Early Printing in Europe: examples and evidence in Bodleian collections

The Bodleian’s collections of early printed books contain over 6000 incunables (books printed before 1500). The stories these collections tell cross many centuries and continents.  Technological and business innovation in 15th-century Germany launched a printing trade that supplanted manuscript copies of many scholarly and religious works, and made possible new forms of text and illustrative practices.   Contemporaries and later collectors who appreciated the skill of the printers and valued the books as fine objects ensured their preservation in libraries, where they survive as witnesses of every stage in a profound transformation of communications technology.

Visit the online collection

Click on the stripes below to read more.

1) Woodcut and metalcut prints

Woodcut became a popular medium for images in Europe starting in the early 15th century.  Small individual images, often of religious themes or of a more secular kind such as playing cards, survive from the period before the advent of the printed book in Europe in the 1450s. Evidence in Bodleian collections shows how these woodcuts could be used, as they are preserved within other volumes, including manuscripts.  Later, printers commissioned woodcuts to illustrate their publications. Metalcut, also a relief process, involved carving or stippling into soft metal.

Web resource: Bodleian woodcuts and blockbooks

2) Blockbooks

Books combining any amount of text and illustration could be printed from wooden blocks, used as early as the 9th century CE by the Chinese to create the Diamond Sutra.  European blockbooks were made in the same way: each page was printed from a woodblock carved to leave the outlines of figures and the letters of the text (in reverse) standing in relief.  By inking the block and applying paper a large number of impressions of the page could be made.  Printing images and texts from wood blocks in the West dates from the 15th century. Although blockbooks were once considered an intermediate stage between woodcut images and printing with movable type, many editions of blockbooks appear to have been made even after Gutenberg’s invention.

Web resource: Bodleian woodcuts and blockbooks

3) Pre-1500 printed books

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

The earliest printers spread from Mainz in Germany where Gutenberg first had his printing house to Venice where learning and culture were matched by a business wealth that supported an active print trade and to Rome, Paris, and the Netherlands. Examples from all of these centres of 15th-century printing are found in Bodleian collections. Wealthy owners of fine printed incunables often had these decorated at great expense by hand, imitating the rich illumination of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts.

Web resource: Bodleian incunables