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Medieval and Renaissance Facsimiles and Incunables: A Resource Guide

Differences between manuscripts and incunabules

Incunabules are books printed between 1455-1501. When the first books were printed in the early 1450s, they were intended to resemble contemporary manuscripts. The objective was to manufacture books quicker than copying by hand, but still retain the appearance of manuscripts. These similarities can be seen in the two images presented below. The first image below is the first folio of the Catholicon, a Latin dictionary and encyclopedia printed in 1460. It was originally written in 1286 by Giovanni Balbi. The second image is from a 13th century bible possibly made in England.

Some key characteristics of medieval manuscripts are use of abbreviations, use of text columns in some texts especially bibles and texts with a lot of glosses and commentary, rubrication, historiated or large colored initials, and the addition of an incipit. These features appear in both images.

Note the rubrication of in the incipit and the frequent employment of abbreviations. Abbreviations were used to save the scribe time, ink and paper. In the Middle Ages, the type of text governed the amount of words a scribe abbreviated. Texts whose primary purpose were to be read aloud contain the fewest, whereas those designed for in-depth study have the most. Early printers continued the use of the most common abbreviations for decades after the advent of printing. Each sort containing an abbreviation had to be made by hand, which presumably took a fair amount of time and would have been rendered superfluous since printing expedited the writing process. Because it was much faster to print a codex than it was for a scribe to write one, the need for using manuscript abbreviations became less justifiable as a time-saving mechanism and more a textual convention.

Some features of books which modern readers take for granted include pagination, title pages, chapters, and indices. These features evolved over many decades after printing had begun in the 1450s. It was not until about 100 years later, well into the sixteenth century that printers had adapted most of these attributes.


Catholicon, Mainz. 1460. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. Library of Congress Rare Book & Special Collections Division.


Biblia Latina, England. 13th century. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. Library of Congress Rare Book & Special Collections Division.