of Finland Bulletin 2014
The National Library of Finland Bulletin 2014


Lauri Leinonen

Cataloguing the incunabula

A recent project has undertaken the task of producing a systematic scientific catalogue of the Incunabula Collections of the National Library of Finland in Helsinki. The incunabula collections have thus far been more or less neglected in terms of scientific study and lacking a comprehensive catalogue. As a result of this project the incunabula collections will become more usable in the hands of the international scientific community and for the first time be fully added to the online catalogue.

Cataloguing the incunabula
Several copies are lavishly decorated, and supplied with painted initials, often with gold-leaf finishing.

The incunabula

The "incunable" or "incunabulum" as a historical definition or term is used to delineate the earliest books printed with movable type, from ca. 1450 to 31st December 1500. In popular terms we could describe the incunabula as "books printed in the 15th century" or the time period starting with Gutenberg and not including anything printed after the year 1500. The former boundary, that of the appearance of the first printed books, is a subject of ongoing debate, but nevertheless naturally derived from historical events; the latter is not. The ending date of the "incunabula-period" is arbitrary, and does not represent any major change in the appearance or production of books (apart from the appearance of the "italic" typeface). The books printed immediately after the incunabula period and sharing all the characteristics of the incunabula are usually referred to as "post-incunabula". The incunabula first closely imitated the manuscript books, and continued to co-exist with them for a very long time, but they also brought several changes with them.

The incunabula first appeared in a formative period of Europe, the Renaissance. The books themselves however were not passive objects or just products of their time, but also advocated the profound change that penetrated the whole late-medieval society and propelled it into "the scientific era". Even today they reflect the society they were part of, and stand as testimony to the resurgence of classical authors, developments in various fields of science and also to the all-encompassing religious sphere.

The incunabula printers were producing books for the markets, as objects of monetary interest: the books were mass-produced, to be sold as much as possible. It can be argued that this was one of the more profound changes in book production compared to manuscript production, which could not achieve the same production levels, although it remained the preferred choice for those who wanted unique copies, or viewed copying as a sacred labor.

This proto-capitalist tendency of the incunabula printers brought with it several somewhat unexpected consequences. As books were to be sold, they were also to be made as appealing as possible to the public. Woodcut and metalcut illustrations and decorated initials were incorporated into book printing at an early stage, as was critical text editing in so far as the printers tried to answer the demand of the literary elite. During the late 15th century, classical authors and their texts had risen to the fore once again, and printers competed with each other for the authenticity of their texts, for the quality of their translations and editions. All this had profound impact on how texts were viewed, scrutinized and revised.

The incunabula were in part an answer to the increasing demand for books as a result of the expanding scientific community, the universities and the church. After the first decade of experimentations and the refining of the production processes, the printing press quickly spread throughout Europe, and, already in the middle of the 1470's, there were printing presses operating in major trade centers from Spain to Hungary, from England to Italy. As the printer's trade spread throughout the whole of Europe in only a couple of decades, it should not come as a surprise that an almost exponentially increasing amount number of editions were produced; in addition to this, the book was transformed as an object and as a rising medium of mass communication in every field of society. The printing press brought with it not only a revolution in the abundance of available knowledge, but also in the quality of the editions, and, more profoundly, also in the thoughtful mind of the readers.

All in all, the incunabula provide us with a fascinating subject-matter to work with, and not only as source material for the literary history of the Renaissance. With incunabula the important thing is not only the text, that which is printed between the covers, but also the whole book as an object, as a testimony of its meaning and significance to both the producer and reader. What was printed, by whom and where, how the printing and editing processes evolved, how and where the books were sold and used – all these aspects of the book as an object give us valuable insight into the commercial and cultural networks of the late medieval and renaissance periods. The National Library holds a versatile incunabula collection with several exempla enlightening this multifaceted role of the book as part of society and culture.

