Early Printed Books

The Bodleian Library's collection of incunabula is probably the fifth largest in the world, and the largest held by a university library, with over 7,000 volumes and 5,600 distinct editions. Some volumes were donated to the library in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the vast majority were purchased by the library in the 19th century, thanks to the driving interest of Bulkeley Bandinel, Bodley's Librarian from 1813 to 1860. The dissolution of many monasteries in Germany under Emperor Joseph II meant that large numbers of German incunabula were available for purchase during this time; these formed the core of the Bodleian's collection of early printed Bibles. In order to provide a close link with the Vatican, the Bodleian will be focusing on digitizing incunabula printed in Italy. Among the books digitized by the Bodleian for the launch of the project is Douce 244 (the Malermi Bible), one of the first Bibles printed in Italian, which features lavish woodcut illustrations.

Thanks in part to its early role in the development of printing in Rome and the surrounding area, the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana possesses the fourth largest collection of incunabula in the world, with almost 8,900 items, including many of the first books printed in Rome between 1467 and 1473. These texts span a wide range of subjects, from scripture and scriptural commentary to contemporary science, philosophy, and medicine. For the launch of the project, the Vatican has digitised a range of psalters and Bibles printed in Italy and Germany, including a Gutenberg Bible and the beautiful Stamp. Ross. 283, which contains full-colour woodcuts.


Incunabula, or incunables, are early printed books, produced before the year 1501. The category of incunabula includes typographic books (printed using movable type) and block books (printed using full-page engravings), printed on either parchment or paper. The majority of incunabula were printed in Germany and Italy, and in Latin, although the Bodleian and BAV collections also include incunabula in Hebrew, Greek, and vernacular languages. Some incunabula, such as the Bodleian's Malerbi Bible, were illustrated with woodcuts during the printing process, much like later printed books. However, the traditions of manuscript illumination and rubrication (in which headings and important words or letters were inked in red) endured through the first decades of book printing, and many incunabula, including the Gutenberg Bible, were decorated by hand after printing and binding had already been completed. The amount of decoration varies from copy to copy; buyers may have been able to choose how much they were willing to pay for. The Bodleian's and the Vatican's copies of the Gutenberg Bible have both been digitised for the launch of this project, so that users can compare the decoration and condition of these landmark texts.