meaning and origin of the word ‘incunabula’



Incunabula Typographiæ (1688)
by the Dutch bibliographer Cornelius van Beughem (1639-after 1717)



The word incunabula, singular incunabulum, designates the books printed during the earliest period of typography, that is to say, from the invention of the art of typographic printing in Europe in the 1450s to the end of the 15th century. (The form incunables, singular incunable, is from French.)

The following explanations are from the Encyclopædia Britannica:

The year 1500 as the limit of the period of incunabula was first adopted in 1643 by Johann Saubert in his history of the Nürnberg library (‘Historia Bibliothecae Noribergensis’), which includes the first known catalogue of a collection of such books. The limit is convenient but arbitrary, since no special development in the printing art can be connected with it.
The concept of early printing as “incunabula” seems to have first been used by Bernard von Mallinckrodt in ‘De Ortu ac Progressu Artis Typographicae, Dissertatio Historica’ (1639); the concept was also applied generally by Jesuit scholar Philippe Labbé in ‘Nova Bibliotheca’ (1653), but it was Cornelius à Beughem who applied the term more specifically to 15th-century books. His use of the word appeared in a sale catalogue, ‘Incunabula Typographiæ’, issued in 1688.

The classical-Latin neuter plural incunabula meant swaddling clothesswathing bands, and by extension cradlebirthplacechildhoodbeginningorigin. It is from the prefix in-into, and cunaecradle.

I have discovered a use of incunabula, in the sense of early printed books, in English, which predates by forty-one years its first recorded instance in the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition – 1989); it is from The Scots Magazine (Edinburgh, Scotland) of December 1820:

Denmark.—Royal Library.—The royal library of Copenhagen contains between 300,000 and 400,000 volumes of printed works, and a prodigious number of interesting MSS[= manuscripts]. At the sale of the fine library of Count Otto Thot, amounting to 116,395 volumes, exclusive of pamphlets, manuscripts, and incunabula, the royal library obtained an accession of 50,000 volumes.

The word has also been used to denote the earliest stages or first traces in the development of something. The following is from The Southern Reporter, and Cork Commercial Courier (Ireland) of 5th August 1834:


FIRST DAY. Soon after 12 o’clock, on Thursday, Baron Smith entered the Criminal Court, and the Commission having been read by Mr. Carmichael, the Clerk of the Crown, the Grand Jury were again sworn, after which the learned Baron delivered, in an audible voice, the following eloquent address:—
My Lord and Gentlemen of the Grand Jury—[…] Sanguinary riots, & ensuing Irish homicides, very frequently have their origin in those factions, as they are called, which make fields of battle of all our fairs; fomenting and cheerishing [sic] a vindictive spirit, and keeping alive a profane, not sacred fire, which nothing will suffice to quench but blood. Those factions the magistrates and the laws should do their utmost to extinguish; for this, among numerous other reasons, that in them we see the incunabula of insurrectionary mischief. Particular faction swells into general combination.— Parties that had been intent on the destruction of each other, coalesce and spread into a common confederacy, to destroy all peace and property, law and order in the land.

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