The incunabula research and cataloguing project of the National Library of Finland

The cataloguing project was started in April 2013 by a research group with PhD, docent Tuomas Heikkilä, the former head of special collections Sirkka Havu and present head of special collections Mika Hakkarainen as specialist members, and MA Lauri Leinonen as the main cataloguer. The project was based on previous experience the group had of the preliminary cataloguing of the H Ink.– collection in 2012. Funding for the project was granted by Koneen Säätiö.

The cataloguing project is still ongoing, with records thus far gathered from 397 individual incunabula in the collections, with only a handful of copies remaining to be catalogued. At the moment the copy-specific information of the final copies of the Nordenskiöld collection are being gathered, and the entries in HELKA revised. The research and cataloguing results of the project will be added to the HELKA-database during May 2014, most importantly updating the incomplete records of the Nordenskiöld incunabula.

The incunabula of the National Library are mainly divided into several separate incunabula collections, with a handful also forming part of other, non-specifically incunabula collections. The largest incunabula collection is the Ink. K. –collection, which physically holds 151 books (one of which is missing), with 157 individual, separate titles. The N. Ink –subsection of the Nordenskiöld-collection has 125 incunabula, bound in 123 books, making it the second-largest separate collection. The Ink. –collection, which holds mainly the smaller sized incunabula, has 77 books, with 87 separate titles. Finally, the larger folios have mainly been collected separately in the Ink. F. –collection, which has 20 titles, one of which is missing. Incunabula as parts of other, non-specifically incunabula collections include small numbers of incunabula in the manuscript collections and the Monrepos collection. In the incunabula collections are also found twelve post-incunabula, many of which were discovered only during the recent cataloguing, and will remain as part of the collections.

The incunabula collections of the National Library come from a large variety of sources. A small part of the copies has been present in Finland since the late 15th century, but the majority of the incunabula are relatively recent acquisitions. For example, the famous Nordenskiöld collection with over a hundred incunabula was bought in 1902, and several dozen books in other collections were bought in the mid-20th century from various antiquarian bookstores.

In many ways this randomness or diversity of provenances is both a blessing and a curse. Researchers looking into Finnish book history in the 15th and 16th centuries would naturally appreciate a much larger collection of books with certain early provenances in Finland; yet the ones that have been preserved do still offer a valuable insight not only into book history but into several fields of study, as is the case with the copies that have survived as fragments, used as bailiff register covers. The fragments do not only bear testimony to the literary culture of Finland at the time of their first usage, but also to later government practices.

On the other hand, as most of the incunabula of Finnish provenances are is religious literature (missals, psalters etc.) in Latin, this material would also provide a researcher of book history with a very narrow and one-sided source material. The later acquisitions therefore prove to be as valuable for research purposes; from varied provenances come varied materials, which can be utilized in a larger field of study. The collection of A. E. Nordenskiöld, for example, hold an important series of early printed editions of Ptolemaios' Cosmographia and other geographical literature, and the other collections provide the researcher with exempla of 15th century poetry, science and religious literature – besides Latin, also in Italian, Greek and German.

The incunabula holdings of the National Library follow the guidelines of general dispersion of the incunabula. The number of books printed in the last decade of the period (1491-1500) amount to almost half of the entire collection (46%), as is the case with the entries in ISTC. Books from earlier years of the incunabula period are few (only 4 printed before 1471), and the amount number of editions rises more or less steadily towards the turn of the century, which reflects the overall picture of incunabula production. Geographically, more than half of the incunabula of the National Library are printed in Italy (53%), which is a somewhat larger percentage than that of the recorded editions in ISTC (35%); for the most part, this emphasis on Italy is accounted for by the Nordenskiöld collection, of which 90% consists of books printed in Italy. Italian and German incunabula cover more than three thirds of the copies, being also the most prolific of all the incunabula printing regions. It should be noted that the incunabula with provenances in 15th-16th century Finland come from either northern Germany or Sweden. (Figures A-C)

All in all, in their present condition the collections provide the researchers with a versatile material, with exempla from various countries and printers, from the earliest Gutenberg and Peter Schöffer prints to Aldo Manuzio at the turn of the century, and a substantial collection of books printed by Anton Koberger – a compact picture or a cross-cut of incunabula printing in its major centers. The books hold in them a prominent selection of all aspects of incunabula production, complete with material evidence of printing processes, publisher's bindings, luxury copies as well as cheaper small prints, and some fascinating and intriguing provenances of the copies of later owners and usage.

