Early Printing: Incunable, Uncunable, and Post-Incunabula
As we all remember from 8th grade history class, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450. Well, that’s not true. None of that is factual. Stop saying it. Printing presses in some form have been around since about AD 700 in China and were in use in other Asian countries well before the 15th century. What Gutenberg invented was mechanical moveable type, and he first used it in 1439. Gutenberg’s metal types were able to be mass produced with typefounding molds, making it possible to create hundreds of letters from just one hand-carved piece. This technology quickly disseminated from Mainz, where Gutenberg’s shop was, throughout Europe, and the Printing Revolution began. The first complete books appeared in the 1450s, and within a few decades, all of Europe could get its hands on texts for a fraction of what a manuscript would have cost.
Gothic type set and locked into its forme to be printed. Gutenberg invented this kind of mass produced, mechanical metal type.
A page from Gutenberg's 42-Line Bible, the first major book printed with mechanical metal type.
The term “incunable” (plural: incunabula) refers to books and ephemeral texts printed before 1501. (If it was printed December 31, 1500, it still counts as an incunable!) Since European printing in the 15th century was so new, books printed in this era did not really follow a clear template. They did not have title pages as we know them, and they were often undated and unsigned. Thus, to determine where and when these items were actually printed, we have to use complicated bibliographical evidence, such as type identification and watermarks. Bibliographers have developed better methods for identifying incunabula in recent years, so many books that were once thought to be printed pre-1501 have since been proven to be 16th century items. We refer to these texts as “uncunables”.
I wish I could say that there is a clear scientific reason for cutting off the incunable period abruptly at January 1, 1501, but there is not. It’s an arbitrary line drawn to denote early printed books from not-so-early printed books. But, all the printers active in the 15th century did not melt their types and drop dead at midnight on December 31, 1500. Those who were so inclined continued to print and kept using the same materials until they wore out, irreverent of the mystical 1501 date. That is to say, books printed in, say, 1504, didn’t look that much different from something printed in 1500. So, don’t those early 16th century books that are often indistinguishable from incunabula deserve their own respectful terminology? Of course they do, hence the phrase “post-incunabula”. Now, bibliographers have not settled on a definitive end date for the post-incunabula period, but pretty much everyone agrees that by 1540, books look like the books we know today (and don’t get a fancy Latin term).
Aldus Manutius was a printer active in both the 15th and 16th centuries. On the left is a book he printed in 1495, and on the right one he printed in 1504.
It wasn't until the late 17th century that the term “incunable” in reference to early printed books was coined, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that collectors and dealers really started to appreciate incunabula as specialty books. Thus, there were a few hundred years of incunabula existence in which they did not get the respect they deserve. In general, fifteenth century printing employed high quality paper and ink that could stand the test of time, but printers and bookbinders used old incunable sheets as waste paper and binding materials, and even pulverized old pages to pulp to make new paper. Early books were already printed in relatively small editions due to the high cost of materials and relatively lower readership, so when you factor in the copies destroyed over time, those imprints survive in low numbers today, often only a single copy. As such, their market value has skyrocketed in recent decades. Today, a rare incunable can bring over $500,000 at auction, and double that in a retail environment. The price of incunabula has made it a prohibitively expensive category to collect privately, so most exist today in institutional settings. Only a few libraries in the U.S. hold incunable collections, and they quickly snatch up the copies that come on the American market.