n antiquity, an infant’s cradle, and sometimes her swaddling clothes, were referred to asincunabulum — a Latin term that, through the centuries, grew to encompass a larger, metaphorical sense of things signifying new beginnings. Thus did it seem natural for the 17th-century bibliographer Cornelius à Beughem to use it to describe books produced during the first great flowering of movable-type printing, a near 50-year span beginning with the production of Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible in 1454-56.
As with our present day digital incunabula, the creative and commercial forces unleashed by the birth of the printed book were profound. Almost overnight the written word was liberated from the cloister, and relatively cheap editions of printed texts flooded the European marketplace. To augment their appeal to potential buyers, these early books’ printed pages were often enhanced by elaborate typographic flourishes and extraordinary hand-colored woodcuts.
The rare book collections at MU’s Ellis and UMSL’s St. Louis Mercantile libraries each boast numerous examples of the best of these printed works, selections of which — such as etchings from Ellis’ edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle — are detailed in these pages. The collections also house more recent “fine printing” books, like those of Pre-Raphaelite designer and printer William Morris, that succeeded brilliantly in recreating the timeless aesthetic of the best incunabula titles.
Of course the best way to experience the power of these printed pages is to encounter them first hand. The St. Louis Mercantile Library has recently mounted a free exhibit, “The Art of the Printed Book Through the Centuries,” a National Endowment for the Arts supported show that will conclude its two-month run at Ellis in January, and will open in February at the Springfield-Greene County Library District’s Library Center in Springfield, Mo.