Incunables

Taken from the Latin for “swaddling clothes”, an incunable is a book printed in the infancy of working with movable type, in or before AD 1500.  The earliest incunables are often hybrids between manuscript and print, with hand-painted initials and decorations.  It was usual for the printer to leave spaces in the text for illustrations to be added by hand.  However, as printing developed, woodcuts were used more and more often.  Over 30,300 editions of different texts are known to have been produced at this time.  The total number of books printed has been estimated at between 8 million and 20 million. 

We have sixty-nine incunables.  They form an interesting collection, as their range is wide, both in regard to artistic merit and to country of origin.  We have examples from Germany, Italy, France, and the Netherlands.   

Our only British incunable is the work of William Caxton’s successor, Wynkyn de Worde.  After Caxton died in 1492, de Worde took over his business.  Caxton had published his own translation of Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, an enormously popular compendium of the lives of the saints.  De Worde followed this up with reprints in 1493 and 1498-99, probably still using Caxton’s type.  It was one of the last editions de Worde printed at Westminster; in 1500, he moved his print shop to the Sign of the Sun in Fleet Street.   It is considered to be among de Worde’s finest work. 

Possibly our oldest printed works are the two volumes of St Jerome’s Epistolae, printed by Sweynheym and Pannartz in Rome in 1470.  Sweynheym and Pannartz were the first of several migrant German printers to dominate early Italian book production.  Epistolae is also noteworthy as the first recognizably edited text; the editor was Giovanni Andrea Bussi.  It has been said that Bussi’s editions were the first books since Roman times to be produced for distribution among a casual, cultured reading public.  Both volumes begin with a dedication to the reigning pope, Paul II, praising his many virtues including his patronage of public benefactors such as editors and printers.  Just before this several of Rome’s most prominent humanists had been thrown into prison.  Sweynheym and Pannarz too were closely associated with humanism; they may have had good reason to try to deflect high level attention! 

Also from around 1470 are the two volumes of Plutarch’s Vitae.  The printer was Ulrich Han, the editor Campus and the place of publication again Rome.   

Thirty-five of Lampeter’s incunables come from the printing houses of Venice.  One particular highlight is Boccaccio’s Genealogia deorumprinted by Vindelinus de Spira in 1472-73.  It is a large folio produced by the earliest printers working in Venice.  These printers, Johannes and Vindelinus de Spira, were natives of Speyer in Germany.  Genealogia deorum was one of the most important Renaissance handbooks of mythology, Europe’s guide to the Greek and Roman gods for the best part of two centuries.  The library’s copy is the ‘editio princeps’.  It is decorated with hand-painted genealogical trees and it is also the first humanist work to include quotations in Greek.   

Our Bratislava Missal (1499) was produced in Mainz, the cradle of printing.  Indeed the printer was Peter Schöffer, the associate of Gutenberg.  It is believed Schöffer used a number of the original Gutenberg Bible ‘Textura’ metal types in his later missals, including possibly this one.