's Incunabula Short Title Catalog. The ISTC uses English versions of the author's name and the city where it was printed. A book listed in a Spanish catalog as being by Tomas de Aquino, Santo and printed in Venetiis will be listed under Thomas Aquinas in the ISTC, with the place of printing being Venice. The title of the book should remain unchanged.

A woodcut from a 1499 French imprint of the Dance of Death, showing skeletons working in a printer's shop

Bibliographies and Catalogs of Incunabula

Most libraries that hold a significant number of incunabula have catalogs available. In addition, many countries and regions have issued catalogs of incunabula held in various libraries there. Incunabula catalogs often contain references to previous incunabula catalogs where the books are mentioned as well as a list of libraries where they are held. Consult the front of the catalog for help decoding these abbreviations.

This is only a sampling of the many incunabula catalogs held in the Regenstein Library.

Catalogs by region

Many union catalogs of incunabula have been produced. These are collective catalogs that list the incunabula held by all libraries in a country or a region of a country, or by all university libraries in that region, and so on. Here are just a few.

Catalogs by institution

This is just a small sample of the many catalogs that individual institutions have published of their collections of incunabula.

Incunabula Online

Digitizing collections of incunabula allows libraries to preserve these precious collections and reduce future handling of the books themselves. Please refer to the Digitized Collections page of this guide for a longer list, but here are a few collections of particular interest to the budding incunabulist.

Gutenberg Bibles

The Gutenberg Bible was the first major book printed using metal movable type. There are around 48 surviving copies. Many libraries that hold copies have created special digital galleries for them, with information about the texts and about the early years of movable type. Here are a few of these projects.

Will I Be Permitted to Peruse Incunabula?

Perhaps. It depends on a number of factors, such as the condition of the book, how many other incunabula the institution holds, and whether or not it has been digitized. It's always a good idea to inquire about access before you travel.

Learn More about Incunabula

Woodcut image of a printer's shop from 1568

Librarian

Sarah G. Wenzel's picture
Sarah G. Wenzel
Contact:
sgwenzel@uchicago.edu

Bibliographer
Literatures of Europe & the Americas

Regenstein Library
Room 363
773.702.8448

Author of This Guide

Katrina Powers's picture
Katrina Powers
Contact:
kpowers@uchicago.edu

Katrina Powers is a doctoral candidate in Romance Languages and Literatures. She created this guide in summer 2016.