Friday, October 29, 2004

I read my first incunabula yesterday.

This is rather more significant than it sounds as will become clear once you know what an incunabula is. The word is the Latin for 'cradle' and it refers to any book printed before 1st January, 1501 - that is, during the 15th century. As printing was only invented after 1450, we are talking about the very birth of printed books, hence the connection with 'cradle'. An incunabula is the holy grail of bibliography which means they are very expensive to buy (prices start well in excess of £10,000). This is partly because there are so few left in private hands while the big libraries have thousands. The one I read is held by Cambridge University Library and was a treatise on the calendar and arithmetic intended for students.

Another thing about incunabula is they tend to be pretty ugly. Not all of them, of course. Some are virtually indistinguishable from the illuminated manuscripts they replaced with gorgeous hand painted rubrication and illustrations around the printed text. But most are not like that and reflect the primitive print technology of the time and the need to cut costs to survive in the market place. Woodcut pictures exist but these are nothing compared to the intricate copperplate pictures that appear in the mid-sixteenth century. Worse for the reader, early books tend to be printed in a gothic typeface that is really hard to read. They also contain all the abbreviations that scribes used to use to cut down their work load. Compositors (the men who set up the type for printing) used these abbreviations to try and keep each line about the same length and produce a fully justified finish.

Shortly before 1500, Roman typefaces (and I'm seeing one now on my screen even if you the reader have a different one on yours) became popular because they were clear, elegant and took up less space while using less ink. They spread all over Europe from Italy, except to Germany where people continued to use gothic for centuries. So, if you actually want to read a book it is usually best to make sure it was printed after about 1550. In that case it will be easier to read, better illustrated, less abbreviated and, above all, a huge deal cheaper.

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