I is for Incunable

Incunables are books printed with moveable type before 1501. Incunable comes from the Latin incunabula – a fake plural Latin noun derived from in cunabulis (in the swaddling clothes). According to S. H. Steinberg’s Five hundred years of printing, the term incunabula was first used in the context of printing at the celebrations of the second centenary of Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable metal type printing press. A tract printed in Cologne in 1639 described the later fifteenth century – from Gutenberg to 1500 – as ‘prima typographiae incunabula’, the time when typography was in its swaddling clothes.

SPEC Inc CSJ.D12.OS: Pliny, Historia naturale (Venice: Nicolas Jenson, 1476)

Incunables have many features in common with manuscript books of the same period, and even more with the books printed in the first half of the sixteenth century, but owning incunables retains a particular cachet and many libraries have separately catalogued collections of incunables.

The British Library’s Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) is an international database of European fifteenth century printing listing more than 30,500 editions and library catalogues of incunables will often cite the ISTC number.

SPEC Inc CSJ.D14.OS: Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) ISTC is00307000 ; Bod-inc. S-108

Other major online catalogues include Germany’s Bavarian State Library Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Inkunabelkatalog and Oxford’s Bodleian Library Bod-Inc Online. The ongoing Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI) project links ISTC records with details of individual copies to uncover the journeys they have made over the centuries.

Liverpool University Library has more than 250 incunable volumes, thanks chiefly to the fortunate coincidence of a revived interest in the medieval period in the late nineteenth century, when the University of Liverpool was founded with the support of many Liverpool benefactors.

Incunables given to the University of Liverpool by Sir Charles Sydney Jones

Further reading: S. H. Steinberg, Five hundred years of printing first edition 1955, 1996 British Library.

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”

In the wake of this month’s celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we pay homage to the Bard with a look at some editions of his works held here in Special Collections and Archives.

This post indulges our library assistant’s own particular predilection for one of the last plays to be penned, The Tempest. Believed to have been written between 1610 and 1611 – and first performed in 1611 at the Royal Court – The Tempest is often cited as the last play believed to have been written solely by Shakespeare. The two plays from 1613, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII are often reputed to have been written in collaboration with John Fletcher. Somewhat tricky to categorise due to its complex blend of poignancy, comic farce, violence and fantasy, The Tempest is often discussed in terms of its motifs, as well as the contextual significance these are accorded by commentators, rather than in terms of its dramatic structure.

The epigraph of our title, which is arguably one of the most famous in both this play and the whole Shakespeare canon, comes from Act IV, scene i. Here Prospero cuts short the play-within-the-play, or ‘revels’, he has orchestrated and instead looks to certain pressing formalities to be dealt with before the play’s conclusion. These include the impending nuptials of his daughter and her suitor Ferdinand, an ostensibly joyous occasion which nevertheless signifies a loss to Prospero as a father, and the treachery of Caliban, a creature of uncertain nature and Prospero’s erstwhile serf.

Prospero’s words could be read as a metaphor for both the impending conclusion of the performance and, more broadly, the ‘conclusion’ of all things, animate or not, in death, decay or the steady attrition of time. The Tempest, in blending the fantastical with the profundity of socio-political commentary, has retained its appeal throughout history just as has its author.


[…] Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little lifeIs rounded with a sleep.


Our collection of early printed books contains editions of Shakespeare’s works from as early as 1623. SPEC Y62.5.14 comprises two plays reproduced from the First Folio, The Taming of the Shrew and All’s Well, That Ends Well, and declares on its title page, “Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies; published according to the true originall copies”.

Our earliest full collection of Shakespeare’s works dates from the following decade. Printed in London in 1632, the Second Folio SPEC Morton 334 is of especial value to those with an aesthetic sensibility, with its gilded edges and marbled front- and end-pages. It was gifted to the University Library in 1969 by Robert George Morton, founder of the Argosy and Sundial Circulating Libraries and benefactor of our Morton collection.

Full details of incunabula and early printed books held in SC&A are available on the dedicated webpage, which can be accessed via our homepage.

For a further exploration of Shakespeare’s 400-year legacy, see Catherine Tully’s post on the University’s Student News webpages.

midsummer hamlet lear image

Shakespeare Shelf-Help

“I can see he’s not in your good books,” said the messenger.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

“No, and if he were I would burn my library.”             (Much Ado about Nothing, William Shakespeare)

On the 23rd April, a literary date famed for being Shakespeare’s birthday, World Book Night will take place for the fourth year running. Since its inception in 2011, World Book Night, with the assistance of volunteer ‘givers’ has been responsible for issuing thousands of free books to individuals who lack the opportunity to read, whether it be because they do not have access to books or are unaware of the enjoyment that can be gained from reading. It is no coincidence that the organisers of this event have chosen this symbolic date to celebrate the reading and giving of books.

One of the twenty titles chosen for World Book Night 2014 is 59 Seconds, a self-help book written by Professor Richard Wiseman. At first glance this may seem like an unusual choice of book when contrasted with other selected titles, such as After the Funeral by Agatha Christie or The Boy with the Topknot by Sathnam Sanghera. Importantly however the range of books selected encompasses a variety of genres, demonstrating the accessibility of literature and the notion that there really is something for everyone. 59 Seconds is for example described as being ‘easy to dip in and out of’ and providing ‘simple but effective solutions to every day problems’.

Hall V.8

Hall V.8

As previously mentioned World Book Night shares the 23rd April with William Shakespeare. It is appropriate then to devote this post not only to the celebration of reading but also to commemorate the birthdate of one of the greatest playwrights. Many Shakespeare Collections are held in Special Collections and Archives, containing numerous items of significant interest. The R. G. Morton Collection is particularly enagaging as it holds the second folio of Shakespeare amongst other literary treasures. The Lilian Hall Shakespeareana Collection and the Gerald Henry Rendall Collections are equally unique and intriguing, encompassing Shakespearean ephemera, annotated books, and numerous pamphlets.

More information about World Book Night and how to get involved can be found on their website. In addition to the previously mentioned Shakespearean material in our Special Collections and Archives, our online catalogue can be searched to find further items of relevance to the playwright.

Lorna Goudie – Library Assistant