Cataloguing the incunabula
The techniques of producing images was also used for other purposes than just illustration. Printed tables and calendars, diagrams and even devices e.g. of the lunar cycle or movement of celestial bodies acted as essential parts of the scientific content of the book. Also maps were produced, in woodcuts and metalcuts, and incorporated into the incunabula either alongside the text, or as separately bound broadsheets.

Incunabula research and project goals

The incunabula have been studied widely and systematically for centuries. Since the 19th century a comprehensive catalogue of all the printed editions of incunabula has been in the making, and in the recent decades this goal has been practically achieved with the online catalogues of the British Library (Incunabula Short Title Catalogue or ISTC) and the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke or GW). ISTC and GW list over 29,000 editions (including some post-incunabula), and provide edition-level information as well as links to other databases, such as Bodleian's Bod-Inc and Bayerische Staatsbibliothek's BSB-Ink, which are both also available online. As the international cataloguing has advanced thus far, it is only natural that the focus of research shifts towards fresher fields of inquiry.

The next logical step has been to expand the quality of data in the databases from title-level to copy-specific information. Perhaps the most interesting new openings in this field have been the shifting of focus to the material aspects of the incunabula collections – project that has been led, amongst others, by the Oxford University Library with its Material Evidence in Incunabula -database. Material evidence in incunabula is abundant: there are handwritten provenances and bookplates; glossae, pentrials, and references to other works; bindings from several centuries with identifiable stamps and rolls; watermarks on book leaves as well as leaves used in binding; reused manuscript fragments and printer's waste used in binding; later book collector's notes; etc. All these provide valuable information of the copy's history and usage, and when studied en masse shed light on many questions about the history of books, book trade, cultural connections and language – just to name a few.

The online catalogues provide the researcher and the cataloguer possibilities beyond those previously available, and the utilization and expansion of the online resources has therefore been a rising trend in libraries worldwide. The cataloguing and research project at the National Library of Helsinki took as its goal to integrate the National Library's collections into this modern research field and give them a new existence and life as part of international online scientific resources. As the project closes, the data on the copies is checked in ISTC and GW, and copy-specific material evidence information added to MEI.

The cataloguing process

The project's goals were thus based on present-day international standards in incunabula research. The criteria for critical scientific cataloguing are relatively well set and widely acknowledged, and in addition to these our research group specifically decided to incorporate copy-level research also in the National Library's database HELKA. The reason for this decision was to acknowledge the direction of modern book history, but also a desire to make all the information of the Library's incunabula open and available to the public in the library's most used interface, instead of confining the copy-specific material information into a separate entity. Also, as the catalogue is published online, all the data can be updated with the findings of future research on the individual copies.

As a result of the broad spectrum of the project, the amount of data collected from the books seemed quite large on paper. Of all the copies the edition- and copy-specific information can amount to several pages of text per each individual physical book. This was of course well understood even in the planning phase, but the guidelines were kept as open as possible. The goal was to take account of any possible provenance information and material information of the physical books, as well as edition-level information, while keeping in mind the need to acquire a comprehensive catalogue and facilitate future research.

The edition-level information has been made consistent with the major international catalogues. Variant titles have also been added to each entry, as well as additional authorship information (printers, publishers, commentators etc.). Number of leaves, format and size, text type and signaturing or foliation have been noted on the edition-level. The idea was however not to make a duplicate of all the already available information – for example the typefaces have several separate systematic catalogues of their own, but the information can be found via GW and other catalogues that have been provided for each entry.

