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Archives and Special Collections: Rare and Early Printed Books: Incunables

Our collections

The term 'incunable' refers to books printed before 1500. It comes from Latin incunabulum, which means 'cradle', and was first used in the seventeenth century to describe the earliest printed books. The cut-off date of 1500 is completely arbitrary and does not reflect a sudden change in printing techniques or design. Books printed in 1499 do not look different from those printed in 1501. In fact, some scholars argue that a better end date would be 1525 or even 1550. Certainly by 1550, most of the features we are familiar with in modern books, such as a title page with all the publication information, a table of contents, printed pagination, and indexes, were pretty common.

Printing with moveable type was invented by the German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg, whose 42-line Bible was published in Mainz in 1455.  Although Gutenberg was bankrupted by his efforts, the printed book was here to stay. From Mainz, the new technique spread across Western Europe along the major trade routes. This interactive atlas of early printing shows just how quickly new printing presses were set up in the first fifty years after Gutenberg's bible appeared.

It is rather extraordinary to realise that the process of printing did not dramatically change until the introduction of mechanised printing in the early nineteenth century. A printer from 1480 would immediately recognise the tools, techniques and equipment used by a colleague in 1780.

If you are interested in learning more about early printed books, we will be adding soon to this guide a page on researching the history of the book and a list of resources. In the meantime, please get in touch with us if you have questions about the subject. We are happy to help!


Here at Palace Green Library we have around 200 incunables, many printed in Germany, Italy (just under half in Venice) and France. The collection gives a good insight into the development of letter-forms, book design, book ownership and readership, and the international nature of book production and trade.

Over half of the collection was donated to Durham University by Dr Martin Routh in 1854. Dr Routh was an avid book collector and his library reflects his scholarly interests in early Church history, Latin and ancient Greek literature, and Renaissance humanism. Routh also shared an interest with fellow collectors at the time in the history of early printing. Among his books we find works published by important printers such as Nicholas Jenson and Aldus Manutius in Venice, Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz in Rome, and Johannes Mentelin in Strasbourg. Mentelin's edition of St Augustine's De civitate dei, printed before 1468, is the oldest incunable in our collection.

Routh's interest in travel combines with book history in his copy of Bernard Breydenbach's Peregrinatio ad Terram Sanctam (Journey to the Holy Land), published in Mainz in 1486, which is the earliest illustrated travel account in print. It includes woodcut illustrations by Erhard Reuwich who accompanied Breydenbach on his journey.

The emphasis on continental incunables in Routh's collection is balanced by a small amount of English printing, such as William Caxton's Vocubularius (ca. 1485), a French-English dictionary of phrases and descriptions; devotional tracts by Caxon's successor Wynkyn de Worde, as well as his edition of Ranulph Higden's Polycronicon (1495) in the translation of John Trevisa and expanded by William Caxton.

Some incunable material can also be found in our extensive fragment collection, removed in the past as part of repairing or replacing book bindings or still found as part of historic bindings.

Use this Discover link to browse the incunable collection at Palace Green Library. Look out for shelfmarks that start with, or include, "SA" . A small number of incunables will have a shelfmark starting "Bamburgh Select".

A descriptive list of manuscript and early printed fragments with links to digitised images can be found in this archive catalogue.

Durham Cathedral Library and Ushaw College also have incunables. Follow the links under "Sources elsewhere" to find out more.


Availability online (digital images)

These collections have not been digitised, so that only the catalogues are currently available online.

If you would like to purchase digital copies of specific items from any of our collections, please use our online enquiry form.

If you are a member of teaching staff at Durham University and would like to use material from Archives and Special Collections within your lectures or seminars, we may be able to scan or photograph items for this purpose.  Please contact us as early as possible with any teaching digitisation requests.

See also our guide to Digitised Collections Online for further information on our digital resources.

Access to original sources

The collections mentioned above are located at Palace Green Library.  Our current opening hours are as follows, but see also below.

  • Monday to Friday: 10am to 4:30pm
  • Saturday: closed
  • Sunday: closed

For further information on visiting to use the collections, please use our enquiry form.

See separate Libraries and Site Information guide for further information on Palace Green Library.

Appointments are strongly recommended for all visits, please use the enquiry form to book.  Please give three working days notice when possible and include a full list of document references or shelfmarks so that we can best enable your research access.

Where to start