Boston Public Library
Collections of Distinction

Incunabula

Location: Rare Books Department

 

Page of a Gutenberg Bible Incunabula or incunables are defined as books printed from the time that Johann Gutenberg perfected moveable types sometime between 1440–1445 until January 1, 1501. The term comes from the Latin for “things from the cradle,” i.e., the cradle of printing.

While learning and knowledge in the Medieval period were largely the purview of the titled nobility and religious institutions, the invention of printing from moveable type brought knowledge to the masses. The two earliest titles in the library’s collection of incunabula are attributed to Johann Gutenberg – a leaf from his famous bible (The Gutenberg Bible), printed between 1454–1455, and the Catholicon, printed in 1460. The latter is one of only 12 copies located in the United States and the only one printed on vellum (calfskin).

Also found among the incunabula category is the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), the first encyclopedic history of the world; the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) printed by Aldus Manutius; Divina Commedia (1481) by Dante Alighieri with etchings by Sandro Botticelli; early editions of The Golden Legend and Canterbury Tales; the famous Columbus letter, written to Isabella and Ferdinand documenting Columbus’ discoveries of the New World and printed in 1493; a unique copy of an early Spanish Passion printed in Burgos in 1493; and the writings of Eusebius, Boccaccio, Martialis, and Thomas Aquinas.

Early printers represented in the collection include Johann Gutenberg, Sweynheym and Pannartz, Anton Koberger, Günther Zainer, Peter Schoeffer, Nicholas Jenson, Geoffrey Tory, William Caxton, and Richard Pynson among others.

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