Fifteeners: Early Printed Books

Irvin Department of Special Collections


Books printed in the 15th century, alternately referred to as fifteeners or incunabula, comprise the earliest examples we have of the mass production of books by mechanical means during the late medieval period. Derived from the Latin word for cradle or swaddling, incunabula are books printed between 1450 and 1501, the first 50 years of printing in Europe. While the date of 1501 is somewhat arbitrary, most of the major developments that will define book production for the next 300 years were solidified in this period, thus making these early examples of printing important for what they can teach us about the history of book production and circulation at a time of considerable change in Europe. Additionally, looking at how printed books initially attempted to serve late medieval needs, as well as why printing caused books to change during this period, allows us to better understand the evolving natures of authorship, publishing, and readership over the next few centuries.

Incunabula are, by their nascent nature, curious and at times confusing objects. As Curt Bühler has pointed out, “the historic event of the invention of printing has given rise to a really astonishing amount of flatly self-contradictory speculation and theorizing.”  This is in part because the early printers deliberately shrouded their processes in mystery and in part because printing was at first developed as a means of supplementing the manuscript books produced by the scribal culture of the late medieval period. Initially practiced as a secret art, printing was first referred to as ars artificialiter scribendi, or “the art of writing by artificial means,” and there are many elements in 15th century printed books that seem strange to us in the 21st century. The transfer of these elements common in manuscript culture, such as antique and gothic typefaces that mimic handwriting, the prevalence of common abbreviations, blank spaces left in print for the addition of illumination or rubrication, and colophons give early printed books an uncanny feel that is more like working with a medieval codex, while the absence of modern elements such as title pages, pagination, indentation, or punctuation often leave the modern reader a bit lost and without direction. This digital collection is designed to help those interested in early books learn what these elements are, why early printers used them, and thus instruct people in how to look at old books in a new light.

Howsoever odd incunabula may seem to us, it is important to remember that what we see as a hybrid or developmental character of 15th century printing would have been perfectly consistent with contemporaneous expectations of book use at the time. As Konrad Haebler has argued, “the aim of the art of printing was from the first to produce in quantity by mechanical process the most salable books previously issued in manuscript.” As such, we can infer that the initial inspiration for Gutenberg’s invention was to profit from supplying the needs of daily life to Europe’s literate classes, and we must study early printing with an understanding of scribal and manuscript culture as well as the religious, legal, and scholarly needs of late medieval and early modern Europe. Indeed, the invention and proliferation of printing was simultaneously the result of the late medieval world and one of the driving forces of modernization. Just as the earliest printed books mechanized the visual and stylistic tropes of medieval script and focused on the production of indulgences, bibles, and other religious and theological texts, so too did the advent of print eventually lead toward the fulfilment of Renaissance humanist fascination with the classical world, the increase in literacy in vernacular languages, and the intellectual crises of the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. The intersections of all these topics can be found in the close study of the earliest printed books.

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