The provenances for the books have been researched to a high degree, given the temporal restrictions of collection-wide cataloguing. The manuscript ownership-notes have been transcribed fully in the copy description, and expanded to give further and more specific identifying information when available. Also the coats of arms, armorial and other bookplates and library stamps have been described and identified as far as possible, and all this information has been provided in the full entries in HELKA. In addition to this data, also the fragments used as bailiff covers have been catalogued fully, the title of the bailiff registers have been given individually for each fragment, as well as selected other information on glossae and other material evidence in the copies. Some interesting encountered provenances include a Comoediae novem of Aristophanes, printed by Aldo Manuzio, which the later owner Bernhard Rosenblad has marked as having once belonged to the reformist Philip Melanchton – which is partly corroborated by the second-hand knowledge of the 19th-century sales catalogues.

Watermarks of several copies have been listed, but mostly when they have given some information on the provenance, as is the case with contemporarily added leaves. The Wasserzeichen-Informationssystem (WZIS) as well as several individual collections have been consulted accordingly, but it was decided that the vast mass of the watermarks of all the incunabula was to be left for future research, as the proper research of the watermarks would need specialist technical equipment and proved to be very time-consuming.

The decoration, colouring and illustrations have been described for each individual copy, and the book bindings have been identified when possible. The focus on bindings was given to identify the contemporary bindings, via the online database Einbanddatenbank as well as other sources.

Naturally all the leaves and gatherings were recorded, all that was missing was listed and all the individual fragment leaves identified, as well as some individual proof sheets used in binding. During the project also several manuscript vellum leaves used in binding were encountered, and identified and dated accordingly. When possible, all the copies are linked to online digitized versions of the same edition, mostly to the vast digital library of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. The physical condition of the copies was also controlled and the copies in need of conservational work listed, which will ensure the collections' future.

Cataloguing the incunabula
A close-up of Gutenberg's groundbreaking invention: a single loose type has left an imprint on a woodcut illustration.


Using the extensive data on incunabula, the copies have been revised and recatalogued using a scientific critical apparatus. In the process the existing incunabula catalogues of the National Library have been put under persistent scrutiny, most of their data corroborated, but, perhaps more importantly, large numbers of titles were also corrected or identified and added to catalogues for the first time. The catalogues have been expanded to include every aspect of the copies deemed important by the modern research, including copy-specific information.

As a result of the project, the catalogues will hold all the material information of the copies and editions in one place, easily located by the researchers, and also integrated with the data in online catalogues. The research has been as comprehensive as a collection-wide project can hope to be, but nevertheless remains only a first glance at this versatile collection. The main goal of the project has been to create new possibilities for research and for the larger utilization of the collection, thus providing more open access of the rare incunabula to larger audiences.

Figure A

Figure A
* NB: The figures are lacking a few as yet uncatalogued incunabula; situation as of 26.4.

Figure B

Figure B
* NB: The figures are lacking a few as yet uncatalogued incunabula; situation as of 26.4.

Figure C

Figure C
* NB: The figures are lacking a few as yet uncatalogued incunabula; situation as of 26.4.

Lauri Leinonen, MA, is a Member of the Incunabula Cataloguing and Reserch Project Workgroup

Cataloguing the incunabula
Woodcut pictures appeared in incunabula at an early stage. The art of woodcutting was refined during the years, and a perfect of its use in the famous Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel, printed by Anton Koberger in Nuremberg in 1493. The chronicle has copious amount of illustrations, which are embedded skillfully in to the layout.

Cataloguing the incunabula

Cataloguing the incunabula
The "outside" of the book can help locate it as much as its insides. The contemporary bindings can usually be traced, by examining the used stamps and rolls. In this case, the outside reveals the book to be a publisher's binding, made for Anton Koberger locally, the book to be sold already bound. On the other hand, as material for the binding was also costly, the binders often used recycled, old material in their bindings – in this case, a manuscript parchment leaf probably from the early 14th century.

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