Incunabla Production in the Fifteenth Century

Based on J.M. Lenhartís 1935 census of 24,421 surviving incunables (q. in R. Hirsch 59)

Venice            3,754 editions

Paris               2,254 editions

Rome              1,613 editions

Cologne         1,304 editions

Strassburg         980 editions

Caxton (Ď75-91)  100 editions (+ 2 non-surviving?  Painter 215)

Most commonly printed work: Legenda aurea (The Golden Legend, a collection of saints' lives translated into English and published by Caxton and his printer, de Worde, in several English editions)  (over 250 editions)

Second most commonly printed work: Confesionale (St. Antonius) (150 editions)

Third most commonly printed work: Imitatio Cristi (Thomas a Kempis' manual for how to meditate on Christ's life to attain spiritual communion directly with God) (over 100 editions)

Language of surviving incunabla:

Latin                18,909            77.42%

Italian                1,805              7.39%

German            1,423              5.82%

French              1,116              4.56%


Flemish &

Low German    1,924              7.87%

Spanish               311              1.27%

English                162              0.66%

Language of incunabla as percent of press output:

                                                               Hirsch/Lenhart           G. Painter ex- B.M.

Italian press editions in Italian                      17.5%                         21%

German press editions in German                19.7%                         24%

Flemish or Dutch editions in Fl. or D.          24.4%                         27%

French editions in French                            29.3%                         35%

Spanish press editions in Spanish                 51.9%                         54%

English press editions in English                  55%                            58%

Caxton press editions in English                  71% (incl. Bruges editions & 2 bilingual)

 Works Cited

Rudolph Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading, 1450-1550 (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1974)

George Painter, William Caxton: A Biography.  (N.Y.: Putnam, 1977)


        Why focus on the Fifteenth Century?  It  was an era of wonderful invention and competition between two systems of textual production.  When Guttenberg invented moveable type printing, around 1454-5, manuscript books were being produced in large numbers by well-organized "scriptoria" (plural of "scriptorium").  Before about 1300-1350 (in England), most books were made in monasteries by monks who had taken religious orders which led them to copy sacred texts as a spiritual discipline and service to God.  In some nunneries, female religious recluses also copied sacred texts, but scholarly literature suggests they were not so numerous as the male copyists and book makers.  Gradually, secular book-making scribes became successful businessmen (and perhaps businesswomen!) who either hired themselves out to wealthy people who could afford to pay them to make books "on demand," or who found out what kinds of books those wealthy people tended to want and mass-produced them in advance of demand in early manuscript book factories.  Readers of Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" and "Reeve's Tale" (ca. 1380-1400) know that the Miller and Reeve spoke as if their hearers would already expect that many "clerks" who had been trained to read and write by the Church had little to do with the Church's sacred mission, but used their literacy to benefit themselves in various ways.  The growth of England's central government around the royal court in London, and the law courts and merchants, who needed vast numbers of literate scribes, helped establish, in and around Westminster and Fleet Street, England's "Parchment and Paper Valley" of technological innovation, where they invented new ways to speed the making of hand-copied books and gradually joined the newer technolgy of printing, probably as copy editors, type setters, etc.  Some eventually must have translated old works and written new works specifically for print publication and became the first commercial "authors" as we know the job.

        After the invention of movable type printing, for over fifty to a hundred years, the new technology made printed books and the old technology scribe-copied books side by side, often in the same districts of major cities because they used many of the same skills and materials.  The two business models were compatible as much as they were competitive. Many C15 manuscript books are, themselves, copies of printed books, just as many C15 printed books were type-set from pre-existing scribal manuscripts.  This circular relationship persisted even into the nineteenth-century until machine-press books became cheap enough to make it seem impractically time-consuming to make hand copies of print texts you could not afford to buy.  To this day, if someone hand-copies a printed text, it suggests that this text is so rare or at least hard to acquire as to be unreproducible in print.

        Why focus on Caxton?  For English readers, Caxton may well be said to have invented "English Literature" as a commodity.  Look at his publishing list for the titles and languages of editions he published.  What major cultural needs was he serving?  Following Duguid and Seeley's essay's discussion of "imagined communities," what kind of England was Caxton helping the English to imagine with his printed books?  Considering Eisenstein's essay on the characteristics of print culture, how did Caxton's readers encounter literature in his early printed editions?  Keep in mind that, as nearly as we can estimate, early "print runs" of an edition might amount to between 250 and 500 completed copies for an English population of at least four million people.